Saturday, 22 August 2015

Maple Syrup Wars

Maple Syrup is a well known pancake topping the world over, it's not booze or drugs, it's just sugar.

The sap has been collected from trees, by Quebec families for hundreds of years, to provide an inexpensive supply of sugar syrup for the whole world. Quebec's trees produce 70% of the world's supply, and with the development of plastic piping in the 1970's, farmers have been allowed to tap far more trees, scaling up production. However, this new technology has led to suspicious economics within the industry.

There are approximately 7,400 Quebec farms producing Maple Syrup. The suitable sap only flows when the air temperature rises just above freezing and ends on the first day of warm weather, so predicting the length of production is often impossible. Good old mother nature being unpredictable, meant that the price of the syrup has varied.

So some farmers created co-ops and for many years buyers only took what they needed, leaving producers with the surplus.

Then the  "Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers" was created and in 1990, became the ONLY wholesale seller of syrup production and in 2004, gained the power to decide who gets to make Maple Syrup and how much. It's effectively a cartel, approved by Quebec Provincial Government and backed by Quebec law. The federation also has the right to restrict supply and control prices.

Today, the price of Maple Syrup is 20 to 30 times more than the price of crude oil and farmers can't sell their own syrup to whoever they want, whenever they want at the price they want. The feds set the prices to buyers, effectively controlling world production. To keep prices high, they enforce strict quotas, limit supplies and only release the syrup to maintain stable prices. In 2003, members voted to make the production quotas mandatory, meaning farmers could only sell a certain amount each year.

The Feds hoard  most of the worlds Maple Syrup in a warehouse in Laurierville, Quebec, with a current reserve of 60 million pounds (weight). Throughout the year the syrup is shipped around the world to companies for bottling, flavouring and making sweets.

Under this system, syrup prices have risen and some say has helped farmers have full time employment. They know they are guaranteed a price and guaranteed to sell their production every year. But the Feds can also say when the trees can't be tapped and impose heavy fines on farmers who don't follow the rules.

The control of production and sales has led to battles between the Feds and the farmers. If any farmers are suspected of selling outside of the system, it posts 24 hour guards on their properties and can seize their production. One farmer was fined $278,000 Cdn for not joining the system and for selling to a buyer in Ontario. The Federation even patrol corner shops and small supermarkets, to see if producers, who are allowed to sell only at their farms, have expanded their retail presence.

These crippling fines of domestic systems are now facing scrutiny in a global marketplace. (as has been Canada's refusal to dismantle similar quota systems for dairy and poultry farmers). Some American companies have questioned the Federation's tactics. The American's appreciate the steady supply of syrup, but have issues with the aggressive enforcement, including large fines.

So should it be a free market and free enterprise? The farmers say they should be allowed to set their own level of production and sell directly to large buyers, regardless of the law. This situation could prompt producers and buyers to neighbouring provinces of New Brunswick and Vermont in the States and should consumers buy artificial syrup instead or do the farmers just stop sugaring.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The First War of Scottish Independence 1314

On the 24th June 2014, it will be the 700th anniversary of The Battle of Bannockburn. Robert the Bruce and Edward II collided in the most defining moment in Scottish history. Until then, Scottish Castles were under the control of the English, which meant that they dispensed law and collected taxes, fundamental in the medieval period.  

Long story short, as part of the ongoing military campaign against Scotland,  in 1296, during the reign of Edward I, the Stone of Destiny, used for centuries in the coronation of the Monarchs of Scotland was removed by the English and taken to Westminster Abbey, placed under The Coronation Chair that Edward I had built, known as King Edward's chair, so that all future Monarchs of England were crowned on top of the Stone of Destiny, meaning that Scotland was subject to England. 

Robert the Bruce, the best knight that ever lived, became a guardian of Scotland in 1298, alongside his rival for the Scottish throne, John Comyn. He resigned as guardian in 1300, and in 1304 after the death of his father, Bruce inherited his family's claim to the Throne. In February 1306, Bruce killed Comyn and was then crowned King of Scots on 25th March 1306 at Scone. After the death of Edward I in 1307, Edward II succeeded to the throne, facing a range of challenges to resolve, Scotland being just one of them. 

In March 1309 Bruce held his first parliament and from 1310 to 1313, English held castles and outposts in Scotland were captured one after another. In the spring of 1314, the last castle to remain under Edward II control was Stirling Castle, so Bruce laid siege. The constable had agreed to hand over the castle to the Scots, unless an English force arrived to relieve him by 24th June 1314. 

