Joanna Blythman investigates what's on the plate at Macdonald Hotels.

It's fashionable for hotels to boast about the quality of food they serve, but delve into the detail of food sourcing practices that are common throughout the hotel industry, and such claims often turn out to be over-egged, sometimes little more than marketing spin.

But when Macdonald Hotels promises to serve you "good honest, simple food from great ingredients" it really does take this mission to heart. Whether you check in to a Macdonald hotel as a guest, or come for a conference, or any function from a wedding to graduation party, you will be served food that genuinely represents the highest benchmark standard for ethics, taste and food quality set by any hotel group in the UK.

The motivation comes right from the top of this Scottish, family-controlled business. Macdonald Hotels was created by chairman Donald Macdonald, a soft-spoken, gentle Hebridean from the beautiful Isle of Harris off Scotland's West Coast. Donald was brought up in a crofting family, which has left him with an enduring love for well-produced, natural food, a love that still drives the UK-wide hotel collection he has built. "Throughout my Harris childhood, Mum baked twice a week and we grew everything we ate. We used only natural methods: the traditional method of growing crops in rotation and leaving the land fallow to recover every seventh year. We never used chemical fertiliser, only seaweed and manure from our animals."

One of the most influential strands of Donald's upbringing was a strong feeling for farm animal welfare. "As a crofter, my father passed down to me a real love for animals. He taught me respect for nature and the need to look out for animals as they can't defend themselves" Donald explains. It's this principle that now underpins his hotels' buying policies.

If, for instance, you order chicken in a Macdonald hotel, you can be 100 per cent sure that it is from a fresh, free-range bird. Standard hotel practice, on the other hand, is to source factory-farmed, indoor-reared birds, often imported frozen from Thailand or Brazil, in forms such as cooked satay sticks, casseroles, and pre-cooked breasts with an additive-laden sauce. As Alan Swinson, the man charged with implementing Macdonald Hotels' enlightened food sourcing points out: "Imported chicken is becoming commonplace because it is cost effective. It is reared and packed in countries with low labour costs and stock is managed frozen and re-heated from frozen".

Buying only free-range chicken ups Macdonald Hotels' food bill considerably. "A free-range chicken breast costs £1 more than an intensively-reared one, but we don't pass the additional buying cost on to our customers" says Alan. "Instead we absorb the additional cost for the simple reason that we believe that serving free-range is the right thing to do. We also have faith that our customers appreciate the difference." So the bottom line is that while a chicken dish in a Macdonald hotel will be priced on a par with comparable establishments, its provenance will almost certainly be superior.

  "At the end of the day, quality comes to the surface in every walk of life" Donald believes, and this focus on pedigree and ethics powers all Macdonald Hotels' sourcing of animal products. Every little bit of pork used, be it roast belly in the smart restaurant or the rashers and sausages on guests' breakfast plates, is outdoor reared, free-range and British, from one of six Yorkshire farms. Most hotels, by contrast, use imported bacon, mainly Eastern European or Dutch, from factory-farmed pigs fed on rations designed to promote rapid growth. Much of it injected with water and polyphosphates to increase its weight. Some hotels boast that their pork is outdoor-bred, but this still means that they have spent most of their lives inside a shed.

Every egg that Macdonald Hotels buy is free-range (the majority of hotels still use eggs from caged hens) and the lamb and beef is all Scottish and grass-fed. Beef served in UK hotels is often imported from Africa or South America, from countries with lower welfare standards and poorer workers' conditions. Such imports tend to be butchered within days of slaughter, vacuum-packed and then 'matured' in the hull of a ship. This means that hotels and restaurants can state on menus that the meat has been matured for 28 days, even though the meat won't have the flavour or texture that traditional, more costly, aging methods produce. "At Macdonald Hotels, we stipulate that our meat must be from one of three breeds - Charolais, Hereford and Angus - and be dry matured on the bone, in the time-honoured way, for 7-14 days" Alan explains. He is also at pains to point out that Macdonald hotels won't have any truck with the cheap and ubiquitous 'Angus' burger, pre-cooked and frozen, that many hotel groups now use for room service and lounge food orders.

Macdonald Hotels isn't just committed to animal welfare. More than a decade ago, Donald Macdonald took the decision that it simply wasn't acceptable to serve up bought-in, prepared food, something that is standard practice in the hotel world. If he himself didn't want to eat it, why should he expect others to? So at Macdonald Hotels, you won't see a queue of lorries at the back door, delivering those ready-made meals 'off a truck' favoured by lazy chefs and cheeseparing management.

Neither will you be served food prepared using cost-cutting techniques that lower quality. Macdonald Hotels doesn't use ready-prepared vegetables or those that have been soaked in chemicals to give them a longer life. The bacon in your room service club sandwich won't have been bought in, pre-cooked and frozen, but cooked to order. On the breakfast buffet, all fruits and compotes are freshly prepared, never tinned, scrambled and poached eggs are made to order, not bought in pre-cooked then microwaved or reheated from a vacuum pack, and the ham is cooked in the hotel's own kitchen. Your orange juice will never have been reconstituted from a 'just-add-water' powder either.

Freshness, ripeness and flavour is something of a preoccupation on Macdonald Hotels' shopping list. "Many other hotels use pre-prepared, frozen vegetables to eliminate wastage. Most have fruit and vegetables delivered twice a week, but while this is fine for some items, we feel it won't do for more delicate produce, such as herbs, salad leaves and items like strawberries and asparagus, that rapidly show their age when they aren't really fresh. So we have our fruit and vegetables delivered daily" says Alan. The same is true of all the fish the hotels use. This enlightened buying policy makes a significant, palpable difference to the taste and vitality of food on the plate.

