New technology, innovative ingredients and second-to-none prime produce are taking the Scottish food and drink industry from strength to strength.

With over 48,000 jobs provided by food and drink companies and sales up at the £4.6 billion mark, Scotland's food and drink companies play a crucial role in the country's economy. Export of our world-famous shellfish, game and other foods is worth £500 million alone. What makes all this so interesting is that mostly these companies are not large-scale producers churning out massive quantities of processed products, but smaller, niche enterprises, often family-run, supplying high quality goods using local specialist ingredients.

And the winner is. . .

The 'Edible Oscars', more commonly known as the Scottish Food and Drink Excellence Awards are judged each May. The diversity and imaginative presentation of many of the entrants couldn't fail to impress. Sponsored by Scottish Enterprise, these prestigious awards exist to promote the industry and add commercial value to winning products. Past winners have faced stiff competition. Dundee company, Highland Game, package their top-of-the-range gourmet product in a special presentation box, their choice of wild venison encapsulates the growing global trend for healthy, high quality, authentic produce that is nurtured (and can be traced) 'from hill to table'.

Sweet somethings

A past champion of the Dairy, Confectionery and Snacking Category (can't have been hard to find judges for that one), is the flamboyantly named Orange and Passionfruit Vibrant. Created by Mackie's of Scotland, this is a unique sherbet-like sorbet/ice cream hybrid which is 95% fat free. The icing on the cake (as it were) is the drop of 'heart wings' orchid flower essence intended to relieve stress all part of Mackie's 'Good Mood Food' brand. Things have certainly come a long way since Mr Whippy, and indeed Mackie's, still run as a family firm, has established itself as Scotland's leading independent ice cream retailer, using only fresh cream and milk from their own Jersey herd. Those further afield can also indulge themselves Mackie's has signed an exclusive deal to supply its naughty-but-nice treats to lucrative markets in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea (in 2002 Mackie's was the official ice cream for the World Cup).

Closer to home, the humble shortbread biscuit has been given a facelift by Dean's of Huntly, also based in Aberdeenshire. The origins of the business lie with Mrs Helen Dean who started to bake traditional shortbread to raise funds for the Huntly Pipe Band in 1971. As demand grew, she set up a small bakery in town and eventually moved to a purpose-built factory. While still made to a basic family recipe, the new varieties entered for the Food and Drink Awards were mouthwatering, and a far cry from the gritty, tooth-cracking biscuits that are sometimes passed off as shortbread. Apple Crumble, Raspberry and Oatmeal, Orange Marmalade and Oatflake, plus Lemon Curd and Oatflake, are the four flavours that won the Bakery section prize and once again, these are finely packaged and aimed at the 'time poor, money rich' consumer who wishes to treat a friend or indulge themselves probably by scoffing the lot.

Posh nosh

As more and more stately homes and castles are forced to diversify into commercial areas to maintain their family seats, often with huge success (south of the border the Duchess of Devonshire's product range and shop at Chatsworth is one example), some of Scotland's oldest families are following suit. Buccleuch Heritage Foods, past winners of the Preserve and Pickle category, were launched at the 2003 Royal Highland Show and are testament to the Buccleuch family's aim of creating hand-crafted foods from their own farms and small, specialist producers using local ingredients across Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders.

The world's your oyster

And what of shellfish? With a massive 50% of Scottish food export revenue coming from seafood, crustaceans are not forgotten at the Scottish Food and Drink Awards. A past winner of Best New Product for Export combined technical know-how with one of Scotland's finest native species. The Scottish Shellfish Marketing Group rose to the challenge of a Swiss supermarket chain who wanted pre-packed oysters for the chilled cabinet. Not that much of a challenge you might think, except for the fact that these were no ordinary oysters. They had to be live, if not actually kicking. After experimenting with packaging and the right conditions to ensure the oysters remained rather more than fresh for at least 7 days, the shellfish are now providing a taste of Scottish waters for discerning Swiss diners - a tribute to ingenuity and modern transportation.

Fruity facts

The days of swallowing a spoonful of cod liver oil or swallowing expensive capsules could be over with the introduction of our final featured prizewinner: the aptly named Supajus which has previously won the Healthy Eating award. Made from 50% orange juice, the drink contains the added nutritive ingredient Omega-3 DHA, found naturally in oily fish. Research has shown that Omega-3 is an essential building block for healthy functioning of the brain and nervous system and has been shown to prevent several disorders including children's behavioural and learning disorders. The Think Drink, as Supajus is subtitled, was formulated by NP Biotech in Ayr and is produced by The Natural Fruit and Beverage Company in Coatbridge. It's Europe's first Omega-3-enriched drink.

It's like, so haggis

Research of a different kind has resulted in haggis-deprived Americans being treated to the real thing. Stahly Quality Foods, based in Glenrothes, were convinced there was a market for their product but the tight meat import controls in the States made conventional export impossible. Establishing a production facility in Chicago means that tinned traditional Scottish haggis, plus a vegetarian version, are now on US shelves. Connoisseurs of the Stahly version of the chieftain o'the puddin-race include explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell, who regularly takes supplies on his global expeditions when he hosts makeshift Burns Suppers in far-flung places like Panama.

The Scottish Food and Drink Awards show how flair and innovation are more than just buzzwords. Scotland's magnificent larder is being brilliantly plundered by skilled producers who will accept and supply only the very best.

Interested in finding out more about Scotland's food and drink industry? Find out more here.

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