A Mini Orkney Saga

Someone once told me a good blog should be 300 words – well I’ve blown that today however I hope you enjoy our travels as much as we did and feel inspired to visit our fabulous Scottish isles in 2022!

The frost is froze, the snow has fell

Wee Josie’s nose is froze as well

Wee Josie’s nose is skintit

Winter’s diabolic in’t it?

[I believe the original was written by Glasgow cartoonist Bud Neill however this was how I learnt it as a child]

…so before the winter storms bite we headed off to Orkney to catch up with the good folk of this northern archipelago. Those who follow my blogs will know it holds a place in our hearts so we need little excuse to head north, pausing along the way to visit Michael Shaw of Golspie Mill whose flours are highly prized by the real breadmaking fraternity.

Winter sailings meant a dawn departure but the crossing was smooth and the views stunning. The ferry was spotless and we gazed at the Old Man of Hoy from the comfy lounge seats. First stop was Jane Cooper and her amazing Orkney Boreray Sheep, Scotland’s Slow Food Presidium, the only other one being Orkney’s other famous breed, the seaweed munching North Ronaldsay Sheep!

Slow Food Presidium Orkney Boreray at Settisgarth

All credit to Jane who has worked wonders: rescuing the breed, nurturing the flock and sharing her knowledge with other smallholders, crofters and farmers – hence its vital importance as an exemplary Presidium producer. Through collaboration with Scottish Food Guide, Macbeths Butcher & Game, North Ronaldsay mill for the yarn, along with a bone craftsman and a weaver, Jane is creating a market – not to mention a food tourism destination – where flavours, sustainability and environmental credentials come in spades. COP26 could take a few lessons from this project! Phone calls are useful but it’s grand to meet up with folk again!

Boxed up Orkney Boreray in Macbeth’s ethical wool insulation

You may be in luck with a few choice cuts left if you go to Macbeths online shop now. Orkney Boreray, like all rare heritage breeds, is available in small batches seasonally and freezes beautifully. This full-bodied, aromatic, delicious and juicy mutton is a joy to cook with.

When in the vicinity, we headed for Barony Mill, home to Orkney Beremeal on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, where we spent an enjoyable hour discussing grains and their uses. Their latest product is Bere Berries, akin to pearl barley. They kindly gave us a bag and having tried it now a few times I am very impressed with the taste and texture and consider it far superior to pearl barley. Look out for my recipe published soon in my Courier column.

As we checked into the Lynnfield that afternoon, it was a pleasure to see Malcolm again. The last time we stayed was in 2019 when we filled his hotel with Swedish Slow Food Members and a great time was had by all. Malcolm has since added several more stunning bedrooms, all named after Orcadian landmarks and absolutely beautiful. Dinner never disappoints and the lovely staff brought us hot plates brimming with Orkney’s finest: from the wonderful Westray Wife Soufflé to North Ronaldsay Mutton, cooked slowly until it melted in the mouth, rich and spicy, naturally dark and gamey. A complete contrast to the Orkney Boreray and equally delicious.

North Ronaldsay mutton cooked to perfection at The Lynnfield

Native breeds offer so much in terms of farming with nature and value for money: bones create great stocks, with trimmings for stovies and pies. We shall never forget the North Ronaldsay pies on the menu at Sheila Fleet’s Kirk Gallery Café. They were jist sublime!

Fika with Karin & Jesse, Orkney Sourdough

The following morning, fresh as the daisy designs at Sheila Fleet, we were invited for fika with Karin (& her husband Jesse) of Orkney Sourdough. Fika is the name Swedes use for a break or pause that must include fine coffee and a tasty cake or bun. They have made Orkney their home, supporting the community in many ways, supplying loaves for individual orders and regular deliveries to Shearers where you can see her mouth-watering creations arriving regularly on their Instagram! We sat chatting whilst tucking into her amazing breads and cinnamon buns…and left with one of her lovely bags and a stash of goodies. Thank you for having us…we loved every minute. When shopping for winter shoes for Bosse, the owner said that when the shops had re-opened post-lockdown, Karin had popped by with a freshly baked item as a welcome back and she was very touched. Island life and heart-warming gestures. What’s not to love? Jesse even changed the battery on my car key for me – such a spontaneous act of kindness. Thank you.

