ALL our lives we have tried to combine our love of old buildings with our love of good food. It’s not always easy, but there have been gastro-pubs in listed buildings, fine picnics in picturesque ruins, even a good tea in a defunct railway station. So when we gave Orkney a thought as a holiday destination, we realised that the old buildings were only going to be, at best, a few courses of stones and that the gastronomy just had to be a fingers-crossed lucky dip.
How wrong can you be? What Orkney does is lure you with promises of tombs, stone circles and Neolithic villages, then once it’s got you there, offers you fantastic food. The sort of corporate feeding that passes for visitor services on this side of the border generally isn’t to be found there. At Skara Brae, a complete Neolithic village which for 4000 years was preserved in sand, a simple restaurant offers food to match what we’d imagined being prepared in those low, smoky, stone huts. Vegetable soup thickened with barley, beremeal bannocks, smoked cheese, oatcakes, washed down with locally brewed beer. If all that sounds a bit worthy, the soup was perfection, the bannocks light and warm and delicious spread with lots of butter. Naturally everything benefited from modern technology – I don’t think Neolithic cooks had a light hand with shortbread (pre-sugar, of course), and would the butter have come wrapped in bits of paper. But the food chimed with the place, not simply because local ingredients were being used, but so was imagination. Bere, incidentally, is an ancient grain that ripens early and is full of protein, perfectly suited to a harsh climate. It now grows almost exclusively on Orkney and is ground into flour at Barony Mill, Birsay.
Go to Kirkwall’s St Magnus’ cathedral, that wonderfully warm pink building that, when you are inside on a windy day, gives you the same sense of security that a great ship does. Immediately opposite is Judith Glue’s café/restaurant cum provision store, where she also sells her highly distinctive range of knitwear. The meals there reflect a cornucopia of local products, particularly the smoked foods. Hot smoked salmon was something I wasn’t sure I liked, but I learned to love it partnered with oatcakes and a beetroot and ginger chutney. Hampers are offered for those suffering from Orkney homesickness, and I am about to send off for that specifically aimed at giving you a taste of Skara Brae’s diet.
Down at the tip of South Ronaldsay, we came across another archeological site with an ace café attached. The Tomb of the Otters was only discovered fairly recently, when the digger being used to enlarge the café car park fell into a deep hole. The café owner used an underwater camera to explore further and found that ,naturally, this being Orkney, it wasn’t just any old hole. Lined with distinctively well-cut stones it was, of course, a tomb, divided into three rooms, two of which have now been excavated while the third remains sealed and undisturbed. This isn’t an ‘interpreted’ site, with added electric light and exit signs on the walls. For this you had to crouch and go in backwards, aided by the light of a couple of torches. There were four of us and our enthusiastic archaeologist guide – or rather, just three when one decided that this was taking claustrophobia too far. Such tombs are just that, and don’t give you any idea of the lives of people and what they ate, so the café offered just simple and delicious sea food. Cullen skink – that thick potato and smoked haddock soup which makes a lunch that carries you through to supper with no trouble, and incomparable scallops, simply grilled and served with a salad that was more herb than lettuce, full of things like purslane and tiny pansies, wild rocket and young beetroot leaves. These are the sort of things that grow well on Orkney – no etiolated lettuce or pallid radicchio – and on our walks we found enough things growing wild to make a good salad had we had a kitchen to play with.
Good restaurants for finer dining were numerous, and if the style of cooking was not always sophisticated, who can be bothered with foams and emulsions when home made onion rings accompany a steak that was tender and tasted of the daisy-rich grass we had seen the cattle grazing on our way to supper. We were surprised to find that our dish of pasta with wild garlic came complete with a vegetable garnish that wouldn’t have been out of place at Sunday lunch, and farmed salmon doesn’t make a good dish when partnered with sweet potato mash, to my mind, but those were minor grumbles. Perhaps best of all was the breakfast our landlady Jan gave us, of lightly smoked local haddock, preceded by stewed rhubarb from the garden, and followed by scones and gooseberry jam – home-made, generous, and hospitable, a large part of our Orkney experience.
Simone Sekers © May 2014