However, their plans could be scuppered by Brexit because the PGI scheme is operated and controlled by the EU. It is given to regional food products across the EU that have a specific quality, reputation or other characteristic attributable to the area it’s grown or made in, and ensures it is legally protected from imitation throughout the EU. It can also help promote the product and the area it’s grown in, thus encouraging food tourism. A PGI product can command premium price and it’s estimated that a PGI product sells more than twice the rate as a non-PGI product.
There is no equivalent protection scheme in the UK, raising fears that as part of the Brexit negotiations Brussels could drop its scheme for non-EU products currently being processed.
"We have crossed all the ts and dotted the eyes," joked Drew Young, chair of Girvan Early Growers cooperative, which from June to October sells more than 2.5 million bags of Scotty Brand Ayrshire Early potatoes through supermarkets across Scotland and in England through Waitrose.
"It's over to them now but we don't know how long we have to wait. We are a bit disappointed that we haven't gained PGI status for this season.
"Brussels are nit-picking, but in a good way. They wanted to know tiny details such as where West Kilbride is, and asked for a detailed map of the growing area. They also queried what ‘dirty potatoes’ meant so we agreed to change our description to ‘unwashed’. It's taken two years to get to this final stage but they’re obviously looking at it, and we're hopeful our potatoes will get the all-important rubber-stamp soon, and certainly before the Brexit negotiations are concluded in two years' time.
“If we get it, it means we can command a premium price for what is after all a premium product, and prevent customers being sold fakes by other growers. It would help put our delicious wee potatoes on the world stage."
The bid is supported by chef Albert Roux OBE, pictured above, who founded the double Michelin starred Le Gavroche in London’s Mayfair and has six restaurants in Scotland. On a visit to the Girvan Early Growers, where he tasted Scotty Brand’s Epicure and Casablanca new potatoes, he said: “I fully support PGI for Ayrshire Early potatoes. They are quite delicious and their provenance is unique. They should have equal status with Jersey Royals.”
And Andrew Fairlie, chef-patron of his eponymous double Michelin-starred restaurant at the Gleaneagles Hotel in Perthshire, below, also backs protected status for Ayrshire Earlies. He added: “We should be celebrating Scotland’s first potatoes when they come into season. I can remember as a child that Ayrshire Earlies coming into the shops was something to look forward to. Yet now they hardly get any attention compared to Jersey Royals.” (Continues after photo break.)
Ayrshire Earlies are the very first potatoes of the Scottish season, and are naturally small with a delicate skin. They are sold with the soil still on them in order to protect them. They are grown in four varieties - Epicure, Isle of Jura, Maris Peer and a new Casablanca variety for Scotty Brand – for Albert Bartlett and Scotty Brand. Their unique growing conditions include sandy soil close to the seashore, which together with the Gulf Stream ensure a warm, frost-free, environment. They have been growing here for over 100 years.
UK food products with PGI status are worth £1bn, of which the largest element is Scotch Beef and Scotch Lamb.
Matthew O’Callaghan of the UK Protected Food Names Association expressed fears that PGI status for Ayrshire Earlies could prove elusive.
“Applications in process at the moment are very uncertain if we don’t continue with the European scheme,” he told The Times. “We are in talks with DEFRA about establishing a UK scheme which should be as close as possible to the existing EU one. It could be up and running very quickly.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “Geographical Indication for our products helps brings about many benefits to producers, our economy and the reputation of our fine produce on a global platform.
“Two of our most iconic products – Scottish Farmed Salmon and Scotch Beef – are amongst the highest value Protected Food Names in Europe, with export markets alone worth over £500m every year.
“It is therefore vital that this protection continues, given the clear threat posed by Brexit, and Scottish Government officials have been in discussions with DEFRA, and the other devolved administrations, to explore the range of options on how best to achieve this.”
* A version of this exclusive article first appeared in The Times.