Mangalitsa pigs

Late last year, my favourite type of email dropped into my inbox. It was a completely unexpected email from a farmer in Perthshire who had somehow accidentally acquired some pure breed Mangalitsa pigs.

According to this mysterious email, no-one in the farming world was interested in Mangalitsa pigs. As a chef with a reputation for producing what have been called adventurous menus, perhaps I might be interested in taking them?

To be honest, I didn't know what on earth Mangalitsa pigs were but I didn't need to do much research before I knew that yes, I absolutely wanted them for my restaurants. It turns out that Mangalitsa, a slow growing breed which is expensive to farm, have been described as the Wagyu beef of pork. Like Wagyu, their flesh has a lot of marbling running through it.

Regular readers will know that we like to use Wagyu beef from the Highland Wagyu farm in Perthshire. The thought of cooking its porcine equivalent was enough to make my mouth water. Their name in Hungarian means "hog with a lot of lard" and it is this fat which makes the meat succulent and richly flavoured. All of which means that I couldn't wait to get these pigs in the pot and on the menu. The only problem was that these Mangalitsa were some way off being pot-ready. In fact, we needed to find them a good home for a few months. Somewhere that would take good care of them until they were ready to take a starring role on l'escargot menus. At which point, we will introduce Josiah Lockhart, the General Manager of Gorgie City Farm. I am a big fan and supporter of Gorgie City Farm. We work with them throughout the year. Over the years, they have produced numerous pigs for us; several lambs, mutton and even the odd goat every now and then.

Education is part of Gorgie City Farm's remit and that is something we are very happy to support. If we want the nation to have a healthy relationship with food then we need to know what producing it entails. Kids learning where their food comes from seems like a good starting point. Can you see where this is going? I met with Josiah and asked if he would like to look after my Mangalitsa for me. His eyes lit up like a kids' at Christmas and, a week later, nine pigs were heading towards their new home at Gorgie City Farm.

I really recommend that you take your kids to visit the pigs. Entry to Gorgie City Farm is free and, as you can see from the picture, the Mangalitsa are super cute. With an eye-catching woolly appearance, they look more like sheep than the pink-skinned pigs we are used to seeing. I can't help but imagine that they are the sort of thing that might feature in an episode of The Muppets.

This is what Josiah has to say about them: "It is a great product in terms of the meat but it is also ideal for the farm. It is something unusual and the parents and kids love it. The farm always needs more visitors and the Mangalitsa are one way of bringing them in."          

If you have never seen Mangalitsa before, it is because very few people have. Interest in them is growing but, at one point, they were so rare, that there were only 150 of them in existence. Originally from Hungary, the breed is derived from the Northern European Wild Boar. It is practically unheard of in the UK.

Farmers aren't keen on them as they take a year to reach the right weight. That is about twice as long to rear as more commercial pigs. This makes them an expensive breed to farm. Working with Josiah, I am perfectly happy to rear my pigs at a natural pace. I reckon that the unique characteristics of the meat, partially a product of their slow growth, will make it worthwhile. Some things are worth waiting for.

It reminds me of the way that the market for Dexter beef has developed in the UK. Ten years ago, when I started cooking with it, no-one was interested. Now, it's popular right across the UK. Already, fellow chefs are asking if I have any Mangalitsa to spare. Obviously, I am thoroughly enjoying saying "Non" to them. Although I am not so daft as to think that I will forever remain the only chef in town with a steady supply of Mangalitsa.

I have yet to try the meat but Josiah had some a few years back. He describes it as dark red in colour with intense marbling. The texture is tender and soft while the flavours is said to be like beef but with a slight sweetness.

Interestingly, part of the feed for our Mangalitsa comes from the Pilot Brewery in Leith. The farm takes the waste from their mash and feeds it to the pigs. It will be fascinating to see what effect that has on the flavour.

Our first Mangalitsa from Gorgie City Farm goes to the abattoir in mid-February. We hope to have Mangalitsa on the menu by the end of February. I'm going to ask Rachel Hammond to use some of it to make charcuterie. I have yet to decide how I am going to cook the different cuts of meat but I am looking forward to working with this new ingredient.

In some ways, the farm is similar to l'escargot restaurants. Like the farm, we get very excited in the kitchen when we have an interesting new product to work with and we know that our customers are very open to trying new things.

Roll on February and the first Mangalitsa on our menus!

Shetland Lambs

Shetland Lambs

In the Escargot restaurants we like to use Native Shetland Lamb PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) from Richard Briggs, a farmer from Weisdale on Shetland.

Campbells field trip

Campbells field trip

A fantastic first-hand experience at Campbells Prime Meat in Linlithgow, with senior butcher Gerry Neilson and Edinburgh College's chefs-to-be students.

Vote for l'escargot bleu!

