Browsing Category


aquaculture/ environment/ fish farming/ Gigha/ halibut/ salmon/ Scottish/ Sustainable

Sustainable food news: Farmed Scottish halibut and salmon – two very different kettles of fish

Farmed Gigha halibut.
Beautiful halibut.

I adore seafood. Nothing unusual with that, you might think, many people do. However, I was brought up in the very north of Birmingham – effectively as far from the sea as it’s possible to be, in the UK. Despite being fabled to have more miles of canals than Venice, Birmingham is well and truly land locked. Yet somewhat surprisingly, “Brum” has a terrific fish market – or at least it did when I was a youngster. A sizeable section of the old Bull Ring market hall was dedicated to an impressive range of fish stalls stocking a myriad of seafood, shipped overnight from the ports where these had been landed.

I think my regular visits to the fish market had a subconscious influence upon my choosing to study marine biology at university. And although I no longer work in that particular field, I’m still fascinated by all things marine-related, especially when these also involve food. So I was naturally intrigued when I discovered that there was a Scottish company farming and smoking one of my favourite fishes, halibut.

Fish farming is nothing new, of course. Globally, aquaculture (to give fish farming its Sunday name) is increasingly significant, accounting for 64 million tonnes of the 131 million tonnes of fish and shellfish consumed around the world in 2011. And aquaculture – and salmon farming in particular – is now big business in Scotland. Of the nearly 170,000 tonnes of finfish farmed in the UK in 2010, over 154,000 tonnes of this was salmon farmed in Scotland.

It may surprise you to learn that I tend not to cook or eat Scottish farmed salmon. This is because I believe that the way the majority of salmon is currently farmed in Scotland simply isn’t environmentally sustainable, for many reasons. The fish are reared in high densities in cages mostly sighted in sheltered sea lochs. The waste these produce can smother the seabed, impacting the plants and animals naturally occurring there. Because the fish are effectively factory farmed, they are highly susceptible to diseases and parasites, resulting in the chemicals used to treat these also contaminating the environment. What’s more, significant escapes of farmed salmon are not uncommon, and these can impact wild salmon stocks through interbreeding and disease and parasite transmission. And then there is the issue of catching industrial quantities of small, South American fish to turn into feed for salmon farms. Certainly the salmon farming industry seems keen to address these substantial environmental issues, but until it does this effectively, it’s hardly surprising that Scottish farmed salmon remains off my menu.

Yet not all fish farming exacts a high price on the marine environment, which is why I was so interested to try the halibut farmed on the Hebridean island of Gigha. In the wild – the waters of the Atlantic – stocks of Atlantic halibut are dangerously low. Yet the fish is so good to eat, it remains very much in demand. This has resulted in the establishment of Gigha Halibut, a company with an approach to fish farming that appears to be (nautical) miles away from much of Scotland’s salmon farming industry.

Calm Gigha seas.
Calm Gigha seas.

Firstly, the fish the farm produces are both organic and grown in large tanks on land, as opposed to cages floating in the sea. Flatfish, such as halibut and turbot, are ideally suited to being raised in large, flat tanks that are continually circulated with clean seawater pumped from nearby shores. This means there is practically no risk of fish escaping to the wild. Secondly, the fish are grown in comparatively low densities. As Guardian journalist, Alex Renton, found out this helps to keep them effectively disease free, negating the need to use chemicals or medicines. Thirdly all Gigha halibut are fed with a certified organic diet using 100% fish trimmings as a source of protein and organic vegetable products as a source of carbohydrate. There feed does not rely on industrial fisheries undertaken on the other side of the globe to produce fish meal.

The overall result of this approach to fish husbandry is that Gigha Halibut produces an excellent, sustainable, product. Certainly, the way the halibut is farmed, and the relatively small scale of production, means it will never be on sale for the bargain bucket price that industrially farmed Scottish salmon currently fetches. But for me – and for leading chefs such as Alain Roux, and Michael Smith from Skye’s The Three Chimneys – such is the taste and quality of Gigha Halibut’s fish, it deserves its status as a premiere product.

To discover exactly how good Gigha Halibut’s product is, be sure to check out my next recipe post, which is a capriccio featuring of their fantastic smoked fish.

Photographs courtesy of the Gigha Halibut website.

Chefs' Alliance/ Feature/ food/ news/ Scottish/ slow food/ Sustainable

Sustainable food news: A quick post about Slow Food

A great slow food barley risotto.
A demo of cooking great barley risotto.

A passion about good food that is responsibly produced and sourced.  This is what has inspired me to write about the quality ingredients I buy, cook and eat. I am not alone in this dedication, I know.  Yet sometimes it can be tricky to engage with others who share a similar passion. Accosting  fellow shoppers at a farmers’ market to congratulate them on their purchases of organic rhubarb, or a sour dough bloomer risks offending middle-class sensibilities, after all. Of course, I’m parodying the image of those of us with an interest in sustainable food. However, there is definitely a need for a forum that easily allows people to exchange ideas and exuberance about the things they are growing, cooking and eating.

Yesterday I had the pleasure to participate in a great event marking the end of Slow Food Week 2013. For anyone not familiar with the slow food movement, please do have a look at their website. Fundamentally, their ethos is all about food being “good, clean and fair”. It’s an approach that encompasses care and, dare I say, passion – whether this comes from those producing the raw ingredients, or those serving the delicious dishes that are composed from these. What’s more, slow food is also about knowing the exact background of what is being served and eaten.

