Orkney1 has many things to recommend it to the visitor: spectacular coastal landscapes, good trout fishing, a wealth of neolithic archaeology, vast numbers of breeding sea birds and unique local food. It is the food and drink of Orkney to which this entry is dedicated.
Some produce from Orkney is well-known and sold worldwide, such as Highland Park single malt whisky, Grimbister Orkney farmhouse cheese and Orkney Fudge. However, for the foodies, it's worth a visit to discover the local produce which doesn't travel beyond the shores of Orkney2.
There are a couple of supermarkets on mainland Orkney, but most food is sold in local village shops. Every village has one and they stock everything you might need, from bread and cheese to lawnmowers and wellington boots. Above all, they sell fresh local produce. There are some wonderful restaurants which serve Orkney food, but for the dedicated cook and gastronaut to experience the full range, staying in self-catering accommodation is a must.
Orkney's domestic landscape is shaped by farming. Houses are scattered in the countryside and each one was traditionally surrounded by both arable and pasture land. It has a temperate climate and is a fertile county, with rolling hills draining into lochs full of wild brown trout. Each household had a fishing boat, to exploit the rich and sheltered seas between the islands.
As a result bread, biscuits, milk, butter, cheese, beef, trout, many kinds of seafish, crabs3 and lobsters were part of the diet in a remote part of the country where self-sufficiency was a necessity until relatively recently. Perhaps this is the reason for the abundance of locally-produced food that is still available. Although it is almost all commercially-produced these days, it is based on those domestic traditions.
This entry does not provide an exhaustive list of Orkney produce, but provides a flavour of what you can expect while you are there.
Orkney has lush pasture land, good herds of grass-fed dairy cows and subsequently high-quality dairy products. It is an unusual comfort to know where the milk and butter comes from when you buy it in the shops.
Orkney ice cream might seem unusual for a northern county, but it is much in demand and sold not only in the shops, but also in almost all of the Orkney eateries, from cafes to top restuarants. It is remarkably rich and creamy.
Orkney farmhouse cheese is not like the Orkney cheese that you sometimes see in supermarkets, tightly wrapped in plastic and tasting like cheddar. It is a rich, soft cheese that somehow still tastes of the cow. It can be crumbly, like Grimbister cheese - or wetter and smoother, like Shapinsay cheese. Grimbister farmhouse cheese is the most commonly available. There are several varieties, including smoked and fruit-filled. For an even more authentic taste, check out the local shops in Orkney for the small producers' cheeses. Flett Butchers in Stromness, for instance, usually has three or four different farms' cheeses for sale and you can taste before buying.
Bannocks, Biscuits and Fudge
One of the best ways to eat Orkney cheese is with a bere bannock. Generations of Orcadians have grown up on them. Bere - Hordeum sativum - is a barley-like grain which has been grown in Orkney for thousands of years, both for human and animal food. In the old days, it was called bygg4 and today is usually called corn in Orkney. Its cultivation on any scale is currently restricted to Orkney.
Bere is still milled at the Barony Mill by Loch Boardhouse on Mainland Orkney and bags of the flour can be bought there, or in local village shops. If you're using it for bread-making, it will produce a heavy rye-like loaf and can be mixed with wholewheat flour for a lighter result. For real bere bannocks, try this recipe:
- 50g of beremeal
- 50g of plain flour
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. cream of tartar
- Pinch of salt
- 60ml water
- Mix dry ingredients thoroughly and add water to make a stiff dough. Roll out to a 15cm round. Cook on a hot, ungreased girdle for five minutes or so until both sides are brown and the middle is cooked.
- Consume with plenty of Orkney butter and cheese.
Argo's bakery in Stromness recently started producing bere biscuits, which have the characteristic flavour of bere.
Traditionally eaten with cheese, Orkney oatcakes are stocked in most British supermarkets. If you're looking for something more unusual, there are a number of other biscuits found only in Orkney. This is not because they are not appreciated further afield, but because the cellophane packaging does not protect the biscuits in transport and they usually arrive in pieces. All the village shops sell the full range of savoury options: water biscuits; butter biscuits; rice biscuits made with rice flour; madras biscuits with a little curry powder added; and carvey biscuits containing carroway seeds. Abernethy biscuits and other sweeter shortbread-based varieties can also be found.
Orkney Fudge is sold all over the world and it is all made at the fudge factory in Stromness. These days it is made in a variety of flavours: plain, chocolate, rum and raisin, honey and coffee to name a few. If you eat the fudge in Orkney, as part of a picnic, or as a snack whilst sitting on a windswept headland, there is a satisfaction to it which is simply not there if it's eaten indoors somewhere other than Orkney. Try it.