Vote for l'escargot bleu!

We are happy and proud here at l'escargot bleu for having been shortlisted once again in the i-on Food and Drink Reader Awards 2016. Remember you hold the voting power here so have you say and please vote for l'escargot bleu!

Fashions fade

As always, at the start of each year magazines, newspapers and blogs devote a large amount of space to the hot new culinary trends for the coming year. What will be this year's quinoa? Is kale still fashionable? Are amaranth smoothies the new charred leek? It makes me smile. Predicting annual food trends may make for a quick, amusing read but these fads and fashions have little to do with good food.

We don't pay much attention to trends in the Escargot kitchens. My cooking is founded on classic French dishes made with the best Scottish produce that I can find. Our dishes are based on tried and tested culinary traditions. From Boeuf Bourguignon to Coq au Vin; I like to cook dishes that have pedigree and their own heritage.

That doesn't mean that these recipes are set in stone. Things move on and change can be good. After all, twists and tweaks can evolve a dish. For example, I might make Coq au Vin using local beer rather than wine, or use venison and beef cheeks to make Boeuf Bourguignon. The point is that those changes are made within the framework of the recipe's heritage. I don't try to reinvent the dish. If I tweak a dish then I do it with respect, I don't do it simply for the sake of novelty or to incorporate an ingredient that has been hailed as the new flavour of the month.

Good cooking is not about following trends. However, some of the fundamental truths of good cooking have become fashionable. Seasonality and sustainability have become buzzwords over the last few years. This is good news. I'm delighted that they have moved up the restaurant agenda. However, I do wonder if this zeal for seasonality and sustainability will last or be cast aside when a new trend emerges.

Photomontage: Mondrian dresses by Yves Saint Laurent (1966) / Coq au vin by Alain Ducasse

Photomontage: Mondrian dresses by Yves Saint Laurent (1966) / Coq au vin by Alain Ducasse

Seasonality is not a box you tick simply because you want to be seen as being on trend. It is one of the founding principles of cooking and eating well. Good kitchens have always worked with the seasons. In the days before we had refrigeration and before we imported produce from far away countries, chefs cooked seasonal ingredients because that is what was to hand. It made good sense then and it is the best option now - even if we do have the opportunity to eat Kenyan asparagus in January.

When you eat seasonally, you eat ingredients when they are at their best. When they reach their peak, they are also at their most abundant and that means they will be at their best price. Eating seasonally is eating economically and that applies to both restaurant and domestic kitchens. Perhaps more importantly, there is a simple yet great pleasure to be had in anticipating the first strawberry or chanterelle of the season. That pleasure is lost if these ingredients are available all year round. We become blasé about them.

Sustainability has become another marketing point for restaurants, and rightly so! Sustainability is important but it is not a 21st century invention. One aspect of sustainability in restaurants is extracting the maximum from all the products used in the kitchen. Everyone has heard about nose to tail eating. This year, root to stem eating is being hawked as a hot new trend and we are all being encouraged to eat the parts of plants that are normally discarded.

This is a very sensible idea, which we should encourage, but it is not a dazzling new revelation. In the early 80’s, I was in my early teens doing an apprenticeship at a restaurant in Saint-Maure-de-Touraine. The chef patron of the restaurant bar was an old school chef. This had advantages, but let's just say that he would have been baffled by contemporary concepts such as dignity at work.

For all of his character defects, he knew how to extract every last drop of flavour - and value - from his ingredients. The waste bin in that kitchen was seldom well fed. Potato peelings body-swerved the bin and they never reached the compost heap. Instead, they were deep-fried, salted and sold as very more-ish bar snacks to grateful drinkers. In many kitchens, those peelings would have been binned. The old school chef was savvy enough to use everything he could and was canny at turning potential discards into desirable dishes.

He would have raised an eyebrow at the idea of food trends. Food fashions were about as important to him as Parisian catwalk fashions. He would have been stumped by questions about his sustainability practices and amused at the idea that restaurants would pay big money for imported, out of season ingredients. And yet he practised seasonal cooking, operated a finely tuned waste reduction system and sourced all of his ingredients from local farms or his own garden. And not because it was on trend. He did it because it made sound sense and was integral to cooking well. This was true thirty years ago. It was true three hundred years ago and it remains true now.

Food fashions come and go. By contrast, the basic principles of good cooking may swing in and out of fashion but they have lasting value. Much like my old chef, I know nothing of haute couture but Yves Saint Laurent hit the nail on the head when he said that 'Fashion fades. Style is eternal'. Unlikely as it may seem, there are some happy similarities between the ateliers of the fashion houses and well-run kitchens.