Edward II along with the largest English army ever, tried to relieve the siege of Stirling Castle. They crossed the border to invade Scotland, only to find that the road to Stirling was blocked by the Scots army, Bruce was waiting for them. Bruce chose his ground carefully, to the south of the Castle. The Scots managed to push them back and won the first day's battle.

Photographer:Tim Hill

The men and the animals were hungry and tired. The diet of the Scots was simple. Venison, bread, grain, oats and black pudding. The sturdy Scots peasants soldiers carried simple swords or long knives that also doubled as eating utensils. The English feasted on mutton, beef, veal, venison, fish, bread, fruit and vegetables. Their food was strongly seasoned with herbs and spices, brought back after the pilgrimages to the holy land by the crusaders. 

Day two, the Scots ate their breakfast and advanced out of the wood to face the enemy. The English were driven back to the burn, the Scots hacked their way into the English army and hundreds of men and horses were drowned, desperately trying to escape. The battle was over, English casualties were heavy and those who fled were captured. Edward II reached Dunbar and the safety of a ship home. The Scots camp followers, who watched the battle from the safety of a position near Gillies Hill, sensing victory, looted the battleground. 

Bannockburn was not the end of the Anglo-Scottish wars. The English absorbed defeat with the fighting continuing until King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, uniting the two countries under a single rule. 

The formal union of England, Scotland and Wales to form Great Britain came in 1707, nearly 400 years later.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

My Mate Marmite

Love it or hate it, Marmite is made from yeast extract, a by product of beer brewing. It is popular with vegetarians, as a meat free alternative to beef extract. It was invented in the 19th century when it was discovered that brewers yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten. It is a sticky, dark brown food paste with a distinctive powerful flavour.  

In 1902, the Marmite Food Extract Company was formed, opening a small factory in Burton on Trent, where is still resides today. The product took it's name from the French term for a large, covered, earthenware or metal cooking pot. The label still has the image of a Marmite. It was originally supplied in earthenware pots, but since the 1920's it's supplied in glass jars.

Since the discovery of vitimins in 1912, yeast was found to be a great source of "B" vitimins. It was included in soldiers ration packs during WWI and became a dietary supplement in prisoner of war camps. 

Many Brits have been weaned on Marmite, but a food inspection agency in Saskatchewan has decided that it is not suitable for Canadian palates. In Canada on January 24, 2014 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency moved to stop the sale of Marmite, as well as Vegemite, Bovril, Lucozade, Penguin Bars, Ovaltine and Irn Bru, because they are enriched with vitimins and minerals which are not listed in Canadian Food Regulations. The agency has said that these products were not a health hazard, but they are not the versions that are formulated for sale in Canada, which meet all the Canadian Food Regulations. The Canadian versions that are compliant formulations of these products will still be permitted to be sold in stores across Canada. 

This led to many irate customers in Canada on Burns Night this year, as they couldn't stock up on Irn Bru to drink to the morning after. I haven't heard of anyone in Britain dying from consuming Irn Bru, have you?

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Scotch Whisky

"Thee Ferintosh! O sadly lost
Scotland laments frae coast to coast"

Photographer: Jeremy Hoare

When the owner of Ferintosh, the famous Scotch Whisky, distilled by Forbes of Culloden, was bought out in 1784, Robert Burns immortalized the sad event in a poem.

Whisky, another gift that Scotland gave to the world, requires the Scottish climate, pure water, rich peat and hundreds of years of experience in the skillful art of distilling. The word itself is derived from the Gaelic "uisge Beatha" meaning the water of life. As time passed "Uisge" became "Usky" then eventually "Whisky". The oldest reference to whisky dates back to 1494, entered into the Scottish Exchequer Rolls. 

The Isle of Arran is the home of "The Robert Burns" Arran single malt, which has been endorsed by The World Robert Burns Federation. It is a light and aromatic single malt, perfect for drinking prior to or during a meal, very fresh with no artificial colouring. 

Scotch Whisky shipments to Canada are worth over £60 million a year, which represents about 20% of all Scottish exports to the market. The EU-Canada trade deal is welcomed by Scottish distillers, as Provincial Liquor Boards in Canada still control the import, sale and distribution of spirit drinks in Canada. The Liquor Boards continue to apply complex fees, to cover costs such as customs clearance. These "cost of service" charges are often higher on EU spirits than competitors, giving their domestic products preferential treatment. Although there is a impressive selection of Scotch Whisky in Canada, the industry still face a number of trade barriers.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Scottish Venison

Venison is Scotland's most iconic species and is considered to be the best in the world. There are four species of Wild Deer, Roe, Red, Sika and Fallow.
Photographer: Harry Williams

The Red Deer is the largest native mammal in the UK and found in upland Scotland. With no natural predators, since the extinction of the wolf, wild deer populations tend to increase and are managed by man. The total wild deer population in Scotland is not known, but they still have to be reduced in some areas, culling generally taking place in the Autumn and Winter months.

