Highland & Island Enterprise helps firms in the far north flourish despite logistical problems. Sheila Eggleston reports Worth almost £1bn annually, the Highland & Islands' food and drink output, excluding whisky, is phenomenal. Yet it's still a larder of untapped potential, with a whole spectrum of high quality, niche specialities made from local ingredients which can command premium prices. This is what gives suppliers an edge to combat prohibitive logistics costs, short shelf life, high fuel costs and a strong pound. Responsible for their progress is the government funded development agency Highland & Island Enterprise (HIE), which oversees 10 local enterprise companies. One of its major initiatives is the Food Connections programe. Set up in 1992 to bridge the gap between supplier and buyer, it was designed to attract foreign buyers. The programme has grown and its latest goal is to expand within the UK market. Senior food development manager Kevin Gruer says: "We never find trade missions abroad too successful, but if an individual company wants to target a specific market, we would help with consultancy costs to target that market. Our aim is to see if we can make a difference to bring that small specialist and buyer together," says Gruer. Some companies have deliberately dropped the tartan to widen their profile. "We've left the tartan off our new range of whisky cakes," says joint md Alister Asher, who with his brother George run Ashers Bakery in Nairn. "It's overplayed, and we want to take a different direction." Ashers' main export markets are Ireland and the US, and an Irish whisky variant is planned for both, while its three whisky cakes aimed at the south contain single malt whisky representing Speyside, Highland and Island, wrapped inside an attractive small tin (rsp £3.50-£5). More than half the food companies in the Highlands and Islands are seafood related. With some fish such as cod becoming endangered species, farmed fish is gaining momentum. Aquascot's marketing director Charles Sinclair says: "With all the fish quotas being cut back, farmed fish is everyone's best solution." Everything from the company's 18 farm sites are processed and packed at its plant at Alness. Virtually all its business is own label. Organic salmon, carrying the Soil Association endorsement tag, comes from Orkney. It sells trout under the brand name Loch Etive, grown in the real Loch Etive just outside Glencoe, and turbot under the Mull of Kintyre label. Loch Etive is supplied to Waitrose fish counters as whole fish and Sainsbury as prepacks of chunky trout fillets. Plans for turbot include a range of prepacked turbot fillets and steaks to be launched later this year, and some ready to cook recipes for 2001. Also new are microwaveable fish and sauce ready meals under the Waitrose label. This summer the company has majored on barbecue products such as spicy salmon burgers. One aspect of npd it is keen to develop is returnable packaging. Sinclair says: "We are working on new packaging. It has to be secure, tamperproof and visible, but fish doesn't have to go on a plastic tray." Sinclair advocates joining the Euro to improve business. "We are doing more business in the UK but we we want to do more in Europe. We have three products ­ breaded and skewered lines, and burgers which we hope to develop with Delhaize in Belgium, and also in France. There is potential there but the main issues are the strong pound and cheap Norwegian products." Distribution is not an issue with Aquascot. It uses local transport companies, and has high hopes of retail inter-links being introduced by the multiples. "If there's a glitch, we will see it at the same time as the retailer. Waitrose is about to launch its retail data system and we are keen to trial it." Orkney the brand is becoming a reality. With £2m backing from the EU, Orkney's marketing strategy headed by John Clarke of Orkney Enterprise has paid off. The island's food and drink, excluding whisky, accounts for over £40m and is the second strongest revenue after oil. Orkney Salmon's marketing manager Cameron Stout believes bringing the buyers up underscores the problems of delivery. "If we told them the weather was too bad to make a delivery, they probably wouldn't believe us. But seeing is believing." Pressures from the strong pound have affected the export market, but Stout is also scathing about the different standards operated in Europe. Orkney Salmon has a turnover of around £5m and is more value than volume business. It produces organic salmon via five Orcadian farms. Its salmon is usually found on supermarket fish counters, but more portion packs are being produced. "Sainsbury wanted portions with fixed weight because they said they would sell more, and they did," says Stout. Two years ago it started gutting fish for Marks & Spencer and the trend caught on. But whereas it used to be done by hand, its new machine can gut and fillet six in a minute. Think of herring and roll mops leap to mind. But Orkney Herring has given herring a fillip by blending it with delicate sweet sauces such as juniper, madeira, sherry, mustard, honey and dill and putting it into 280g and 500g pots for retail. A recent boost to sales has been a Stromness doctor's prescription of portions of the Omega-3 enriched fish to heart patients. The company's herring comes from Denmark and is marinated for 10 days at Stromness. Most of md Ken Sutherland's ideas have come from Denmark right down to the machinery for automated lidding and filling containers, a job currently done by hand. He says: "The dry onions we use come from India but the idea for that came from a friend in Denmark. Our salmon recipes, too, came from a Danish tip." Its salmon, however, is local from Orkney Seafood. Recipes include chunks of salmon in champagne and Marie Rose sauce. The business is now worth £1.6m in the UK and supplies all the multiples except Asda and Somerfield. All products are Beth Din and EFSIS approved. Partnerships and co-operation between the island companies help to maintain and sustain jobs in these communities. Castle MacLellan Foods' partnership with Orkney and Shetland continues. Its herring pâté comes courtesy of Orkney Herring, its crab pâté from the Orkney Fishermen's Society, and its fish soup from Shetland Seafood Specialities. "Logistics hasn't created the problem we thought it might," says md Colin Walden. "We've just got through our first winter and only missed one ferry, but it does add to the cost. However, the cost of flying is prohibitive, so it can only go by ferry which means we receive product within 48 hours." {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}