RONNIE EUNSON: the sheep farmer

In articles on October 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Ronnie runs Uradale Farm on Shetland and agreed to an interview to appear in Fork Magazine. While we were planning to get up to Uradale during a visit to the islands, it never quite happened and so I ended up interviewing Ronnie on the phone when I got back to Bristol. He was a very easy person to chat to and clearly very passionate about his business. The photo was sent over by Ronnie.

“Well, yesterday was very nice, but today is damp again,” Ronnie sighs in an accent owing as much to Scandinavia as Scotland. “The wind is supposed to go southerly which should make things a bit milder. We’ve just finished the sheering but now we have to reseed a number of fields where the crops have failed. It’s only barley as that’s all that’ll grow this late on. We’ll cut it green and use it to bulk up the silage.” Uradale Farm covers 750 hectares of heather moorland near Scalloway, the ancient capital of Shetland. It’s been a strange year for farming on the islands. The weather hasn’t co-operated and when you only have a hundred growing days, every one counts. The farm is home to 700 Shetland ewes and 30 Shetland cows. Alongside feeding and tending the livestock, Ronnie takes care of the farm and is chairman of the local mart and abattoir, which is run as a co-op for the local community. “Nowadays my sons help, but the days are still long and hard.”

Uradale didn’t land in Ronnie’s lap. It was only through a combination of hard work and determination that he got his land. “Farms don’t come up for sale very often in Shetland,” he tells me, “I studied in Edinburgh and came home during the oil boom. I took construction jobs and saved my pennies to buy crofts and bits and pieces of land. I ended up being a conventional producer for the area, selling livestock to be raised in Aberdeenshire. The only other source of income was farming subsidies.” But as time went by, making a living got harder. In 2000, Shetland lambs were virtually unsellable and things hit a real low. After having worked so hard, for so long, the only option Ronnie had was either to give it all up or change drastically.

Uradale went organic in stages from 2000 to 2006, starting with a separate unit on the western edge of the farm where the sheep could be converted as quickly as possible. “The organic system was designed for a longer growing season so compliance wasn’t easy,” Ronnie tells me, “we have far fewer choices and relying on clover for all your nitrogen puts you at the mercy of the weather. The markets don’t care if it goes wrong.” Ten years ago, no-one wanted ‘inferior’ Native Shetland meat but by focussing on its benefits, Ronnie changed the markets’ minds. “We’ve been involved in extensive scientific research to show how much better for you our product is, with much higher levels of healthy fats than conventional red meats. We supply Lidgates of London with lambs and beef every September now. More recently, we’ve been spinning our own Native Shetland organic wool. It’s the only one of its kind on the market. I’ve been invited to address the Food Writers’ Guild and our lamb has won two gold medals at Smithfield.” It was growing up around his father’s butchery business in Lerwick that gave Ronnie the insight he needed to change. “Seeing things from the point of view of the end product – the meat – and the consumer gave me a different perspective.”.

When I ask Ronnie if he regrets having to go organic, there is no hesitation. “My focus is on sustainable agriculture that’s embedded in its own ecosystem. It sounds lofty, but I feel I’m doing something worthwhile rather than just chasing after daft subsidies.” The bureaucracy involved in running an organic farm in the EU is prestigious, but Ronnie demonstrates remarkable patience given the frustrations. “The detail of the regulation here is sufficiently inappropriate to make me want to change certain aspects of it,” he explains, “up here, things can be a bit different. The rationale of having a farming system that doesn’t rely on artificial inputs is a good one but it should work in the Arctic Circle if needs be, not just in kinder climates. Only flexibility will make things really sustainable.” A case in point, the once-flourishing Shetland dairy industry has been reduced to just three farms. “They’ve done their bit and followed principles of ‘good farming’, but they’re clinging on by their fingernails. All it takes is for Tesco to import cheaper milk from mainland Scotland and their feet are cut from under them. We live in a very centralised country and Edinburgh is just as far away as London is in terms of understanding our problems. Islands mould people into different beings. If you get the chance to go to Fair Isle you’ll see what I mean. It’s a really unique community out there and much more on the wild side of things.”

I ask Ronnie if he could imagine living anywhere other than Shetland and there is a long pause. “Oh that’s difficult,” he chuckles, “maybe Norway if I could get used to the trees? You get a bit stifled with all the regulations and inspections here. Over there, they seem to have a healthier balance between control and encouraging people to do good things.” Finally, I ask Ronnie what he would change if he had a magic wand. His answer is both humbling and sums up the attitude behind his success. “Oh, I never believed in magic wands. I try not to think in terms of lucky finds or treasure troves because what you do and achieve is down to your own efforts. Simply wishing things could change means you’re not accepting reality. If you can’t cope with reality, you’re in the wrong game.”

This interview is an extract from issue 25 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

SKIP WHALEY: the journeyman.

