Food & Drink

For most travellers, food is one of the important elements of any trip.  It’s one of the ways in which we can experience, and connect with, the culture of the place we’re visiting.  Food tells us a lot about the climate and the natural resources of the region and the way it’s cooked and presented offers us an insight into local traditions.

Exceptional seafood

Not surprisingly, the Shetland diet has traditionally featured fish and shellfish.  The waters around the islands are some of the most productive in the world, as the many seals, porpoises, dolphins and whales that forage around our shores know very well.  A huge range of fish is landed, from familiar species such as haddock, mackerel, halibut or plaice to less common ones like ling, lythe, megrim or John Dory.  Fish and shellfish are also farmed around the islands.  The strong tidal streams are particularly good for growing salmon, some of which is now reared to organic standards.  The production of mussels has also become very important over the last decade.  The mussels grow naturally on ropes suspended in the sea, with no human interference and no use of anything artificial.

Unique lamb and beef

Shetland is known – but not yet as widely as it should be – for outstanding lamb.  The native lamb is smaller than average but has a wonderful, distinctive flavour.  Much of the greater part of Shetland’s land area is grass and heather moorland, swept from time to time by salt-laden gales.  Virtually all of it is given over to the grazing of sheep.  However, some flocks have access to the shore and seaweed forms part of their diet, adding another note to their flavour.  Shetland lamb enjoys the protection of the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin, in exactly the same way as Parma ham or Burgundy wines.  It often features on local menus and can be obtained in a few high-class butchers elsewhere in Britain.

The richer pastures nourish cattle and there is a Shetland breed of cow.  Milk, cream, butter and cheese are all produced in the islands.  The cheese is a recent venture but it makes a very welcome addition to the local larder.  Several different types are made in a small factory in the west mainland.  Local beef is also available and is of very high quality.  If you’re self-catering, both it and local lamb are available from local butchers’ shops.  They’ll also be happy to wrap some so that you can take it back home.

A well-stocked larder

The best-known product from the Shetland field or garden is probably the Shetland Black potato, a delicious variety that has, as the name suggests, a black skin.  It’s also distinguished by purple markings in the flesh.  It cooks very well, baking beautifully and making wonderfully crisp and floury roast potatoes.  Carrots, cabbage, kale, leeks, beetroot and turnips are also widely grown.  Given Shetland’s cool climate, there are obviously some limits on what is possible, but small quantities of such crops as strawberries, tomatoes and peppers are grown under glass.

One of the things that visitors appreciate is the survival of small, truly local bakeries around the islands.  Each offers its own range of bread, rolls, cakes, biscuits, pies and oatcakes.  For those with a sweeter tooth, Shetland has a surprisingly wide range of fudges, toffees and chocolates, produced by a small number of specialists.  Puffin Poo is one of the less familiar delicacies on offer. 

Shetland also produces beer.  There are two small, family-run breweries, one in Lerwick and one in Unst, our northernmost island.  In their delicious ranges, you'll find several ales, a lager and and a stout that have won the admiration of enthusiasts well beyond Shetland’s shores.   There is, as yet, no distillery, but there have been moves to build one and it may not be long before Shetland whisky, gin and vodka appear alongside all the other good things on the Shetland shelf.

If you’d like to know more about the range of food and drink that’s available from Shetland producers, an excellent starting point is the Shetland Food Directory and you can find out about places to eat out in Shetland here.

A fascinating heritage

In struggling to choose between the choices available on Shetland menus today, we might reflect that it wasn’t always thus.  Shetland’s food heritage is based, like that of most rural areas, on making the best possible use of every part of the animal or fish.  A recently-reprinted Shetland book, Cookery for Northern Wives, records many old recipes used in the islands and it makes fascinating reading.  For example, it’s clear that fish livers were a hugely important part of the diet, appearing in a variety of guises and in a surprising number of dishes.  Some local chefs have begun to rediscover some of these old recipes and they may occasionally appear on menus.  Typical examples include liver muggies (fish stomachs stuffed with seasoned, chopped fish livers, then boiled) or liver koogs (livers baked in a hollowed-out potato).  One local dish that has never gone out of fashion, and in which local butchers take great pride, is sassermaet, a kind of very well-seasoned sausagemeat that can be used in patties (brönies), meat loaf or stuffing.

The absence of refrigeration also meant that the curing of meat and fish were an important part of the cook’s skills.  Today, fortunately, the old ways are still observed in some respects.  You can still buy excellent kippers and other kinds of smoked fish, but the traditional product that’s most cherished is reestit mutton, steeped in brine and then air-dried in the rafters, which in the days of peat fires would have given it a light smoking.  No Shetland household is without some reestit mutton at times like New Year or Up Helly Aa.  It forms the base for a wonderfully tasty potato soup and it’s also served in bannocks.

More recently, a new tradition has taken a very firm hold.  If you visit Shetland during the summer months, you’ll quickly become aware of signs advertising Sunday teas in village halls around the islands.  Usually, two or three halls will be offering them on any given Sunday and, if the opportunity arises, they’re not to be missed.  Local people pull out all the stops to produce a tremendous spread of cakes, teabreads, biscuits, sandwiches, quiches and all sorts of other treats, accompanied by unlimited tea and coffee.  It’s all done by volunteers in an effort to raise funds for charity and the experience is highly recommended.  The story of Shetland’s Sunday teas was told in an edition of The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4 and you can listen to the programme here.

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