You would be forgiven for wondering how we managed lunch however after a respectable pause we did indeed sit down to delicious bowls of seafood chowder for a late lunch at Sheila Fleet’s, a lovely catch up with Martin and a little retail therapy [Shhh… mustn’t spoil Santa] then a meeting with Orkney’s new Food Ambassador Rosemary Moon. Having followed each other on social media it was a pleasure to talk tourism over a latte face to face.

Nordic inspired Breckon Fish Soup with homemade bere bannocks at Sheila Fleet

That evening we had a plan that was sadly thwarted when our good friend received news she had been in contact with a positive covid case and was in isolation however she sent along an impressive stand-in, Councillor Heather Woodbridge whom we had barely met before but suffice to say our one hour meeting extended to a five hour dinner and still so much to talk about! She is also Co-Vice Chair of the North Ronaldsay Trust but our conversations covered way more than sheep! Thank you for giving so generously of your time and we look forward to continuing our discussions.

Happy cow at Westray, snug & cosy, munching haylage as the wind blows wildly outside.

Next stop Westray. Thanks to winter sailing timetables, folk have to love you on Westray as you land on them for the day!! We were warmly welcomed by Jason and Nina, Wilson’s of Westray and – for us at any rate – time flew by and their superb cheese gradually disappeared from the table as we grazed and chatted. Their cheese features in Ned Palmer’s newly published A Cheesemonger’s Compendium of British & Irish Cheese. We watched as their handsome cows calmly munched their five-star haylage and nearly got blown away when we attempted a walk!  It’s such a magical place and a privilege to return. We also dropped by for a natter with Louise at the Westray Bakehouse before being kindly driven down to the ferry by Nina, our Orkney Sourdough bag laden with cheese and beremeal crackers!

Sadly our trip was coming to a close but before we left we visited Collin of J. Gow Rum at the family business adjacent to the Italian Chapel, a very special place indeed. He has super trio gift packs in for Christmas that can be sent to you online and we also bought his parents’ red wine, made with gathered local berries that proved a delicious accompaniment for our goose…keep reading if you will…

Our last stop before Stromness was to pop into Shearers to collect our greylag geese. Now these geese are playing havoc with islanders, both on Orkney and over on the west. They are breeding out of control, eating crops and grazing pasture due for silage, ruining the blades of grass with their droppings. A certain number are now, thankfully, allowed to be hunted – a win win for farmers and gourmets, not to mention climate friendly! And so it was we phoned and ordered four for the car refrigerator on the home run!

Greylag geese from Shearers, Kirkwall

Our southwards journey had a delightful pause at The Courtroom, Dornoch with Executive Chef & fellow Slow Food Cooks Alliance Member Craig Byiers to enjoy a delicious lunch and take a peek at the exceptional Links House and Restaurant Mara – for another day. The Courtroom reflects its history with a brilliant fresco across the gable wall, depicting local personalities past and present – great fun to puzzle over for the few moments until our meal arrived.

The Courtroom, Dornoch

And what of those greylag geese? In the south of Sweden, and indeed across Germany and much of northern Europe, there is a tradition to eat goose on 11th November, St Martin’s Day. From medieval times to present day, St Martin’s Day is an important autumn feast, accompanied by eating goose with all the trimmings including braised red cabbage, apple sauce and roast potatoes, concluding with an apple cake for dessert. We tucked into one of the greylags that day and another one features on my Festive Cookery Show live online this coming Thursday 25th Nov. it will also be recorded if you can’t manage on the night. Bon appetit!

Greylag Goose with all the trimmings – join us online for the full meal!
Our Mini adventure! Photo taken at Settiscarth with stunning views over Orkney
Subscribe to our Newsletter