It’s the first Saturday of Shetland Food Festival. The producers’ market is in full swing, and Ready Steady Shetland is shortly going to begin.
“Come and meet Jonathan,” says SIC marketing officer Neil Henderson. “He’s brought half a garden.” And sure enough, Councillor Wills, who is one of the two celebrity contestants taking part in the game, turns out to have arrived with a positive cornucopia of home-grown vegetables.
“I’ve never seen Ready Steady Cook,” says Dr Wills, referring to the television programme on which Ready Steady Shetland is based, as he happily surveys the trolley piled high with his produce. And although a strict interpretation of the rules of the game calls for a carrier bag containing just a few ingredients, there’s no doubting these vegetables merit a public airing.
Painstakingly laid out, in a glorious display which would get any Dutch master reaching for his oils, they include garlic, shallots, red onions, parsnips, leeks, a red cabbage and, from the greenhouse, tomatoes and peppers, though Dr Wills, who supplies The Olive Tree, mainly concentrates on what grows outside.
“I eat food from the garden during every month of the year,” he says. “Anyone can do so. Shetland has a long growing season, usually without late or early frosts, and we have lots of light in the summer. It’s too cold for many pests, and I don’t use any artificial pesticides or fertilizers.” Like many a Shetland gardener, however, he does have a problem with rabbits. “I hate them,” he says with feeling.
But Dr Wills is by no means the only person who has arrived at Clickimin laden with vegetables. Along with a whole range of other products, Ann Johnson of Scoop Wholefoods is selling local beetroot, bunches of pretty organic salad leaves and flowers, which would be just as at home in a vase as on a plate, and a vast quantity of different tatties, including the Collosie variety, which is a hybrid of the Shetland black and the pink fir apple and works well in a salad.
It’s important to Ann to sell food that is grown in Shetland. “I was born here,” she explains, “and the food that I ate when I was young was always healthy because not a lot was brought in. If it’s in the earth in the morning and sold at lunchtime it’s always fresh.” In line with this, her hope for Shetland’s food future is that we should use our own resources, grow more of our own produce, and eat whatever is in season. As far as possible, she would like to see Shetland aiming for self-sufficiency.
Ann’s enthusiasm for food grown here in the isles is echoed by Daniel Gear, her main supplier of fresh vegetables. “I’m not just saying it, you can taste the difference, and if the quality is there folk will pay for it,” he maintains.
When asked what is particularly popular Daniel says that he had to put aside some of his early carrots or he wouldn’t have had any to bring to the festival, and that as it is he will have to dig up more this evening for the second day of the producers’ market.
Like Ann, Daniel wants to see local food production increasing. “I’d like there to be more available for folk to buy. It can be daunting trying to get started as a producer and I think there should be more financial incentives.”
Hardly surprisingly, Daniel shares Dr Wills’ loathing of rabbits, which he believes Shetlanders should recognise as a massive free food source, and overcome their reluctance to prepare and eat them. He thinks that cookery demonstrations such as Ready Steady Shetland would be a good way of introducing people to the various ways in which rabbit can be served up.
Shetlanders don’t need telling what to do with a tattie, though, and Jim Budge of Bigton Farm who is here with his Shetland Blacks, Roosters and Records – the dry, mealy spud that is particularly favoured in the islands – sees the food festival as a way of making people aware of what he’s growing.
“Tatties used to be folk’s staple diet,” he says, “but then they stopped planting them. Now they are back in fashion.” For Mr Budge the way forward is to raise the profile of Shetland produce.
A true Shetland lass, Emma Leask, the other celebrity contestant taking part in Ready Steady Shetland, has duly included Ness tatties in her bag of items for the chef to cook. And, appropriately for a star of the Shetland sports scene who won a gold medal in this year’s island games, she has also brought an undoubted star of the Shetland larder – organic salmon.
Salmon is much in evidence at the producers’ market too. Along with other tasting samples, such as Parmesan roulade and chicken liver pate, Lotta Koskinen of Saxa Vord Resort is serving up smoked salmon and prawn cocktail on Skibhoul oatcakes, “though I’m not using as much mayo as they did in the 70s”.
Lotta thinks the fresh, northerly produce you get up here is fantastic, and she believes that people from outwith the islands don’t know enough about the whole variety of wonderful things that Shetland has to offer. “Food is a good way of promoting where we are and what we are like,” she says. In common with others, she views self-sufficiency as an important goal for the isles’ future.
Greater awareness of Shetland’s produce is something Stella Winks of Hjaltland would like to see too. Asda supermarkets were quick to seize upon Hjaltland’s smoked salmon and gravadlax, and it is Stella’s hope that they will be able to expand into more retail outlets, including local Shetland ones.
“What we have to offer is unrivalled in Europe,” she says. “We are in control of everything, from farming to smoking, and the whole process from farm to smokehouse takes place within 24 hours. We have a small carbon footprint and our salmon is smoked using beech wood from sustainable forests. I am proud of what we do. Very proud.”