Let’s be honest, anonymous shopping is so easy these days. Swipe, beep, swipe, beep, goes the routine. And off home we go with our bags full of Chilean asparagus, Kenyan beans, and New Zealand hoki (it’s a fish, the stocks of which look increasingly threatened). There is usually no discussion in the generic environment of the supermarket as to the provenance or sustainability of the food we buy – bar the marketing blurb that “reassures” us that produce is “Scottish”, or “English”, or “British” – apart, of course, from when it frequently isn’t any of these things. There’s no real explanation about what’s on offer, other than a passing indication of country of origin, and maybe – if we are lucky – a diminutive name check for the producer. There certainly seems to be little genuine passion from big retailers about the produce filling the supermarkets’ aisles.  But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Mull cheese and smoked trout from Belhaven.
Cheese from Mull, smoked trout from Belhaven.

Yesterday, at Edinburgh’s Summerhall, knowledge and passion were in abundance. The event featured producers, suppliers and restaurateurs from across Scotland, each with stalls packed with (mostly) locally sourced ingredients and produce. All supporters of the slow food ethos, everyone had a story to tell, and every stall was a bit different. To be honest, such was the enthusiasm of all those involved for what they were doing, there was a danger of being slightly overwhelming – but not in a bad way. To taste such quality produce and hear about the connection those serving it had with what they were offering was inspirational. It was great to experience so much of that genuine buzz in one place, at one time.

I asked Neil Forbes – Chef/Proprietor of Edinburgh brasserie, Café St Honore – why he was at the event. “My gran’s soup”, he replied, somewhat enigmatically. He went on to explain that she used the best, freshest – and often home-grown – ingredients when she cooked it. That has influenced Neil’s take on food ever since. What’s not inspirational about those values?

Equally, chatting to Sascha Grierson about the organic meat company she, and her husband Hugh, run provided me with an interesting insight. “Sometimes, people ask about our marketing ‘department'” she laughingly said. “That would be me. And the accounts department, and I’m often the person on the stall at the farmers’ markets, too” Sascha explained. This emphasised that more often than not the organisations involved in the slow food movement are comparatively modest in size, and operate without the resources and infrastructure available to the large-scale food conglomerates. But speak to anyone involved in slow food and it’s apparent that they are people with a real devotion to what they produce and sell, and a genuine interest in the people they sell it to.  This is what drives their success.

Scottish Café & Restaurant produce & sustainability award.
Scottish Café & Restaurant produce & sustainability award.

I’d like to add how great it was to also speak to proprietors and staff from: Centotre, and the Scottish Café & Restaurant ; the Stockbridge Restaurant; the Cumberland Bar; the Edinburgh Larder; Mara Seaweed; 63 Tay Street Restaurant; The Monachyle Mhor Hotel; and the Roost; as well as representatives from Slow Food UK. Thank you all for putting on a truly inspirational event. It’s a pleasure to write about it and, in doing so, to try and inspire others to think about how and where the food they eat is produced and prepared. 

Feature/ food/ Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall/ John Torode/ news/ pork/ Sustainable/ The Pig Idea/ Thomasina Miers

Sustainable food news: A brilliant “Pig Idea”

A happy pig.
Out-of-date carrot – nice piggy snack (photo: James Perrin).

It may have escaped your attention, but today is World Environment Day – the annual United Nations-initiated celebration of positive environmental action. Whether we like it or not, food production has a considerable global environmental impact, resulting from energy consumption, habitat destruction, pesticide use, and so on. It’s therefore somewhat disturbing that around one third of all the food produced annually for human consumption – a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes – is either wasted or lost. Cue a new campaign launched to coincide with World Environment Day which sets out to raise awareness of food waste and the role pigs – yes, pigs – can play in addressing this.

The Pig Idea is calling for the many tonnes of food we waste each year in the UK to be put to a more productive use, instead finding its way onto the menu for one of our favourite meat animals – the pig. Initiated by Thomasina Miers – former Masterchef winner, cookery writer and restaurateur – and food waste expert, Tristram Stuart, the campaign is calling for a change in European law to allow for a return to the traditional practice of feeding pigs with waste food. Other high-profile supporters of the initiative – brilliantly describes as “Hambassadors” – include River Cottage supremo Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and BBC Masterchef presenter, John Torode.

The team at The Pig Idea have today started the process of rearing eight pigs at Stepney City Farm, on a healthy menu of food waste collected from around London. From spent brewer’s grains, whey, unsold vegetables and bread, the food that would otherwise have been wasted will be collected and fed to the pigs. The Pig Idea campaign will culminate in a major food event in London’s Trafalgar Square in November, when some of the UK’s best known chefs will gather to offer thousands of members of the public their favourite pork dishes, using the pork reared by The Pig Idea team. This feast will highlight the current global food waste scandal, and illustrate that the solutions to this can be practical, economical and delicious.

Speaking at the launch of The Pig Idea Tristram Stuart, author and campaigner on food waste, commented:

“Humans have been recycling food waste by feeding it to pigs for thousands of years. Reviving this tradition will help to protect forests that are being chopped down to grow the millions of tonnes of soya we import from South America every year to feed our livestock.”

Thomasina Miers, Chef at Wahaca, the award winning sustainable restaurant, added:

“Cutting down rainforest in the Amazon to grow feed for pigs in Europe makes no sense. Let’s save all our delicious food waste and feed it to the pigs. Not only will we be saving the rainforest (and slowing down climate change) but we’ll be bringing down the cost of pig feed and pork. Let them eat waste!”

More information on The Pig Idea and how to support the campaign can be found at the initiative’s website –

Thomasina Miers with "Pig Idea" pigs.
Feeding time with Thomasina and Tristram (photo: James Perrin).

I know I am biased, but this campaign makes great sense in terms of tackling food waste and making food production more sustainable. It’s a simple, logical approach that should be rolled out across Scotland and the rest of the UK. What do you think?

All photos by James Perrin

Subscribe to receive email updates from Scrumptious Scran