There is something quite different about food in Scotland,” says Ceri Ritchie of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). “No longer is it known about for all the wrong reasons. Widely available is a plethora of truly fine homegrown ingredients which are now being properly appreciated by increasingly discerning consumers who know much more about the dietary as well as the sensory importance of food.”
In what is officially Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink – staged to demonstrate to locals and visitors alike that the country is now serious about celebrating the quality, diversity and presentation of its once-underestimated produce – it is heartening to record such a culture change and confident emergence as a contributor to amazing domestic and global menus.
But the consumer is not the only winner or believer. From farmer or rural business to restaurateur and supermarket shopper, there is a conspicuous consensus that the expectations of Scotland’s food and the business opportunities it offers have been significantly improved through a concerted effort to address the industry’s historic room for improvement.
It is an ongoing project, however, and the resources dedicated to it are impressive in themselves, from Scotland Food and Drink, through Scottish Enterprise to the Government itself. Very much part of the advance guard are the officers of SAC Consulting, a division of SRUC, acknowledged to be “leaders, through research, education and consultancy, in sharing knowledge and collaborative initiatives”.
Two such frontline officers are food and drink sector manager Ceri Ritchie and senior consultant Patrick Hughes, who were recently involved in the organisation and judging of the Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards.
One area which SAC Consulting regards as deserving of particular attention and support is business development and growth. The focus for their specialist skills is small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) diversification and product development – not just desirable in itself but essential to protect the balance sheets of farms or rural businesses as Common Agricultural Policies subsidies shrink.
“Another word is innovation,” says Patrick Hughes. “Each business must think of ways to replace that subsidy, so they could diversify their enterprise to increase their options. But we’re here to help. For instance, for those wishing to capitalise on innovative market opportunities, a well-presented case could help access support funding through the Interface innovation vouchers scheme or the Scottish Government’s Food Processing, Marketing and Co-operation Grant.”
Innovation can also come through capitalising on the heritage of Scotland’s iconic products and utilising the EU-controlled Protected Food Names (PFN) scheme – where, for instance, Arbroath smokies can only come from Arbroath. Through the Scottish Government-funded Think Local initiative, SAC Consulting has focused on provenance and authenticity to help a growing number of producers apply to the PFN scheme.
The food and drink team at SAC Consulting, along with SRUC’s professional chefs, have supported the development of a range of new food and drink products over recent years. SRUC’s food and drink experts offer the kind of critical and comprehensive support required, including market assessment, recipe development and product testing. Now, more than ever, companies should be capitalising on Scotland’s strategic themes of reputation, premium and provenance.
Ceri Ritchie and Patrick Hughes are confirmed champions of transparent provenance, and critical about recent revelations highlighting the sometimes scandalously multi-layered background of some food products. “After all,” says Ceri Ritchie, who passionately advocates the fewest possible stages from farm to fork, “in Scotland we have a lot to be transparent about”.