Orkney Beef (PDO)

Knowing where our ingredients come from is at the heart of what we do in L'escargot restaurants. Of course, most restaurants would make the same claim. However, just seeing the provenance label on a piece of lamb, pork or cod is not enough for me. I like to meet the people who catch, raise, grow and harvest the food that we cook in our kitchens.

Which is why, after another anxious flight, I recently found myself on Orkney. I was there to meet local butcher Ali Flett and visit the farms which produce the local beef. You can tell a lot about the way cattle are raised by how they react to a visit. If they panic and run to the other side of the shed that tells you something about how they are treated. By contrast, the cattle I saw on Orkney were inquisitive and would come to us. They were content.

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Ali is part of a consortium which is trying to ensure that Orkney beef retains its Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. You can get the full information on what this means here.

In brief, Orkney beef's PDO status is important because it sets out and protects the regional characteristics which make it unique. It is a combination of the local feed, breed and traditional husbandry techniques which make Orkney beef 'distinctly different in terms of flavour and palatability' from that produced elsewhere in the United Kingdom. 

Surprisingly, the sun was shining during my two days on Orkney but more the usual high rainfall is just one of the Orkney factors that produces the lush grass which the cattle graze on. In other words, it is a taste of the land that produced it.

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If you are disappointed by generic 'Scotch beef' - an almost meaningless label - Orkney beef (PDO) is a premium, sustainable alternative which is rooted in, and the unique product of, a clearly defined geographic area. To qualify for PDO status, Orkney beef must be born, reared and slaughtered in Orkney. The criteria are strictly defined and it can take years to verify those criteria and be awarded PDO status.

And this is where things get difficult. Orkney has a state of the art abattoir which can process 200 head of cattle a day. It is currently doing around 20 a week. Many Orkney farmers are paid a subsidy to have their cattle slaughtered on the mainland.

Beef which is produced in this way loses its PDO status but can still be called Orkney beef. Most consumers do not differentiate between the two and this erodes and chips away at the prestige of PDO status Orkney beef. If consumers don't ask for PDO Orkney beef, demand will fall, Orkney's abattoir will close and the PDO status will be lost for years, perhaps permanently.

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We use Orkney beef (PDO) in L'escargot restaurants because it is an excellent, high quality product with a unique texture and flavour. Having seen the cattle in their byres, I also know that they are raised to the highest standards of animal husbandry.

Just as important is that by using Orkney beef with PDO status we, and our customers, are helping to preserve a unique regional tradition. We are keeping alive and celebrating a way of producing beef which can only be found on Orkney. We think that is worth doing.

We are happy to be corrected but we also think that we are the only restaurant in Edinburgh, perhaps the Central Belt, which is selling Orkney beef (PDO). As a restaurateur, it is always good to be doing something different from other restaurants but, in this case, we would be absolutely delighted if other chefs followed suit and supported Orkney beef (PDO).

Fred goes to Barra Island

My introduction to Barra and its snails came via an unexpected email containing a photo. The picture showed a fat cluster of snails on a fence post against a background of blue skies and a wind-swept beach.

The message accompanying the picture was simple: 'Judging by the name of your restaurants (L'escargot bleu/blanc or the The Blue and White Snail), you probably know what these are and what to do with them.' 

I knew they were petit gris, one of the two types of snails we eat in France. I also knew what to do with them when a sample batch of Barra snails arrived in my kitchen. Slightly salty with faint traces of iodine, they tasted of the land that produced of them and they are fantastic in a beef Bourguignon; delicious in a Gorgie Farm pork terrine and sensational when cooked en papilotte with garlic and butter. 

Although I didn't know him at the time, the person who sent the email was Gerard MacDonald, owner of The Isle of Barra Oyster Company. When not tending his oysters, Gerard had been wondering if there was a commercial use for the abundance of wild petit gris snails which flourished on the calcium-rich machair of Barra. 

Which is why, earlier this year, I found myself sitting in a 12 seater, twin prop plane flying over the west coast of Scotland to the Outer Hebrides. I'm a poor flyer at the best of times and the small aeroplane was doing nothing to calm my nerves. However, as the flight progressed, I gradually unclenched my fists, opened my eyes and peeked out of the window. What struck me most was that we were flying over tiny islands which appeared to have one small farm on them and nothing else. 

It is this remoteness which contributes to the quality of Barra's snails. As Gerard explained to me, after the plane had landed on the beach , the use of pesticides is banned on the island and the naturally growing snails are as clean, pure and toxin-free as can be. 

We found them huddled under stones, sitting in grass, massed on fence posts and even hiding in fence posts. They were everywhere. This was Scotland's natural larder just waiting to be harvested. My restaurants are French restaurants but I am passionate about using the best Scottish produce. Picking them from the machair is as close as you can get to first hand sourcing. 