In articles on July 22, 2012 at 10:50 am

Skip is my friend John’s dad. I know John from my time living in Tokyo back around the turn of the millennium. I was looking for someone to interview as part of a series for Fork magazine, where this interview was first published in issue #24. Skip lives in South California so this interview was carried out, after quite a few tech fails, over Skype.

Skip Whaley

The Great Food Revival. We hear about it all the time with the next up-and-coming chef reinvigorating another traditional skill. I’ve become more and more curious about who they’re learning these skills from, so over the next year, I’ve decided to find out. I’ll meet six people, food veterans, if you will, who have worked in their chosen trade for my whole life or longer. 1975 is the line drawn in the sand and an idea takes shape.

I found my first, Skip Whaley, through an old friend John who I haven’t seen in over a decade due to the tyrannies of geography. “My dad worked as a meatcutter all his life,” John told me, clearly excited about seeing his dad in print, “he must have started way before 1975.” Skip lives in deepest Southern California, but after much concerned checking of timezones and some technological hiccups, we settle down for a chat.

“It was 1961 when I started out in the meat business as a clean-up boy. I was 15,” Skip has a honeyed Californian accent that makes me feel self-consciously British, “I moved on to Country Boy Market a couple of years after and learnt to break beef. Dad and granddad both sold poultry across Southern California. They knew a lot of people and got me an ‘in’ at Stater Brothers in October ’66.”

Stater’s is a family-run, Southern Californian grocery store that started trading in 1935 and is still going strong. Skip worked there until retiring 9 years ago.

“I drove 45 miles each way in my old Renault,” Skip chuckles, “gas was only 18¢ a gallon so the round trip cost me 86¢. Driving that far would cut deep into your pocket these days. We still live miles from anywhere – it’s two miles of dirt track just to get to our mailbox. I had experience but still, I had to start as a union apprentice and couldn’t cut anything without a trained journeyman present. Stater’s and a store called Michael’s were the only places with a meat counter and they still have the slogan ‘It’s the meat that made us famous’ up over the counter today. Get the first cut wrong and you have to re-cut every piece, so we went to school once a week to learn the trade and how to make the most profit out of every cut. Every one of us had the skills to start up his own business.” I ask Skip if he was ever tempted to go it alone. He pauses. “Well, sure I was. There was a time back in the 80s when we had the idea of a restaurant with a meat counter – choose your cut and we’ll cook it for you. It’s been done successfully since but the truth was, the hours would have been long, the pay would have been too little and the risks would have been high. Looking back, I chose well.”

Over the years, Skip worked his way up to backroom journeyman, taking on the responsibilities of the manager when he was away. “The stores changed drastically over the years,” he tells me, “when I first started, we put sawdust down at the beginning of the week and picked it up at the end of the week. We raked particles out of it daily, so I guess it was semi clean!” he laughs. “In the 70’s, sawdust became concrete and wooden blocks were replaced with fibreglass. Now you spray everything down after every job, maybe five, six times a day. The job’s changed too.” Skip describes a process of consolidation with the small, highly-skilled onsite teams gradually replaced with general clerks and skilled workers concentrated into large off-site warehouses. “Put a skilled breakman out in the warehouse and replace him with a clerk and things get hectic. It’s tough! In my later years, I did the early shifts from 5am till 2pm. I was in before it got busy, did all my cuts and cleaned down my area before lunch. Then I could make sure everyone got home on time. We worked as a team and Stater’s runs a tight ship.”

Skip has a self-effacing manner and I wonder if he considers himself an expert. “Yeah, I probably do, but I’m still learning. If you’re neat and tidy and work well together, it all falls into place.” He pauses, “You know, the most gratifying thing is training someone with a great work ethic who makes it to backroom man. I’ve learnt a trick or two from some of those young guys but it’s good to impress them every once in a while.” He laughs, “‘Oh look!’ they think, ‘this old guy can do something in 45 minutes that takes me 90!'”

I ask Skip if he ever got sick of all that meat but he answers ruefully, “I’m not supposed to have red meat any more but I just love a BBQ. At Thanksgiving, I cook a 20lb turkey if the kids are about. I recommended allmy sons to follow in my footsteps but they got smart on me and went to college,” the pride in his voice is palpable. “Sometimes, I walk up to the counter at Stater’s and say ‘You know, I used to be a meatcutter,'” I can hear Skip’s eyes twinkle all the way from Southern California as he anticipates his punchline, “and they sigh, ‘Yeah Skip, we know'”

We say goodbye and I’m left with the impression of a kind and humorous man who firmly believes in a right and a wrong way of doing things. It strikes me that it takes a vast amount of dedication to devote a lifetime to a trade and I realise I’ll be meeting a group of people with that very special something in common.

