Food: Shetland on a plate

Shetland on a plate

Cathy Feeny gets a taste for local produce at Shetland’s first ever food festival.

As the plates are put in front of us, Trevor Laffin of Slow Food Edinburgh requests us not to consume their contents all at once. This, in every sense, is what the Slow Food movement is about, and why it’s participating in Shetland’s first food festival.

Founded as an antidote to the tyranny of fast food – the unnutritious end-product of greedy, globalised food systems, wolfed down joylessly in bleak surroundings. Slow Food, Trevor tells us, savours produce that is “good, clean and fair” i.e. food that tastes delicious and has been produced ecologically and humanely, without any form of exploitation. The watchword is simplicity, and though Slow Food does include leisurely fine-dining, it is equally epitomised by a perfect cheese sandwich.

So here, today, at the Clickimin Centre, in conjunction with the producers’ market taking place in the Main Hall, a group of us is about to slowly sample some of the best food that Shetland has to offer, and discuss its taste, texture and origins.

Our appropriate starting place is the sea, in the shape of QA Fish’s trout, which is reared at Aith Voe and fed on sustainable organic fish-food. It is a pale coral-pink and tastes, as one of the participants puts it, “like trout”.

This is a recurring theme of the festival: food that tastes intensely of what it is. From the Out Skerries we try salmon, cold-smoked over beechwood: sweet and peaty, with a melt-in-the-mouth texture. Then we enjoy firm flakes of Blydoit’s hot-smoked salmon which, because it is organically farmed, is more like wild.

It’s Shetland’s beautiful, clean waters that make for such fine seafood I’m told earlier in the day by a representative of North Atlantic Shellfish Ltd, which produces fat, fresh mussels. Equally meaty are Demlane Mussels, fresh and smoked over oak chips. Demlane exports down south, but a large proportion of the 500 tonnes they produce per annum are eaten in Shetland.

Sadly, however, not all Shetlanders are convinced of the merits of the bounty we have on our watery doorstep. Although Michelin-starred chef Jean-Christophe Novelli sets the room alight with his glamour, humour and Gallic charm, he has his work cut out to sell the idea of fish and shellfish to some of his audience. Using only Shetland seafood, Novelli can hardly contain his excitement as he puts together a fish stew that includes scallops he claims he would kill for, “impeccable” monkfish, and “amazing” langoustines, salmon and halibut. He too insists on the importance of simplicity: “The less you do with cooking, the more you get from it”. But Novelli’s enthusiasm for these raw materials is by no means shared by all those he invites to sample the finished dish. Is Shetland in danger of losing touch with its food heritage?

Should this be the case, few of Shetland’s chefs can be held to blame. Throughout the festival – and year round – many eating establishments are promoting what Ronnie Eunson, in September’s Shetland Life, referred to as “Shetland Food”. That is to say, not just individual commodities but a multifaceted cuisine, with a history, culture and identity.

One evening during the festival, I and a companion dined at Hay’s Dock, which, like many of Shetland’s cafés and restaurants, was offering a special menu showcasing Shetland produce. Chef Mike Skinner tells me that for him the local produce and ingredients mean everything. Barring the occasional Orkney beef, all his prime ingredients are from Shetland: “It’s not even an issue. It’s taken for granted that’s what we do.”

Inspired by Shetland’s first cookery book, which was published in 1925 by the encouragingly-named Margaret B. Stout, Mike has updated traditional dishes and given them a modern twist.

My companion enjoys sparl, a chewy, toffee-ish beef salami, served with a salad of puffy pearl barley. I feast on a haddock and haddock-liver terrine, followed by peppered saithe with mashed tatties. My companion’s main course is hawthorn-smoked halibut, with a dark, treacly reestit mutton sauce. Between the two courses we are offered cream of smoked parsnip soup. The parsnips have been smoked with Lapsang Souchong tea – one of those made-in-heaven food marriages that, once experienced, you know you will crave always. For pudding we share a portion of “fly cemetery” – a buttery pastry crust crammed with gleaming currants. This is world-class dining by anyone’s standards and, moreover, a glorious evocation of a time when, as Margaret B. Stout put it, “contented folk . . . knew not the allurements of imported food”.

In those days, long before the mange tout set off to conquer the globe, one of the Shetland staples was neeps. Not, you might think, vegetables that lend themselves to eating raw, but at the Slow Food tasting that is just what we do, and they prove a revelation: sweet, crisp and nutty.

The vegetables at the festival are, in fact, the major surprise to me. I know that some Shetland vegetables are available from independent outlets but, frankly, it’s the supermarkets I turn to for a range of varieties. Here in the hall, however, is the Unst Regeneration Growers Enterprise, selling courgettes, kale, cabbages, spinach, salad leaves, carrots, and what prove to be fiery chillies. All just a hop, skip and a jump away compared with the weary air miles that many of their distant, supermarket cousins have travelled.

Whereas I share my garden with several dozen rabbits, the Unst Regeneration Growers have no bunny problem, they tell me, but they do have ducks that have learnt the knack of pulling up the carrots and washing them in puddles before consuming! Maddening though this must be, I cannot but admire the ducks’ discernment. Twisty as witches’ fingers, and needing only a brief scrub, the Unst carrots go into a hearty casserole I make, along with venison, onions, wine and redcurrant jelly. I challenge the most icy of Shetland gales to stand up to a dish like that! Especially when accompanied by Bigton Farm tatties.

