A year ago this week I got involved with the folk at MacSorley’s Bar to help them establish their new food operation. Slinging gaelic words gu leor at the directors and chef we settled on the name Biadh (Pronounced Bee-Uch, Gaelic for food) and set out to bring a little Hebridean flavour to the city.
Seeking some marketing authenticity, I researched the history of the establishment at 42 Jamaica Street which had been opened back in 1899 by one Phillip MacSorley. I discovered a wealth of history, from Phillip MacSorley’s own brand of Peacemaker whisky plied across the bar to establishing the fact that this was a hostelry predominately owned, run and patronised by Islanders and Highlanders for a 50 year period from 1910 to 1960. With the directors consent we decided to re-invigorate these links with the past and re-establish the strong connections to their Scottish and, in particular, island heritages and embarked on a series of ambitious projects over the next 12 months to quietly but assuredly make our mark as a truly Scottish place to eat.
We had taken the first tentative steps down our island heritage route with the introduction of Harris Tweed in the interiors with help from Harris Tweed Hebrides. Both high and low seating used heavy twills and herringbones and the bannister and railings were finished in the trademarked fabric. We also used flashes of the material on the menu holders.
The next step was to establish the name. Alongside award winning Scottish design company ISO, we developed an identity that was both contemporary and traditionally Scottish. The logo played around the letter B, phonetically the first syllable of the rather awkward spelling (to English only tongues at least) and boldly helped the reader say the word BEE-UCH as part of the ident too. The Gaelic usage was built into a tag-line and used on all branded materials from that point on, using different colours as the seasons progressed, reflecting their commitment to fresh, local, seasonal ingredients.
Chef Sam Carswell then turned his attention to the menu itself introducing his “slates”, a selection of prime Scottish bites from potted meats to shellfish served on real Argyll roofing slates and creating an incredibly ambitious menu of dishes using the very best from the Scottish larder and all sourced from within 50 miles of his kitchen wherever possible. Scottish game, offal, unfashionable cuts, traditional meats like mutton, ham hocks, shin, oxtails etc all made regular appearances. Even hand-gathered cockles and whelks from travellers on the Ardgowan peninsula showed up on the menu.
And when we had to go the extra mile for the right ingredient we really did so.
During the summer I visited practically every butcher on Lewis and procured a stick of their marag. Stornoway black pudding (or marag dubh) was collected from 4 different butchers in the town of Stornoway (Charley Barley, Willie John’s, Alex France, MacLeod & MacLeod), one from Point and one from the tiny village of Cross in Ness some 25 miles north of Stornoway and after eliminating a few, the rest were put to the test back in the restaurant. The Cross Stores marag was deemed the best and was soon included on the menus at brunch, on the Bar menu in Stovies and on the main menu as as starter in a chicken dumpling.
I also contacted the Scottish Crofting Foundation in Skye to secure croft reared and grown mutton, honey and soft fruits for the kitchens and showed the ingredients off in a dedicated Crofter’s menu during the Scottish Food & Drink Fortnight. A collaboration was also made with the Lewis & Harris Horticultural Producers group in the Outer Hebrides to bring some of their small holders goods to Glasgow market and show off their truly home-grown, organic, hand-tended vegetables on the Biadh menu.
It wasn’t just food that was focussed upon but the after-dinner dram. Philip MacSorley once had his own brand of whisky on the premises and the time seemed right to revive the name once more. To this end I got in touch with Marko Tayburn at Scotland’s newest and most remote craft whisky distiller and began negotiations with Abhainn Dearg Distilery in the village of Carnish on the Isle of Lewis. He kindly allowed us to procure a small 30 litre cask of the first legal spirit to be made on the island in over 170 years and after a 700 mile road-trip we became the first people to carry a legal dram off the island in almost two centuries. Biadh and MacSorley’s now serves its Peacemaker Batch straight from the cask as an unusual dram, an aperitif and has used it in chocolate desserts, cured salmon and whisky soaked Haggis canapes too.
Finally to wrap up the year it was decided to do what noone else could do, procure and serve a rare Scottish delicacy from the most North Westerly place in the British Isles. Every year ten specially selected men from the village of Ness set off in a boat for a rock called Sula Sgeir far into the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean. Here they sleep in bothys and catch, kill, char over peat fires and salt cure 2000 young gannets over a period of two weeks before returning home to serve to the their fellow villagers. The Guga Hunt (Guga being Gaelic for gannet), takes place just once a year in great secrecy as it has done for over 700 years. The cull is protected by a special dispensation from the Scottish Government and is the only killing of sea-birds for food allowed in the UK today, Scots having eaten the birds for centuries but the gannet now fallen out of favour over the years.
In behalf of the Biadh team I made contact with an acquaintance in the village and eventually it was agreed we could procure two of the birds, normally reserved for the hunters and villagers alone for personal consumption. Two weeks after the boat returned, the contact travelled to Glasgow to deliver the birds and instruct chef Carswell on how to clean, prepare and cook the meat. It is illegal to buy and sell the guga so Biadh held a small, private lunch for those who had expressed an interest in tasting the rare delicacy and on the day sat down with Allan Brown (Times), Cate Devine (Herald), Donald S Murray (Author of The Guga Hunters & poet) and others and enjoyed a rare taste of a dish seldom tried outside the Isle of Lewis. It was served in the traditional manner alongside boiled Kerr’s Pink potatoes from the same village and a glass of full cream milk. Sam also made tiny Guga canapes using hollowed out baby potatoes and skin and fat from the bird. A very salty, fishy, oily, duck textured dish was enjoyed by all…
Over the last twelve months all these projects have served to draw together one whole cohesive marketing initiative, the re-establishment of a truly Scottish restaurant with a real difference. And on Sunday night, for my part in all this, I picked up the GRA Extra Mile Award for literally going the extra miles to ensure Biadh sticks to it’s gaelic guns, Hebridean roots and serves the very best island produce to its customers in the best environment. This was the second industry award this year, as well as many positive reviews and listing ratings. The resultant media coverage from the endevours has been invaluable and hopefully there’s more to come in February.
2011 may prove to be a tricky year. A historic recession combined with aggressive supermarket loss-leading alcohol sales have seen the food and drink trade in Glasgow suffer greatly. Add to this the difficult oil-and-water mix of running a high-end food operation out of a bustling and loud music bar and you’ve got your work cut out. But the new year brings with it new projects, from Hebridean seaweed and honey bees to Highland beef, so there’s still much to be explored and championed from the islands, down here in the big city. And if I can keep doing that then I’m happy to do so until that particular well runs dry.
If you haven’t been in, then please do so, it’s different if nothing else. The chef is an incredibly talented and open-minded man who takes to new ingredients and ideas with great gastro gusto. If he can make an oily, baby gannet taste good, just imagine what he does with prime lamb, beef and seafood. The staff are relaxed, friendly and becoming more knowledgeable and adept with the unusual dishes with every passing week. The Harris Tweed is warm and comfortable and if we can keep the volume down on the (excellent) house bands and music once in a while you’ll be guaranteed a good night to go with your good company.
And if not you now know who to complain to…
(If this has piqued your interest, look out for a more detailed and in-depth take on the MacSorley’s history and island story in the WHFP in the near future).