This interview is an extract from issue 24 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

BECCA ROSE: mayonnaise queen

In articles on July 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

This article for Fork Magazine came about during the very first Full Moon Feast – our bring-your-own-and-share full moon supper that we hold every month in a different location in Bristol. Becca was so generous on the day, made us a lovely meal that we ate in some unexpected sunshine in her garden. The original article was called ‘amayonnaising’ which was Becca’s idea and we took a stack of photos that didn’t make it into the magazine. We talked about so much more than mayonnaise and she’s another most wanted to reinterview and dig a little deeper.

becca rose chopping

I don’t notice the jam jar on the table at first, such is the hustle and bustle of our monthly bring-a-dish, welcome-one-and-all supper. Imagine my delight when I realise what it contains.

Home. Made. Mayonnaise!

O mayonnaise! I could go into raptures about you! Floppily languid stuff, sliding off my spoon with the suaveness of a confidence trickster I don’t mind being conned by. Oily dictator in my fridge, imposing yourself with impunity on every culinary choice I make, turning yesterday’s pizza or lasagne into the perfect breakfast (yes, really) and making even iceberg lettuce edible.

I open the jar and spoon some of the happy wonderful creamy contents onto my plate. It’s a perfect 3.5 on the mayonnaise scale, the loose slippery yellow stuff being a 1 and Helman’s Mr Whippy weirdness at a queasy 10. One taste, and I lurch to my feet. “Who made this?!” I demand, brandishing my oversize silver spoon and swooning from the jar’s slight garlic whiff. A shuffle follows the silence and Becca Rose, renowned for the best tortilla española in Bristol and puppeteer extraordinaire, steps forward, chin defiantly aloft. “I did,” she says, “what of it?”

“Teach me!” I proclaim, fervour burning in my eyes.

So, just a few days later, I find myself in Becca Rose’s sunny kitchen, notebook at the ready. Verduras a la plancha are already prepared while shrimp and squid wait to make acquaintance with some hot oil and garlic. One of those famous tortillas taunts us from under a square of kitchen paper.

“I first learnt to make mayonnaise 10 years ago from a French chef named Bruno,” Becca tells me as she assembles the ingredients. “I use this,” she pats a blender that would do Wallace and Grommit proud. “You can make it with just a fork, but I prefer it a bit firmer.” She cracks an egg into the basin. “Don’t think you can double the ingredients and make twice as much,” she tells me, “it doesn’t work. If you want more, you just have to make it twice.” Next comes a clove of garlic, crushed, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and a tablespoon of Sherry vinegar. “A friend’s mother in Valladolid made the most amazing mayonnaise – and she made it with pure olive oil! Usually, if you make mayonnaise with just olive oil, it tastes horrible. But with Sherry vinegar, it’s a thing of beauty.”

There’s something arcane about mayonnaise making. As everyone who has ever tried it knows, sometimes, despite getting the ingredients right, getting the process perfect, even clutching your lucky rabbit’s foot won’t make it right. Sometimes the damn stuff just won’t emulsify.

“It happened to me once,” Becca’s face is haunted, “I knew it was coming. I was in Toulouse and I offered to make mayonnaise and then before I knew it, there were five people watching me!” With some cause then, Becca’s hand trembles as she flicks the switch. I gird my loins and pour the oil. As more and more oil goes in, we peer inside, waiting. Then, about a quarter of the bottle in, it happens! The consistency isn’t quite right yet, it’s too slithery, but there is no denying that we have emulsification. I realise I haven’t been breathing. I add yet more oil. The oil content of mayonnaise is prestigious – for a jar of mayonnaise, you need about a jar of oil. Many people lose their nerve and scarper off to buy a ready made jar instead, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory – there’s just as much oil in shop bought mayo. And, of course, it’s shop bought.

We taste and adjust, adding a little more of everything until neither egg, oil, vinegar nor mustard predominate. Each flavour is subsumed into the totalitarian state of amayonnaisingness.

Of course, we sit in the sunshine. Of course, the tapas are amazing. Of course, it is one of those days when you leave, hugs akimbo, all effusive with thanks and all aflush with wonderful memories. Of course it is. With mayonnaise that perfect, what could possibly go wrong?

Becca Rose’s Amazing Mayonnaise

  • Add one whole egg, white and all, to the basin
  • Add a perfect clove of garlic, crushed
  • Add one teaspoon of Dijon mustard
  • Add a generous tablespoon of Sherry vinegar
  • Breath deeply, be brave, commence blending
  • While blending the ingredients, pour in a steady stream of sunflower oil
  • Suppliment the sunflower oil with olive oil if desired
  • Cross fingers until emulsification happens
  • Continue blending and adding oil until the mayonnaise is thick enough to cling to the sides of the basin
  • Add more vinegar, garlic or mustard until desired taste is achieved

Though heaven knows how they make it last that long, it is said that fresh mayonnaise will keep in the fridge for up to one week.

This interview is an extract from issue 23 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.