Monday, 9 June 2014

Finzean - a family affair

One of our tour destinations for IFAJ 2014 is Finzean Estate, here's a feature I did on the family and the place.

Sitting in Finzean Estate's Tearoom looking out over the valley, you fully understand why the Gaelic for it is 'the fair place', and why so many of the residents remain to trace their ancestry back to this land and this timeless place.

Nestled in the Grampian hills, eight miles from Banchory, Finzean Estate has been in the Farquharson family since 1580. Throughout its history, the family have always had an active involvement in the running of the land, which totals 4,000 hectares of farmland, hill and woodland, 40 properties - including holiday lets - and seven very long-term tenanted farms.

In the 400 plus intervening years, the estate has had to evolve and modernise to make sure that it remains financially viable. Finzean is now run as a partnership consisting of two brothers Donald and Andrew Farquharson . Andrew who works on and manages the Estate, says that, common to many Scottish estates, the fortunes of the family have ebbed and flowed over the centuries but, from the mid nineteenth century the lairds contributed greatly to the prosperity and community spirit of the valley.

This sense of community is something that still drives the Finzean valley, as well as many of the estate decisions. On their land the Farquharsons have established sheltered housing, low cost housing sites for young people and leasing community woods and pathways as a local amenity. The estate's award-winning Farm Shop and Tearoom also employs people from the valley.

During the stalking and fishing seasons Finzean's hills and river beats on the Feugh and Dee are opened up to paying guests, as well as those who live and work on the estate. These managed, wild areas are home to over 120 species of birds and many other insects and invertebrates.

Produce from its farms and hills supply the Farm Shop and Tearoom - and much of the other foods and gifts sold are sourced from suppliers within a 30 mile radius of its doors.

For an off-the-beaten track location, the 200 plus customers a day is impressive, but unsurprising given the family's foresight to include a Post Office counter, daily newspapers and have opening hours of 9am-5pm, seven days a week. It employs 24 local people.

However, according to Catriona, Andrew's sister-in-law, it's the little extras which keep people coming back - like the daily draw of homemade bread, the tasty and inexpensive menu and the staff's quest to keep the doors open, whatever the weather.

The simplicity of the food served and sold is based on seasonal and local.

"We sell venison shot on Peter Hill and butchered on the estate, rabbit and game birds – mostly pheasants, but also pigeon, duck and grouse," says Catriona Farquharson. "The prime cuts of venison always sell first – the loin and fillet - but the haunch and mince are also popular.  Rabbits are prepared whole but skinned and the birds are all sold oven ready, whole or breasted."

Home-produced beef from the home estate's 165-cow suckler herd is slaughtered in Inverurie and sold through the shop and Tearoom. The herd is predominantly grass and barley-fed Simmental, Limousin or Aberdeen Angus.

Catriona adds that the rest of their produce is sourced from small scale, mostly rural producers, who have the "same principles and ethos as us." These include artisan cheesemakers, fruit and vegetable growers, a local brewery and pork from a local farmer. 

"We also produce our own Finzean Estate venison, beef, chutneys and preserves, home baked bread and cakes as well as a range of artisan ready meals.  We also sell various deli products, plus a range of books many by local authors and a small range of gifts, cards and paintings."

Andrew's wife, Kate, partners Catriona in the Farm Shop and Tea Room. She explains that the menu in the Tearoom is little changed since it was opened at Easter, 2006.

"At the heart of the menu we use our own home reared beef, wild venison and game, creating proper homemade, tasty meals.  We cook breakfasts to-order and serve traditional afternoon teas from 3.30pm."

The firm menu favourites are Andrew and Donald's Mum, Alison's, Victoria sponge, of which around 3,000 slices are sold a year. "Our other top sellers are the Finzean Quiche of the day, homemade Finzean Beef or Venison burger served in a homemade roll, and a simple bowl of soup with a sandwich."

Service and food has won them a number of awards. "We are a VisitScotland 4 star shop and VisitScotland Taste our Best Quality Assured, we won the Trend Magazine Award  for  fine dining in the tea room category in 2010 and 2012 and were one the last three national finalists in the ‘Taste of Scotland’ category at the Scottish Thistle Awards in 2007.  In addition, we were voted a Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence 2013 winner."

Looking ahead to the estate's future, Andrew Farquharson says that they have three core philosophies driving their decisions and management - the local community, managing and maintaining the Scottish countryside and championing Scottish food and tourism.

"We are lucky to live in a particularly active community where the residents feel very much part of Finzean and that is what makes this part of Deeside so special. Key to our future is that we have a duty to keep our countryside beautiful and allow access for others to enjoy it, which is something we take very seriously and will preserve for generations to come."

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