We asked Sophie to explore the producers in the Park. From yoghurt makers to chilli growers, and sausage specialists to fish smokers, the Park and surrounds are brimming with entrepreneurial food producers using local ingredients. We looked behind the scenes to see what makes a few of them tick.
Allan and Karen met while working at Loch Fyne Oysters, Allan as production director and Karen as trading manager. The pair not only fell in love, but recognised an entrepreneurial spark in each other and decided to strike out on their own by starting a fish-smoking business.
Their West Coast backgrounds and work at Loch Fyne had instilled a respect for good local produce. Sourcing fish from the best sea-loch farms on the west coast of Scotland, they specialised quickly in creating small, handcrafted batches of luxury smoked foods including traditional smoked salmon, hot kiln roasted smoked salmon and smoked trout, as well as smoked mussels and homemade fish pates.
The secret of their success comes from years of fish-smoking expertise, ‘We’d always smoked fish, for ourselves and for Loch Fyne and for Inverawe, and also for a friend’s company in Gloucestershire, so we thought we’d try and do it for our own business!’ says Karen. That experience plus clear thinking and dedication led to success from the beginning. Straight away they collaborated with a local designer to make sophisticated packaging for their produce. ‘I wanted to be able to see the product through the packaging,’ says Karen, ‘And to give a sense of it being a luxury Scottish product.’
The couple manage all aspects of the Dunoon-based business themselves. In a typical day they will hot smoke the fish, slice and pack it, despatch, deliver and market their products. They rarely take time off and have won a series of awards, including Best Fish & Seafood Product for their fish pates from Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards 2015.
Once upon a time, in 2011, at a dairy farm in Fintry, Mr and Mrs Rodgers and their herd of 60 lovely Friesian cattle wondered what to do about dropping milk prices and a farm in need of modernisation. Mrs Rodgers – Katy – thought about restarting a popular ice cream business that she’d run when her now grown-up children were small. But it didn’t work as the ice cream market was already chocca, so she started to make yoghurt and Scottish crowdie cheese, almost as a way of using up all the milk. And so the story began…
Katy Rodgers is the star of this tale. Not only does she make the outstandingly good yoghurt that took off almost as soon as she started and has won countless awards, but she’s also created an idyllic food and drink haven at Knochraich Farm. She says, ‘It’s my husband Robert’s family farm. His parents bought it in 1955 and I feel it’s up to us to keep it going. This is very much a family business and we all have the same ambition, to keep the farm going. The cows are a big part of our lives, our livelihood, and I love them.’ But it takes someone special to make it such a success.
As with any smart-looking swan there’s a lot of busy paddling going on underneath. Katy makes the yoghurt and crowdie cheese, has expanded into frozen yoghurt, crème fraiche & ice cream in her own creamery. She makes it by hand using only natural ingredients. The only additives are homemade compotes of fresh Scottish gooseberries, blackcurrants or rhubarb, for example. And the yoghurt is genuinely a cut above the rest – tangy and fresh-tasting simply from the milk from those Friesians. However, that’s not all, she also oversees the Courtyard Café next door, and runs her own home-interiors shop, slipping off her white dairy coat to pop out and stitch a few curtains from time to time. All the family help, of course, and the whole business is set in a pretty courtyard in the beautiful Fintry Hills. It’s not just a haven it’s a whole Katy Rodgers brand, whose core values of local, natural and simple are well adhered to. She’s a one-woman marvel.
It’s not exactly a Scottish product, but good coffee has reached all corners of the globe and Scotland is no exception. Increasingly, people are becoming connoisseurs – a cup of Nescafe no longer cuts the mustard in Scotland, thankfully, so the market welcomes entrepreneurial enthusiasts like Alastair and his wife and business partner Sophie.
Alastair had always been a bit obsessive about good coffee, but as it became his job in 2010, he knew he wanted to be more than just someone selling coffee at events. He took himself on a steep learning curve to become an accomplished roaster, starting with a 1kg roaster at home, and gradually developing his craft and refining his coffee nose.
