In the basement of a granite townhouse in the centre of Aberdeen, my guide Calum Lockerbie’s voice becomes hushed, bordering on conspiratorial. We’re awaiting the main courses in Amuse, a new fine-dining restaurant by chef Kevin Dalgleish, when Calum leans in and says: “Everyone in here has, is or will work in the oil industry.”
We do seem to be eating oily food, by which I mean cuisine served so perfectly (and priced so expensively) that it’s only likely to be bought regularly by people with extra money in their pockets. There’s east-coast crab and Orkney scallops, local lamb and Aberdeenshire venison. Of course, Aberdeen Angus features, too.
When I think about Aberdeen and wider Aberdeenshire I don’t first think about food. I think about the lickety-split Doric dialect, hard winters and, yes, oil. Ever since huge reserves were first discovered in the North Sea in the 1960s, oil has shaped this region and its people, booming and busting and damaging the environment along the way. Other industries have faded or been pushed out — notably fishing — in order to accommodate the petrochemical business, and while much of the vast fortunes it has generated have been carried away under flags of convenience, a sliver has been left behind to leave its mark in Aberdeenshire, too.
Over three days in the county, most people I meet while touring with tour company Bothies & Bannocks have or have had some kind of experience with the oil industry, including my guides and, to my surprise, several local food producers. On the road out of the city, in Royal Deeside, cheesemaker Alex Reid is an example of someone who’s made, and continues to make, money in the oil industry, but who’s investing in his local area, too.
“Cheese is the future,” he says, explaining that, despite his time working with fossil fuels, he’s actually part of a generational family of cheesemakers — a profession he’s returned to. Despite the long family involvement, his Cambus O’May facility feels very modern — and it’s about to expand.
“It might not happen this year, but if not, then next year we’ll receive 60 dairy cows and take control of the whole process,” says the boss. “This year, we’re going to really grow the cafe and restaurant. That was never supposed to be part of the business plan, but it’s been so popular with people cycling out to this part of Deeside that it just makes sense.”
The signature cheese on offer is a two-day curd, great wheels of which are maturing on racks at the back of the factory. Alex cores one to test its flavour and consistency, before nodding his approval. It has distinctly Scottish characteristics, as does the popular Auld Reekie (a nickname for Edinburgh), which has been smoked over oak chips from old whisky barrels.
The produce in Aberdeenshire often puts its provenance to the fore. Twenty miles west, in the Braemar Chocolate Shop, virtually every chocolate on offer has a Scottish twist, whether that’s Royal Lochnagar whisky or Blue Murder cheese from the Connage Highland Dairy. The nearby Braemar Brewing Company (“More nano- than microbrewery,” says owner Dave Evans) is in the heart of the village and has its brews stocked in just a few shops nearby.
Back towards Aberdeen, on the outskirts of Banchory, farmer Grace Noble, of Aberdeenshire Highland Beef, has never worked in the oil industry, but did start out selling beef “to the oilies”. Today, she manages a herd of 200 cattle — and although most visitors expect to see the globally famous Aberdeen Angus, she exclusively rears Highland cattle. For some visitors, this causes a bit of confusion and even consternation — Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn, but a more logical choice would be the Highland cow, beloved for its emo-fringe, dramatic horns and often ginger hair. “Some people get a wee shock when they find out it’s a beef breed,” says Hazel. “But when they see how the animals are looked after here and the care we take, they become calmer.”
People tend to be less agitated when visiting the nearby Lost Loch Spirits distillery, if not when they arrive then certainly by the time they leave. In recent years, gin schools have become common in Scotland, but this facility on the outskirts of the village of Aboyne offers much more than that. “We’ll help you make anything other than whisky,” says co-founder Pete Dignan, whose company was the first to make absinthe in Scotland, back in 2017. There are schools, tastings and even an option to develop a spirit from conception through to bottling, be that rum, vodka or even another absinthe. I ask Pete what he was doing before he got into this particular business, but I could have guessed: “It’s what I’m still doing now — oil and gas. But this is the plan for getting out. I just need to actually get out now.”
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