GLASGOW – Inver Restaurant is just one point on Scotland’s longest marine lake. From its windows, a guest can see the remains of a 15th century castle and the rolling Highland hills, but the star is not the view. It’s a meaty halibut head that chef Pam Brunton grills on wood and finishes with melted homemade nduja and a tangle of grilled green onions.
The small halibut she butchered were raised in sea-fed pens on Gigha Island, a nearby community island whose farmed halibut have become the darling of people who care a lot about where their fish come from and shellfish.
Ms Brunton, who could be Alice Waters’ Scottish niece, runs Inver with her partner, Rob Latimer. The small restaurant and hostel is about 110 km from Glasgow, where in November heads of state including President Biden, thousands of diplomats and a flood of environmental activists like Greta Thunberg gathered for COP26, the United Nations World Climate Conference.
Mrs Brunton’s halibut heads may not seem like much protection against the catastrophic effects of fossil fuel and methane emissions, but a group of cooks and diners here say putting sustainable Scottish seafood in the plate is at least a tangible (and delicious) part of moving towards a better planet. The change is moving away from fins and crustaceans whose populations are threatened by climate change or harvesting practices.
âThis is all part of a gradual change,â Ms. Burton said in an interview before participating in a panel on food waste, hosted by the New York Times Climate Hub, which coincided with COP26. âRestaurant Inver won’t change a thing in its lifespan, but I hope we’re helping the current move in that direction, not that direction. We change the flow.
Guy Grieve of the Ethical Shellfish Company on the Isle of Mull views his work in the same light. He brings hand-harvested Scottish scallops, rope-grown mussels, and creel-caught crab and scampi to city cooks in Britain.
In 2010, Mr Grieve began diving for scallops in the waters of western Scotland. His catch – with six-inch-diameter shells and muscle-attached orange egg croissants – went to restaurants whose chefs didn’t want to sell scallops dredged from the ocean floor using methods that reduce their population and ruin marine habitats.
âWe try to pick the apples in the garden without trampling on the flowers,â he said.
When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, restaurants in Britain closed. Mr. Grieve and his fellow divers on other boats have gone from about 10,000 scallops per week to zero. He had to sell his fishing boats. To earn money, he started helping other divers sell their catch in any market he could find.
A promising market, to his delight, was home cooks in Edinburgh. Although catering is back, his company still delivers around 50 boxes of scallops to individuals, each order carefully wrapped in sheep’s wool for insulation.
These customers are only an indication that the number of Scottish cooks and diners who care about where their fish comes from is increasing, he said.
Part of the allure is the romance of the food of Scotland’s west coast, where Scottish kings are buried and Scotland’s first Celtic church was built around AD 563.
âIt’s a really attractive place for people who want to stock up on food,â he said. “In people’s minds, you bring them stuff from their dream land.”
But the health of the climate and the environment also matters.
âThere is a certain degree of outrage going out, and it’s great,â he said. âUnfortunately, there is an endless tide that will never stop and it’s called greed. All we can do is create a little diversion.
Seafood is Scotland’s largest food export. Almost 400,000 tonnes were landed in 2020. This does not include wild salmon, which is no longer commercially fished anywhere in Britain. Scotland, however, is the third largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon. Langoustine, hail, delicate compared to lobster, is the most precious catch; more than two-thirds of the world’s supply comes from Scottish waters.
Before Britain’s separation from the European Union, or Brexit, most Scottish seafood went straight to markets like Spain and France. The Brexit red tape has made European trade extremely difficult and the local Scottish and UK markets more attractive.
But getting seafood – especially niche products like Mr. Grieve’s scallops or Gigha’s halibut – into home cooks’ kitchens is always a challenge, said Rachel McCormack, writer and food animator based at Glasgow.
“The difficulty of promoting Scottish fish in Scotland is a very big topic,” she said. Scottish fishmongers are few in number. “Supermarkets have a stranglehold on the food supply and are not interested in Scottish fish unless it is cheap farmed salmon.”
Mrs McCormack’s two favorite things in Scottish waters are the Gigha halibut, which she roasts with salsa verde made from capers, parsley and cilantro, and the langoustine, which she bakes in butter, l ‘garlic, ginger and white wine, then works its way through’ with bread and scampi tongs that I bought in Spain.
She sends visitors to Crabshakk looking for a restaurant with lots of Scottish seafood. Architect John Macleod and his wife, Lynne Jones, opened the cozy two-level restaurant in what was then a desolate part of town, in 2009, when the economy was collapsing and most of the fish in the restaurants was covered in dough.
It was an instant hit and has remained so popular that the couple plan to open a second outpost in West Glasgow early next year.
Over an espresso, Mr. Macleod explained that he constantly adjusts his menu according to the climate. The conversation followed a long lunch featuring scallops from the waters around North Uist Island, sizzling in anchovy butter and crab cakes made from Scottish brown crab mounds. He grew up on the Isle of Lewis, part of the ancestral homeland of the Highland Clan MacLeod, on the far reaches of Scotland’s west coast, where almost everyone he knew worked in the fishing industry.
âThe cod was in my bones and right down to my fingernails and fingernails,â he said.
He is specific about what he likes. It still serves wild halibut because it prefers the firmer flesh, but it will most likely replace Scottish cod with hake, the fishing for which is less demanded. Its chefs have dedicated themselves to finding more uses for all parts of the fish.
“We don’t just take it and ‘what is it’,” he said of the environmental impact, “but it’s not as easy as people could imagine him feeding people in high volume and being there with every single product on the menu being as sustainable as possible.
But the pressure is mounting, especially from a new generation of eaters who care both about what’s on the plate and how it got there.
“It’s a new day,” said Ruaridh Fraser, 24, who serves tables at Crabshakk. âPeople have fear in them now. “