Edinburgh Food Studio: Looking to the past to feed the future

An interesting segue from the founding ethos of Ben Reade’s Edinburgh Food Studio (EFS) Scotland’s first international food research hub - and newly-launched restaurant - is the part it could play in the current debate around UK food security, self-sufficiency, and the issue of stockpiling. The fragility of our food chain has been exposed not only by the effects of the recent heatwave on livestock, veg and dairy farming, but also by the potential consquences of a no-deal Brexit.

Britain imports over 50% of the food it consumes, most of that from the EU. If we crash out with no trade deals in place we could see a sharp reduction in foods imported from the EU, and the end - temporary or permanent – of much-loved, freely-available ingredients such as olive oil, lemons, pasta and so on. If we’re forced to look closer to home for our food – new trade deals with the US notwithstanding – the national diet could, it's feared, be limited to tinned and preserved items supplemented with smaller ranges of locally sourced fresh foods in a scenario reminiscent of the postwar 1950s.

This is where I reckon the EFS and its research work comes in.

I first met Edinburgh-born Reade in 2012 in Copenhagen, while he was head of culinary research and development at the Nordic Food Lab, part of “gastronomic entrepreneur” Rene Redzepi’s world-famous Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. Reade was studying the origins - as well as the potential – of indigenous regional foods. Indeed, NFL’s aim was not only to revive Scandinavia’s food heritage. Another powerful motivator was food security. Finding inexpensive ways to create flavours that are not indigenous – such as citrus fruit, sugar and salt – meant that NFL was poised to produce a valuable blueprint for other countries to follow. Interestingly, it is part-funded by the Danish government.

Reade’s big thing was - and still is - fermentation and what he called the “expression of microbial terroir”. In Copenhagen I tasted a “fish” sauce he’d made from grasshoppers, wood larvae and barley; a vinegar-type dressing made with fermented carrot juice; and a sweet, sticky cake made with barley injected with Aspergillus oryzae, or koji. At the time he told me Scotland, too, could be looking at its own edible biogeography in a similarly analytical way as Denmark, enabling the discovery and rediscovery of new and forgotten ingredients, partly in order to safeguard us from (imported) shortages in the future.

And so it came to pass that Reade and his then partner (now wife) Sashana Souza Zanella returned to Edinburgh and initially spent time travelling around the country to uncover forgotten foods, meet micro-food producers and so begin their research archive. They crowdfunded the Edinburgh Food Studio three years ago with the aim of creating an international research and education hub that would encourage the study of the traditional foods, cooking techniques and recipes of Scotland - as well as their potential and overlap with other cuisines - while sloughing off the hackneyed image of the Scottish diet.

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At EFS the pair, pictured above in 2015, who met while students at the School of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenza, Italy, have hosted a variety of interns, guest chefs, writers and historians from around the world, building a valuable archive of information that is a free resource for others. Guests include Ana Ros of Hisa Franko restaurant in Slovenia, Susu Laukkonen of Ora in Helsinki, and Swedish butter maker Patrik Johansson. Orkney seal recipes have been uncovered, and painstaking work has been ongoing to extract a sensory vocabulary around Shetland hogget. Oh, and they’ve started a wholesale bread bakery in Leith, milling their own organic flour from Mungoswells in East Lothian.

The couple are now further developing with the launch of a 25-cover restaurant at the EFS, and have lured James Murray from Lyle’s in Shoreditch as head chef. Murray, from Falkirk, was formerly head chef at the Michelin-starred Nur in Hong Kong and has also worked with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire. He’ll be serving coffees, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and brunch on Sundays from August 2. (Continues...)

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James, above right, who joined EFS in mid-July, says Ben and Sashana have already introduced him to some “phenomenal” local suppliers. Working with them on a day-to-day basis means his menus will be ever-changing according to what’s available. Thinking on his feet and adapting to the natural environment like this is elemental to the ethos of EFS and is thrilling, he says. He is understandably proud that he can not tell me what the menu would be for the opening dinner just days following our meeting.

When I meet Ben and James at EFS, there’s a new Dry Ager cabinet in which hang two Native Shetland PDO hoggets from artisan producer Richard Briggs of Weisdale; a rump of 12 year old organic Luing beef from Peelham Farm in Berwickshire that’s been hanging here for 10 weeks; and two plump organic free-range chickens from Linda Dick in Peebles.  

From a high shelf above the Pass Ben pulls down a terracotta jar full of salted North Sea herrings (below) which won’t be ready for eating until next year but are a fine example of the 19th century Scots way of preserving food also widely practised in the Mediterranean. “I got the recipe from a 94 year old fishwife from Newhaven, and am very excited to see how they turn out,” he says. “We also want to dry-age other species of Scottish fish, as the Japanese do. It’s not that different from what the ancient Scots did.” (Continues...)

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In the cool, dark cellar underneath the restaurant, he shows me his collection of chestnut, oak, cherry and juniper casks from Modena in which Scottish apple juice infusions are slow-fermenting to become a range of Balsamic-style vinegars. They have been maturing for 12 years, starting out in Ben’s parents’ Edinburgh house before transferring here. And there’s a delicious fermented raspberry wine, made according to an ancient Scottish recipe. (Continues...)

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(Top) Ben with his prized collection of chestnut, oak, cherry and juniper casks from Modena, in which he's maturing Scottish apple juice for Balsamic-style vinegars. Above: Fermented raspberry wine from an ancient Scots recipe, and right, Shetland hogget, Luing beef and organic chickens in the Dry Ager.
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“Traditional Scottish cooking was about survival. People didn’t have time to look into things that were always there, but here at EFS we have the luxury of time to look into the past to re-interpret it for the future,” he says. “Man is, always has been, a product of his environment. Scots cuisine has always influenced, and been influenced by, Europe and the rest of the world.”

So EFS could help teach us how to protect against future food shortages – though we shouldn’t confuse preservation with protectionism.

Ben reminds me that During World War II Mussolini tried to ban the consumption of pasta in Italy because the wheat most of it was made from was imported from Ukraine and Canada. Italy lost a lot of trading partners as a result.

“If modern right-wing policies help us focus on increased domestic food production and the cutting of food miles, then they're not entirely a bad thing,” he says.