All of Bigton Farm’s tatties are sold in Shetland. The ones on show at the festival include a variety called Highland Burgundy, which has a beautiful, purply centre, and the famous Shetland Blacks. I buy a bag of the Shetland Blacks and serve up a fluffy mash that makes a mockery of the supermarkets’ neotenous “new” potatoes, which have all but ousted the floury winter varieties of my youth. Their strong, earthy taste is redolent of the Shetland terrain.

Likewise the Shetland lamb, whose unique flavour is derived in part from a diet that includes seaweed. The Slow Food tasters describe its flesh as “sweet”. It’s also much more gamey than lamb from elsewhere, maintains Jennifer Edmondston of the Buness Estate, Unst. Yet another product of the islands that chefs and domestic cooks alike should be falling over themselves to get hold of, this lamb, as Ronnie Eunson says, “doesn’t need hype and hyperbole. It does need to be heard about though, and shown the respect it deserves”.

Already making a big name for themselves on a national scale, and available from Scoop Wholefoods in the Toll Clock Centre, and by mail order, are the oceanic oatcakes from Sandison’s Skibhoul Bakery at Baltasound, which reached this year’s final of the Waitrose/Country Living Made in Britain Awards. Conceived as a response to the delays that are a consequence of being Britain’s most northerly bakery, the saintly simplicity of these oatcakes – which are made of oatmeal, vegetable oil and seawater – allows them to sit out weather-related transport delays. Faintly salty, crisp and crumbly, the Slow Food tasters find them delicious on their own, but it’s also clear that they are something no cheeseboard should be without.

And should you find yourself, like the oatcakes, temporarily marooned by storms or fog, there is additional comfort to be derived from the fact that Unst is home as well to Britain’s most northerly brewery. The ale we sample from Sonny and Sylvia Priest’s Valhalla Brewery is White Wife, which gets its name from a ghost, who has been disconcertingly manifesting herself in vehicles driven by lone males in Unst for at least 100 years. Light and toasty, with just a slight edge of bitterness, it cries out to be drunk with a Welsh Rarebit, made with Bo Simmons’ homemade bread.

I caught up with Bo at The Olive Tree, her café-delicatessen in the Toll Clock Centre, and ask her why offering Shetland produce, not just during the festival but all year round, is a matter of principal. “It’s air miles, freshness, supporting local industry and trying to encourage people to grow and produce things in Shetland,” Bo explains. Bo herself grows some of the vegetables served in the restaurant, and produces the 25 to 50 loaves a week that are sold there on Thursdays.

As one of the staple foods of the world, Slow Food is very serious about bread. At the tasting, we are invited to note the contrast between Bo’s firm, crusty, chewy loaf, which is made from just four ingredients – organic flour, water, yeast and salt – and a mass-manufactured brand, that contains a plethora of nasties, including E numbers, and has a texture which is variously described as “spongy”, “like putty” and “able to be moulded”. Clearly, if you have next year’s Turner Prize in mind, the latter is for you, just don’t bother to eat it!

But if your creativity takes a more practical turn, included in the festival programme were talks and courses, aimed at those who are thinking of a career in food and at the amateur cook.

Which is how I come to be in the Home Economics room at Scalloway Junior High School on a Saturday afternoon, learning the subtle art of bannock-making from Joan Poleson, along with 15 other bannock-novices. By the end of the session I have a pile of bannocks (which could have risen more, but this is a first attempt) and the phone number of a new friend. Outside it’s rained, but in the kitchen there’s been warmth, laughter and chat – vital ingredients, without which food is merely sustenance. And I’ve got a recipe to take home and use again, which seems an apt metaphor for what the Shetland Food Festival is seeking to achieve.

Before the event, I spoke to Neil Henderson of the SIC. Even then, he was planning a future for the initiatives from the 2008 festival. This, I believe, is exactly the right approach. Of course the festival is a chance to applaud those who make Shetland food the wonderful asset that it is, but it must also be a way forward. And that’s something in which everybody can participate.

One problem for Shetland producers is distribution. If we don’t see a Shetland food item on the supermarket shelves, why not campaign until they put it there? If enough of us indicate that we would actively support a vegetable box scheme, by signing our names on The Olive Tree noticeboard, maybe that will give it economic viability.

Shetland doesn’t have a branch of the Slow Food Movement. Yet. But there must be people out there who are keen to start one. And let’s just plain eat Shetland. Global recession is upon us; we can’t afford to be fussy, faddy or squeamish; it’s shameful to live on an island and refuse to consume seafood.

At his cookery demonstration, having primed an 11-year-old taster to say that his fish stew could use some sweetness, Jean-Christophe Novelli gets her to try a spoonful and asks her what’s missing. “Saat,” she replies. “Taste again and then tell me what it needs,” Novelli coaxes. The lass eats some more. “Saat,” she doggedly insists, to the delight of all, including the Michelin-starred chef, who is clearly pleased and impressed that one so young is telling him how her native produce should taste.

Rightly so. Decisions made now about what, and how, we are to eat will determine whether the lives of the children of the future will be enriched, or otherwise.

Cathy Feeny


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.