The shooting season for the Stags if from July 1st to October 20th and for the Hinds from October 21st to February 15th. Roe Deer live in forests, the season for Bucks is from May 1st to October 20th and Does from October 21st to February 28th. Fallow Deer live in parks and forests, the season for Bucks is from August 1st to April 30th and the Does from October 21st to February 15th. 

Wild Deer is more difficult to cull, but provides vital jobs and supports local communities. They are regarded as a common resource that belong to no-one until they are killed or captured. The right to shoot deer goes with the ownership of the land. Wild Deer is more expensive and has a stronger flavour but is less tender, so it is usually marinated in alcohol to tenderize the flesh. The age of the animal and the hanging time also affect the flavour and the texture of the meat. 

Farmed Venison is killed and processed on site. It is then sold locally at farmers markets, farm shops and on the internet, providing traceability, low food miles and again contributing to rural employment. It also provides a consistent source of venison all year round.   

Venison Pie is a nice alternative to cottage or shepherds pie. 

Serves 4

30ml /1/2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 leeks washed, trimmed and chopped
225g / 8 oz chopped onions
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 kg / 2 1/4 lb minced venison 
300ml / 1 1/2 pint meat stock
1 tspn ground black pepper
1 tspn salt 

1- Pre-heat the oven @ 180C/350F/Gas 4.
2- Heat the oil in the pan over a medium heat.
3- Add the leeks, onions and garlic and cook until soft.
4- Add the venison and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the meat browns.
5- Add the stock and the salt and pepper.
6- Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a low heat, simmering gently for 20 minutes.
7- Prepare the pie topping. Mashed potato mixed with mashed root vegetables can be used. 
8- Transfer the venison mixture into a large ovenproof dish and cover with the topping.
9- Bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until the pie browns.
10- Serve with your favourite vegetables. 

Wednesday, 27 November 2013


St. Andrew, the Patron Saint of Scotland, never actually set foot in Scotland. He was born in Bethesda, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He was a fisherman and a disciple of Jesus and preached around the shores of the Black Sea. He was executed by the Romans and as legend has it, the ship containing his bones, sank off the East Coast of Scotland, en route from Constantinople, near a small settlement soon to become known as St. Andrews. In 1320 the Scots appealed to the Pope for protection against the English Kings. Having St. Andrew as Patron Saint of Scotland, was advantageous as he was the brother of St. Peter, the founder of the Church.
November 30th is now a bank holiday, introduced in 2003. It was passed by the Scottish Parliament on November 29th 2006 and given Royal Assent by Queen Elizabeth II on January 15th 2007. Scottish History, belongs to all of us whose Scottish ancestors have been around for generations. 

Photographer: Peter Cassidy

This Scottish recipe for Cranachan, celebrates the Harvest Festival and can be enjoyed at teatime or as a dessert.

Serves 4

110g / 4 oz oats
1 litre / 1 3/4 pints plain yogurt
250g / 9 oz raspberries
Honey and Drambuie

1- Toast the oats on a baking sheet under the grill.
2- Mix the cooled oats into the yogurt.
3- Gently fold in the raspberries.
4- Spoon into glasses and drizzle the honey and Drambuie over the top.

Cook's Tip
Granola can be used instead of the oats, no grilling required.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013


Foraging for wild food can be fun and this year has been one of the best harvests. There has also been a high demand for wild mushrooms, some species commanding up to £50 a kilo. The fungus is produced above ground in soil and is a low calorie food that can be eaten raw or cooked. Most of the mushrooms sold in supermarkets are commercially grown on mushroom farms. Although some wild mushrooms can be toxic, they can also be used for dyeing wool and natural fibres, but should never be eaten unless you know they are safe.

Photographer: Clive Bozzard-Hill

Mushrooms sponge up all the rot and debris that other plants leave around, so without them nothing grows as it should. Sadly, many woodlands have been plundered by mushroom gangs, who are cashing in on the growing demand for wild mushrooms. Most of the gang members don't know what they are taking and therefore take everything, as someone sifts through them later and throws away what they don't want. This has left Britain's fragile woodlands without a vital part of it's ecosystem. There are virtually no mushrooms left in Epping, Essex and Ashdown forests as the law is still unclear about what can be taken from public land in the UK. Some forestry workers have nearly been killed whilst trying to protect the woodlands. Private landowners have their own set of rules on the amount of produce that can be taken from their land. 

For all amateur foragers, just remember to keep a lookout for large groups of stranger's.