Meat and Fish
Whilst local chicken, lamb and pork are available, most land is grazed by cattle. Therefore beef is the most common meat in Orkney. Like the milk, the beef is of high quality and reflects the good pasture, much of it relatively unimproved, with buttercups and daisies, as well as grass. It is marketed as Orkney Island Gold and Orkney Viking Beef and is available in all local shops. Neither BSE nor foot-and-mouth disease affected Orkney's herds, so if you are avoiding beef for those reasons, be assured that eating Orkney beef is safe.
Trout and Salmon
In fishing circles, the wild brown trout of Orkney lochs are famous. The fish are reputed to be abundant5, they fight hard and taste sweet. All the lochs contain brown trout, although some fish better than others. For example, Lochs Harray and Boardhouse are known for their numerous small sweet 'breakfast trout', whereas Loch Swannay is reputed to contain a few monsters!
If you are not able to catch your own, fishmongers sell fresh brown trout, or you can eat locally-caught trout in many of the island restuarants - particularly ones which are on the loch-sides, such as the Merkister Hotel by Loch Harray.
It is a lot harder to catch wild salmon in Orkney. So most of it is farmed around the islands. There is a good local smokehouse and some smaller enterprises also produce smoked salmon. It is available from fishmongers, as well as by mail order and in local eateries.
Given that Orkney is an archipelago of islands, it is not surprising that seafish is a local favourite. Perhaps the best known product is Orkney herring, produced in a variety of marinades in characteristic bright plastic tubs and stocked in most supermarkets and fish outlets in Britain6. Fresh herring and haddock can be bought locally, along with other North Atlantic and North Sea produce such as monkfish, cod, hake and mackerel. If you are lucky you'll be in Orkney when there's a herring 'run' - that's when they can be caught using rod and line from the rocky shores.
Orkney is famous for the quality of its shellfish, thanks to the clean, shallow coastal waters warmed by the Gulf Stream. Many locals still have small boats and a number of lobster and crab pots7 in the bays and off the headlands around the islands. While the lobsters and crabs are almost all sold straight to the local cooperative company and shipped to southern England and the continent, it is possible to go out with some of the locals and bring home a crustacean for your dinner.
Alternatively, Orkney Seafayre, by Finstown on Mainland is a wholesale shellfish company, which welcomes passing shellfish-eaters and offers a wide selection of fresh produce at wholesale prices. Lobsters, crabs, scallops, mussels, cockles, whelks, spoots8 and oysters are collected by local fishermen and grown on in the pools at Orkney Seafayre, to be sold on or shipped live all over the country.
If you're looking for free food, the rocky coasts are covered in smaller shellfish, which can be harvested at low tide. Winkles are particularly abundant and Orkney winkle omelette is a great holiday standby.
Fruit and Vegetables
Staying on the 'food for free' theme, rhubarb grows to an incredible size in Orkney. Every garden seems to have a giant patch in one corner or another; far more than the locals ever seem to eat. There are abandoned cottages scattered around which still have healthy rhubarb forests in the garden. Nobody seems to mind if you take a few stems for a crumble or a pie.
Strawberries and tomatoes are not free, but they are grown locally in polytunnels. Sold in June and July in the village shops, the local strawberries are remarkably sweet. Tomatoes are sold a little later in the summer.
There are a couple of herb producers who sell fresh and dried herbs at the Orkney Farmers' Market, held by St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall on the third Saturday of the month.
There are two distilleries in Orkney: Highland Park and Scapa. Both produce single malt whiskies. Highland Park is acknowledged by connoisseurs to be one of the finest whiskies in Scotland. Unfortunately neither are any cheaper to buy on the islands than they are elsewhere in Britain, but you can get a free taste if you take a tour of the distilleries.
The Orkney Brewery is based in the old schoolhouse in Quoyloo, close to Skaill Bay, and was set up in 1988. The beers have suitably Orcadian names, including Skullsplitter9, Northern Light and Dark Island. Many of their beers are sold in supermarkets in Britain. All of them are sold in Orkney shops.
Finally, wine. Yes, wine! Orkney wine is made from local products such as gooseberries, elderflowers and barley. It's expensive, but certainly a novelty and can be found in tourist-oriented shops in Kirkwall and Stromness.
So forget about the bird cliffs, the beaches, the fishing, the craft trails and the archaeology.
Visit Orkney to eat and drink!
For tips on how to prepare and cook Orkney food, ask at the shops, or check out Alan Bichan's cookery column in The Orcadian, the local newspaper.