He’s also committed to ethical values. ‘Our core business values are traceability and sustainability,’ says Alastair. ‘A fair deal for farmers are what we are all about, as well as paying everyone who works for us a living wage.’ And that’s whether it’s a coffee farmer, the people manning the stand at the Commonwealth Games, T in the Park or a small-scale market stand.
Alastair’s infectious passion is a secret of his success and as a natural communicator, says, ‘I guess I’m the creative one – I see everything in pictures – down to making my own coffee machines from nothing but a picture in my head and a bit of ingenuity! And Sophie is brilliant at everything else. She’s super organised and writes everything down. Our skills complement each other.’
Successful food producers need a good idea, intense drive and a great-quality product. Cameron Skinner has all three. He’s the third-generation butcher of T & R Skinner in Kippen village (Thomas and Robert were his grandfather and father), and founder of The Extraordinary Sausage Company.
‘My motto is always be proactive rather than reactive,’ says Cameron. He didn’t want to sit back and watch his rural butchers shop grind to a halt as he’s seen happen to others in the last 10 years. He knew he had to futureproof his business by engaging with the modern consumer. He started by embracing a Scottish Government initiative to cut back salt in Scottish produce. Working closely with a consultant, he gradually changed the recipes of Skinners sausages and steak pies, reducing their salt content by 20% and fat content by 25%, and guess what? Within two years he saw a whopping 70% increase in sales.
His interest in ingredients led him to experiment further combining quirky ingredients to make ‘extraordinary’ sausages, Banana & Madras for example, or Garlic & Fennel, and Scotch Bonnet, with many more in between. The Extraordinary Sausage Company was born, and is as a funkier sister brand to his traditional butcher shop. It now provides many restaurants in the area, and sells from his outlet at the Woodhouse Deli. The company certainly has the originality factor, but also the backing of an established and trusted village butcher who sources his meat with health and localism in mind, using nearby beef, pork and game.
Frankie loves chillies. I mean really loves them. Sometimes people who are wildly passionate about chillies live a little on the wild side. And Frankie is no exception. But what isn’t wild is his chilli sauce business. The names of the sauces, yes, they’re a little crazy… ‘The Mad Monk’ is made with the legendary Buckfast Tonic wine, brewed by monks in Devon and popular among Scottish drinkers, which Frankie combines with ghost chillies for a sweet kick; or how about ‘Vampire Bite’, ‘Nippy Sweetie’, ‘Hellish Relish’, or ‘Who’s the Daddy’?
Frankie was inspired to try and grow chillies about 10 years ago after seeing TV footage of someone growing them in a polytunnel in Devon. He successfully grew seedlings in his airing cupboard from seeds bought online, moved them to his greenhouse and was hooked.
Constantly looking for the new, he invents novel recipes every few months for his chilli sauce business. But this guy knows his ingredients, he doesn’t just throw stuff together. He knows how to cook and he knows how to sell – enjoying a good rapport with his market-stall regulars.
He says, ‘I’ll only ever sell my own produce. I make the products in small batches, so there may be some variety in flavour, ingredients, heat and colour from batch to batch. Oh yeah – and I like to experiment too, so you may see some unusual combinations of ingredients, like my garlic, strawberry and chilli dessert sauce – it works – honestly!!!’
What many small producers have in common, is that starting out involves some twist of fate or accident, but what makes the business a success is the drive and character of the owner. This is true of Chrystal Wylie, owner of Chrystal Shortbreads.
In 2007 Chrystal began selling her home-recipe shortbread to help her daughter fund university. She said, ‘My mother always made shortbread and told me how to make it. Then my daughter was off to university and I decided I would do something to raise some money to help her. Then, around 2013, things went gone completely bonkers and I went full-time and made it my business!’
