The Voice went to visit George Grassie and his team at the Blackwater Bakehouse where they have been baking amazing bread (and other delicious things) for some years now. More recently George, along with Stuart Fraser from the Bay Stores in Whiting Bay, has established the Arran Gin company. An hour spent amongst the floury surfaces and mouth-watering croissants, while tasting the fragrant Gin was an inspiring way to learn about George’s part in Arran’s growing artisan food movement.
George’s energy for both projects – the Arran Gin and his bakery – is apparent immediately and his enthusiasm is contagious as we got stuck into tasting the gin. He began talking about his newest venture, describing in detail the drink’s powerful flavour. George explained that it comes from six main ingredients. “There are six main tastes, big Arran flavours, in the gin. We wanted to capture the flavour of the shoreline; the tastes that are so abundant here, and which are typical of the smells and tastes you might get as you walk around.”
The first one is sea lettuce, foraged on the local shores, which “gives an ocean tang, provides a bit of rock-pool quality”. The second main flavour is Meadow sweet, another abundant plant found on Arran, “a simple weed, with lots of flavour”. This is added to the gin as a dried flower, and provides “the honey and hay overtones, and a smokiness to the drink”. There is also lemon balm, a plant which is easily cultivated here, as well as noble fir shoots, fuchsia flowers and hogweed seeds. The latter comes from the plants you see along the verges and roadsides with bunches of white flowers. This is a flavour much like coriander, and creates a warm spicy taste in the gin. George said, “So these are the six powerhouse flavours, some citrus, some floral, and some spice, and we get them all here in Arran.”
So how did the Arran Gin Company get here? And how ‘local’ is Arran gin? As George explains, gin making has become increasingly popular across Scotland recently, with stills springing up from Islay to Perthshire. But up until last year, there had been none produced on Arran. Stuart Fraser recognised this gap in the Arran food and drink scene, and approached George with the idea. They then called on former Arran resident and foraging expert Mark Williams, “who makes the landscape immediately edible”, for some advice both on gathering Arran plants and seaweeds, as well as on the combination of particular flavours. Like his bread, which George explains has nothing else but water, salt, flour and ferment, the gin has only ‘real’ ingredients.
The group initially experimented with the recipe in small pot stills on Arran, tasting blends as well as single distils, before heading off to the Glenshee Craft Distillery in highland Perthshire, to produce their first 500 bottles. The idea was to make a reasonable amount and test the reaction, before diving head first into gin distilling themselves. At the same time, they were developing the branding, bottles and trademarks of the company, all inspired by the shoreline and landscapes of Arran. The process took 18 months before the gin’s launch a few months ago, and the team are working towards expansion on Arran, including a distillery and visitor centre. And so far, George says, “the response has been huge”.
Perhaps most importantly for George is his understanding of the business. He says, “You’ve got to get it real, and understand the business from the ground up”. While there are purists who believe that ‘local’ refers to every part of the process carried out in situ, from sourcing ingredients to distilling to bottling, the other extreme can see the gin production in London and a Scottish label stuck on the bottle and sold in the north. For the Arran gin team, it made sense to establish the taste with Arran botanicals and work towards distilling on the island.
George has a similar ethos with his bakery, and refers to his baking as “pre-modern”. However in this business, he has to source the “grasses” he uses from beyond Arran. He says “all the grasses are from Britain, and are organic ‘ancient grains’”. There are very few farms and mills today in the UK which cultivate the kind od grains he uses for his bread which include Barley, and Einkorn, “the mother of all wheat’s”, and which are distinctive for their “genetic integrity” and their length of growing time. These grains cultivate for longer than modern high yield cash crops, and then during the baking process the dough ferments for longer as well. The bakehouse build the dough in the evenings to give it a long fermentation time in cool conditions, nothing is sped up, and George says, “The slower you do it the more flavour, texture, taste and health benefits there are”.
At the Blackwater Bakehouse the team make 50 – 60 different types of bread with five standard breads on the menu everyday each week, along with one special. The sourdough remains the most popular, often selling three dozen a day. George has a ‘real’ bread test – if you can sit on a loaf and it springs back into shape, then you know it has been cultivated, fermented, and baked in the right, and ‘real’ way!