French Chefs Celebrate Scottish Produce

Becoming well acquainted with Scotland’s quality produce was the aim of a recent week-long visit backed by the French Institute and mapped out by local French restaurateur Frederic ‘Fred’ Berkmiller.

Using Frederic's contacts with farmers and small producers, the eight students from the Lycee Hotelier in Dinard, Brittany, together with their teachers, spent their first day on Sunnyside Farm in Dumfries and Galloway.

Here they were treated to a masterclass in butchery from farmer Dominic Smith, using his Gloucester Old Spot and Berkshire pigs. The students had to put his lessons into instant practice preparing pork and sausages for their starring roles in Fred’s pair of Edinburgh restaurants later in the week.

It was an early start the next day to visit the kitchens of the Castle Terrace restaurant, welcomed by the familiar accent of countryman Phillipe Nublat, Food and Beverage Director, and chef/patron Dominic Jack, who had a chance to practice his French acquired in stints in some of France’s most celebrated restaurants. The students got a behind-the-scenes tour of a sophisticated establishment that proudly features Scottish produce at the heart of its French-influenced menu.

An hour and a half later, the Bretons were on the dairy farm and fromagerie of Jane and Robert Stewart, where Fife’s only artisan cheese is made. Anster cheese, named after the local nickname for nearby Anstruther, is made with the product of the 175 cross Holstein- Friesian cows milked in the Stewart’s impressive new parlour. With her cheesemaking hat on (literally), Jane demonstrated how 800 litres of unpasteurised milk warming gently in a vat has a live starter culture added to begin the journey that will end months later with a slightly crumbly, full-flavoured, citrusy-fresh product.

After Anster had passed a French taste test, the Bretons headed for Pittenweem, Fife’s only surviving fish market. It was perfect timing, as boat after boat chugged alongside to land their boxes of crab and lobster, which, along with langoustine, is the harbour’s only fish stock in trade.

Harbourmaster (and ex-fisherman) Alex Gardner led a tour of the market, and explained the workings of a modern creel and the inevitable challenges of modern fishing. Speaking to Alex and local fisherman, there was clearly common ground with the fishing industry of Brittany, also under pressure from issues like rising fuel process and uncertain stocks.

With lessons over for the day, where do you take food-loving French visits for a late lunch on a sunny day in Fife? Well, it has to be the much-lauded and awarded Anstruther Fish Bar, to experience for the first time in most cases the simple pleasures of a classic ‘fish supper’. Judging from the empty plates, it was a good choice, especially with dressed local crab on the menu too.

After a lesson in foraging for wild garlic and leeks from local expert Richard Peebles, the week climaxed with the students cooking up their local produce in the Edinburgh kitchens of L’Escargot Bleu and Blanc, featuring such Breton specialities as Kig-Ar-Farz, their take on meaty Pot au Feu, featuring in this case a dumpling made from buckwheat flour.

Saturday 14th May saw part of the students' 'brigade' at the Institut Francais d'Ecosse to offer a taste of Brittany to the public. The afternoon's menu included oysters, seaweed butter, cider pies, 'curé nantais' cheese, the Rennes specialty 'Galette saucisse' (a savoury crepe made from buckwheat floor and filled with a sausage) and the star of the day, crepe with salted butter caramel.

The plan is to repeat the visit in the opposite direction in the future, with young Scots chefs visiting Brittany to widen their culinary horizons and bring back new ways and extra enthusiasm to make the most of Scotland’s larder.