She says, ‘It’s good to have the opportunity to sell shortbread in this area as it’s the kind of thing that tourists look for.’ But that belies a modesty, because what sets Chrystal apart, aside from the delicious shortbread, of course, is her attractive tartan-free modern packaging and her ability to pitch the price, product and presentation exactly right, and the determination to get the product stocked in all the good delis and outlets in the area. It takes being a personable, driven individual, a lot of hard work, and, of course, a deliciously short-textured shortbread made to her top-secret recipe.
Jam and chutney making is a British institution and the Trossachs are no exception. Many talented jam-makers live in and around the Park, proud of their use of local ingredients and without an artificial preservative in sight.
Iain and Kate set up their business in 2010 from their Callander home in the National Park. They quickly expanded out of their home kitchen and now have a large premises for cooking a substantial amount of jam and chutney in Stirling. Both have a background in food and hotels, and have been making homemade jams and preserves for many years. What made them successful was seeing and grabbing hold of a market for high quality handmade preserves to sell locally. They have an eye for their market too, depicting their label with the summit of Ben Ledi, the view from their Callander window.
They realised that simply making raspberry or strawberry jam wouldn’t take them far. So they also make specialist preserves such as Hot Banana Chutney or Double Espresso Ale Marmalade, the latter of which took their best-seller spot last year. ‘One of our customers loves our marmalade so much’, says Kate, ‘he takes it on holiday to the Algarve with him!’
Sweet pancakes, sugary tablet, meringues, lemon cake, clootie dumpling, sticky toffee pudding, almond slices, scones – I could go on… Yes, we Scots have a sweet tooth. And Fiona Brown knows it. She tours local farmers markets with her home-baking wares made with no artificial ingredients and always using free-range eggs.
There are a lot of great bakers in the National Park – you only have to visit one of many fantastic cafes in the area to sample creative cakes and luscious local sweet bites. So how do you go from home baker to professional?
‘I’ve always baked,’ says Fiona. ‘It just gradually became my job – I used to look after horses, now I bake!’ Fiona keeps it in the family by cooking everything at her mother’s house as she has a much larger kitchen that’s set up for commercial jobs. ‘These days I sell at Loch Lomond Shores and Helensburgh’s market. I love chatting to customers on the stall, and the banter with fellow stall-holders – everyone is appreciative. I used to bake for shops and restaurants where I’d leave the produce somewhere round the back and barely speak to anyone. This is much more fun.’
Find Helen at Helensburgh market and Loch Lomond Shores market.
Virginia came to Loch Fyne Oysters in 1990 to start up and run the Loch Fyne Food Fair, now an established annual event. Her uncle Johnny Noble, was one of the founders of the now iconic oyster farm in 1978. Back then he and a local marine biology graduate Andy Lane began farming oysters in the loch almost as an experiment and set up a shed off the A83 to sell them from.
With Virginia’s dynamic help, plus a dedicated team, Loch Fyne has transformed from a shed by the road into a global brand exporting seafood to over 20 countries. Virginia’s role developed into running marketing and events, her previous job as a stage manager lending dramatic skills in promoting the company. She took Loch Fyne produce all over the country to festivals and fairs, knowing that meeting and talking to as many customers as possible was the best way to promote the produce, and if they couldn’t all come to the shores of Loch Fyne, then she would go to them.
Yet the acclaimed Loch Fyne Oysters restaurant and shop on the same site in Cairndow where it began is still the holy grail of any oyster fan. The location is stunning, looking over the loch whose clean waters, warmed by the Gulf Stream and mingled with fresh water from the hills, are marine paradise to the oyster and give Loch Fyne oysters their characteristic sweetness.
‘Enjoying food and celebrating food in an area where it’s produced is a very important part of life in Loch Fyne,’ says Virginia. Loch Fyne has never been a one-man band – from the early partnership of Johnny Noble and Andy Lane to the staff-ownership years, and now with parts of the business sold, it still retains its values. The company motto remains ‘Nach Urramach an Cuan’, a Gaelic saying meaning ‘How worthy of honour is the sea’, encapsulating the way the company is run: an enterprise with total respect for the ecology, animals and people that are a part of the business, along with a commitment to using sustainable methods to produce high quality foods.