Why would I buy farmed snails from France or Indonesia (where most of them come from) when I can source them direct from Scottish islands? Buying from Barra supports the island's economy and my restaurant customers love the idea of eating Scottish snails. It's a talking point. 

Similar thoughts struck me the next day when we visited Barra Atlantic, a Barra fish and shellfish processing company. They had bags of beautiful cockles, winkles, razor clams or spoots and langoustines. Many of them already had French labels and were prepped for export directly from the island. Lucky French. And Spanish and Portuguese. 

I would love to be able to use these cockles and winkles in my restaurants and yet, if I ask my supplier to provide such ingredients, I have to order them a week in advance. And there is no guarantee that I will get them. 

On Barra, we watched the cockles being raked from the sands of the beach where our plane had landed. It reminded me of my childhood. My family would go on holiday in the Vendée. My gran, my mother and I would collect cockles at low tide and then eat them that evening. 

Times change and childhood memories don't have much say in international markets. However, it seems wrong that Scottish restaurants must sometimes struggle to source Scottish products.  

The blame certainly doesn't lie with companies like Barra Atlantic. It is up to us to appreciate and use the natural bounty of our fields, seas, mountains and machair. Eating locally and seasonally is sustainable. It cuts air miles, supports local economies and it tastes great. Moreover, when people eat in a restaurant in Scotland, they want to eat Scottish ingredients. That means Scottish spoots and winkles as well as beef, lamb and salmon.  

We have the ingredients. Now we need to take real pride in the food produced here; we need to shout about it and develop our domestic market. 

So, anyone for a Barra snail tartine?

Our clock!

L'escargot Bleu gets a clock

Just like the hands of a clock, what goes around comes around. So when clockmakers James Ritchie & Son, a Smith of Derby company, were called out to build a new external clock for the award-winning Edinburgh restaurant L’escargot bleu, it was like stepping back in time.

It emerged that the restaurant is housed in the clockmaking businesses former home and the projecting clock they were replacing was a James Ritchie original that had stood there for decades.

Fred Berkmiller, Chef Proprietor of L’escargot bleu, said:

“The clock was an important feature of the building and it is something I have been keen to bring back because it’s a piece of beautiful architecture that draws people towards it. For years I’ve wanted to give this iconic structure back to the locals of Edinburgh and it feels great to finally be able to give them exactly what they want.”

Tony Charlesworth, Smith of Derby Technical Sales Engineer, said:

“There’s a fantastic synergy to the job and it will be wonderful to see a new clock back where it belongs to replace the old one. It’s part of the company and the city’s heritage. The former clock stood on the site for decades before it fell into disrepair so building a new one has been a labour of love, as much as it is anything else.”

James Ritchie & Son moved into the premises in Broughton Street in 1965, having previously been based on Leith Street. They left in 2006 and the clock came down at the same time.

Fred Berkmiller opened his first Edinburgh restaurant in 1998 and went on to open L’escargot blanc in the west end. In 2009, he renovated an old clockmaker’s shop on 56 Broughton Street to open L’escargot bleu, a popular bistro steeped in French culture, and earlier this year they won a prestigious AA Rosette for culinary excellence. Both restaurants are renowned for serving a unique collaboration of classic provincial French cuisine with the finest Scottish, seasonal produce.

Slow Food Supper - Monday 13th July

Slow Food Table

On Monday 13th July we will be hosting our first Slow Food Table of a six-month series and this one will take place at L’escargot Bleu on 56 Broughton Street.

After a trip to Barra recently, it seemed only right to concentrate this event on produce from the island with a specific focus on their fantastic snails. Our guest speaker will be Gerard McDonald to whom we have been buying the little delicacy from for years now. Gerard will talk us through the life of an Isle of Barra snail and all about what makes them so special. On the evening we’ll also have a very special performance from Heidi Innes performing a ‘Tribute to Edith Piaf'.

In our eyes this is the perfect way to celebrate Slow Food and Bastille Day (14th July) with friends and family. Great music and authentically French food with lots of garlic, parsley, red wine and a much loved Scottish delicacy.

There’s limited availability so make sure you book your space early.

We look forward to seeing you.

• Table d’hotes all starting at 6.30pm for a 7pm serving
• Cost: £15.00 (£12.50 for Slow Food members). This includes a glass of wine, starter and main course. Dessert or cheese is available at a supplement of £3.00
• Call 0131 557 1600 or email contact@lescargotbleu.co.uk to book



Fred snaps up a Special Award!

We are so delighted that Chef Proprietor, Fred Berkmiller, the face of L’escargot bleu and L’escargot blanc scooped the 'Special Award' at The List’s annual Eating & Drinking Guide Awards 2014. The awards highlight some of the best dining out experiences in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The judges’ Special Award recognises Fred’s commitment and contribution to Scottish food culture as well as his exceptional success with Budding Chefs