Although it is hard to credit it, many hotels routinely use powdered dehydrated milk mixed with tap water, instead of fresh liquid milk, simply because it is cheaper. Macdonald Hotels' milk, on the other hand, arrives daily from family-owned Scottish creamery, Grahams, from cows that spend much of the year out on grass. Eat a sausage in a Macdonald Hotel and in addition to coming from humanely-reared animals, it will be meat-rich and from traditional butcher's cuts, shoulder and belly, not power blasted from the carcase, as is the case in some other establishments.

Another of the hotel industry's dirty secrets is the re-use of leftover butter, which is recycled and served up again in small pots as table butter. Of these and other dubious hotel food practices largely unknown to the general public, Macdonald Hotels heartily disapproves. "There's no compromise. It's important that we don't dilute our standards" says Donald. And neither will he accept a two-tier food sourcing policy that permits budget buying for certain uses. "I don't see why an invitee at a wedding, or someone at a conference, or a guest at breakfast time should be served poorer ingredients than those in the upmarket dining room." So there's only one all-embracing food standard in his collection of hotels as far as he is concerned: good food.

Huge importance is placed on forging long-term, mutually beneficial relationships and maintaining an ongoing dialogue with smaller producers and suppliers who are widely respected leaders in their field. All the cured and smoked fish used by Macdonald chefs, for instance, comes from John Ross Jr in Aberdeen. He still uses truly traditional 150 year-old red-brick kilns, not the modern steel type, which gives his fish a special character with lots of smoky depth. His fish won a gold medal by the Guild of Fine Foods, and his company is a proud holder of the Royal Warrant, supplier to H.M. The Queen. Potatoes used to make Macdonald Hotels' rather splendid hand-cut chips are supplied by Lucy Carroll in Northumberland, whose family business specialises in flavoursome 'heritage' varieties. She selects for them the best 'chipper' for the time of year, anything from Yukon Gold to Red Duke of York. In summer, strawberries come from the Wye Valley, celebrated for its fragrant fruits. The hunt for the most vital spring greens leads Macdonald Hotels to expert Lincolnshire grower, David Carr.

The best ingredients can be ruined, of course, if chefs don't know how to handle them, and this is where Alan Swinson comes in as catering director. A highly experienced chef himself, with a glittering curriculum vitae that includes Michelin-starred restaurants and top Mayfair hotels, he is ultra-clear about what Macdonald Hotels asks of its chefs. "I'm looking for classic food, executed to perfection" he explains.

Alan considers himself fortunate to work with a supportive, principled, management that wants its chefs to cook with high calibre raw materials and is prepared to pay for them because it makes his job easier. "Good ingredients attract good chefs" he explains. Unlike the glory days when leading British hotels offered an apprenticeship for the highest professional standards, nowadays many hotel groups devalue and deskill their chefs in order to cut costs. Macdonald hotels is different, attracting chefs for the widely respected training it offers and the excellent ingredients it gives them to work with. Alan Swinson's goal is not to turn out would-be Heston Blumenthals, he stresses, or experimental chefs who end up putting too many show-off elements on the plate, but steady, careful chefs who consistently deliver immaculate food. "It's about cooking for customers, not accolades" says Alan.

Macdonald Hotels is on a constant quest for improvement and never blasé. "At one point we decided that our bread wasn't good enough. We made it badly, in a way that demonstrated disrespect for the baker's craft skill. At the same time, the price of grain shot up, creating a pressure for us to keep our costs down. Instead of compromising on quality, we found a baker who could handle the volume we require, but still supply us with a genuinely handcrafted loaf. He delivers it to us 90 per cent baked, and we finish it off in the hotel. This way we can be sure of serving consistently good, properly made bread that's really fresh in every one of our hotels.

It's very obvious that the people at the top of Macdonald Hotels love to eat and this inclination constantly cranks up their aspirations about what ends up on the menu. There's a constant quest for ever better ingredients. Board meetings often turn into impromptu tasting sessions. When I dropped in, Donald Macdonald and Alan Swinson were blind tasting two rival Stornoway black puddings, prepared identically by the chef (with caramelised apple, tea-soaked raisins and poached egg) so as to allow a comparison of their relative merits. You can see that Donald and Alan's keen interest is much more than professional, it's personal.


  • About Joanna Blythman

Joanna is the author of What To Eat (Fourth Estate £16.99). She has written about food for over two decades. She has been a regular contributor to many newspapers and magazines, including the Independent, Guardian, Observer, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times, Sunday Herald, the Grocer, Scotland on Sunday, the Ecologist, BBC Olive, BBC Countryfile, Marie Claire, Evening Standard, Country Living, Country Life and the New Statesman.

She broadcasts on food matters, on programmes such as Women's Hour, Farming Today, Newsnight, Tonight, BBC Breakfast and Today. 

Joanna has won numerous awards for her articles and six books, including five Glenfiddich Awards, a Caroline Walker Media Award for Improving the Nation's Health by Means of Good Food, a Guild of Food Writers Award, a Derek Cooper Award - one of BBC Radio 4's Food and Farming Award - and a Good Housekeeping award for her Outstanding Contribution to Food. 

Joanna researched restaurants for Michael Winterbottom's BBC2 series The Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden and was a judge on Channel 4's Iron Chef. She sits on the board of the Fife Diet, the pioneering local food experiment and is an advisor to Slow Food UK.