Also proud of what they do are QA Fish, who farm organic sea trout and sell it either fresh or hot smoked. QA was at last year’s food festival and say that the event was helpful in raising their profile, and telling people who they are. Their aim is to expand too, and they would like to see it become easier to get into the local supermarkets. At present, they say, it’s difficult for a small business, which needs to concentrate on making its products, to find the time for all the paperwork involved.
Another seafood business that became better known as a result of last year’s festival is Demlane Mussels. Once folk had tasted their oak smoked mussels, local shops got interested. Since April they have also been on sale in Morrison’s supermarkets, and the plan is to get bigger and to employ more people.
New on the scene and hoping that the festival will give a similar boost to their product are Paul and Claire Whitworth, who live at Hoohevd Croft in Eshaness, where they breed fatten and butcher Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs, and make their own sausages and burgers.
“It’s worth the work to make something that is home-produced,” says Claire, who adores her pigs and fondly points at pictures of them enjoying their happy lives. “Aren’t they gorgeous? I love their little thin bottoms,” she exclaims. “They are very intelligent as well, and they talk to you.”
On a less sentimental note Claire explains that Gloucestershire Old Spots are a rare breed because of the time it takes them to mature, but that as a result the meat has a traditional flavour. They sell it in 10 kilogram and half pig packages, and in smaller quantities at farmers’ markets, including Tingwall, and Claire is eager to see such outlets continuing.
There’s no pork among the items brought by the two Ready Steady Shetland contestants, but Dr Wills has some chocolate, which he gallantly donates to Emma when she says it is one of her faves, and more signs of her sharing the ubiquitous Shetland sweet tooth are revealed when she removes from her bag some fudge and a bunch of bananas.
Although not exactly indigenous to the islands, bananas are also going down well in the form of banana milkshakes from The Café Consulate. And further first aid for sugar cravings is being provided by Peerie Treats, who are looking to put their confectionery in more outlets, and feel that the festival is a good chance for them to meet their customers and find out what folk would like them to be doing.
“You can only eat so much yourself,” says Liz Stark, who is standing behind a table groaning with gingerbread, fruitcakes, border tarts, carrot cakes, meringues, jams, chutneys and a very great deal more: the results of what Liz describes as “a hobby that got out of control”. As far as Liz is concerned small is beautiful and she would like to see the farmers’ markets showcasing little enterprises doing homebakes.
On the Ready Steady Shetland stage, though, nothing is low key or understated as chefs George McIvor, who has been in the food industry for over 30 years, and Glynn Wright, who lectures in hospitality and tourism at Shetland College, battle it out in flamboyant style. “The prize is an evening talking to the members of Shetland Island Council,” claims compere Phil Goodlad. The audience are unconvinced.
True or not, a councillor is present on this occasion, and he insists on quick slurps all round and proposes a toast to the late Keith Floyd, which might be the reason why George McIvor burns – sorry, does a test run on – the first batch of bananas, though a second attempt, flambéed in brandy draws oohs and ahs from the audience. They are finally served up with a super-healthy fudge, chocolate and cream sauce.
To start with, chef McIvor makes Emma raw salmon tartar, followed by hot salmon stuffed with garlic and herbs and cooked in olive oil. It is accompanied by a tomato and chive salsa, crushed tatties and horseradish crème fraiche.
Afterwards Emma, who turns out to be better at running than peeling potatoes, pronounces the stuffed salmon the highlight of the meal, though she also loves the “fudgy bits and chocolate”. The whole experience, she says, has been “a good laugh”.
“There’s nothing like Shetland produce anywhere in the world,” says Mr McIvor of the ingredients he was given to work with. “When you see something every day you forget to appreciate what you’ve got. It’s the same as with a wife.”
“I use local stuff all the time,” says Mr Wright. “Jonathan’s vegetables are so good you don’t need to do much to them.” Some he puts into a big, rustic soup. He also makes onion bhajis, a herb omelette and parsnip and beetroot crisps, which Dr Wills describes as “a great idea”. The olick Dr Wills has brought along too is fried with garlic and chilli.
It’s up to the audience to decide which selection of dishes they think is best, and in the end Emma’s Heart Attack Hell wins out over Jonathan’s Garden. It only remains to hope that a prolonged discussion session with the SIC proves a fitting crown to Emma’s triumph.
The minute voting is over, the spectators fall on the remains of the food, which is put out for tasting. “I’ve lived all my life in Shetland and I’ve never before had olick,” says one, while another comments on the freshness of the soup.
“Our main aim is to draw attention the standard of our produce,” says marketing officer Neil Henderson. “To have it known about locally, but also to make it a reason why people come to Shetland.” If he succeeds in his mission, anyone journeying to the isles in search of culinary delights will be far from disappointed.