If you and your friends enjoy food and drink even half as much as I do, whilst being really excited about coming to Orkney you might also be wondering ‘what will the food be like?’
Well, it’s time to tease your tastebuds because the food and drink you’ll find waiting for you in these islands is absolutely second to none. Foodie friends of ours who have visited in the five years that we have lived here have been amazed at the quality of Orkney food and drink available in the local specialist shops.
As a cookbook author just toying with my twentieth book, I can assure you that I need to look no further than the local producers and retailers for all the inspiration that I need. So please, don’t head straight to the supermarket: look around for local foods from local shops to be the main ingredients of your Orkney feasts.
I have no doubt that you’ll find it really easy to find foodie gifts to take home to friends: from sweets to spirits, there are countless options for those who have been picking up your post or feeding your cats. My mission, however, is to encourage you to shop local for the meals that you will prepare in your holiday accommodation. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tie you to the stove for hours each evening as the really good news is that most Orkney ingredients are so good that they require only very simple cooking.
For meat eaters, our local butchers offer the best of the local meats, so that means beef and lamb in particular. If you want to try the famous North Ronaldsay mutton and can’t get across to the actual island to eat it, try popping into Fletts in Stromness at the start of your holiday. They usually have some in the freezer. My top tip is to casserole it slowly - it makes a good cassoulet or beany stew with some local sausages, onion, garlic, herbs and butter beans. In fact, you’ll probably get almost everything you need for that at Fletts as they have lovely veg as well. It’s a perfect dish if you are going out walking for the day - leave it cooking or make it the night before to reheat when you come back weary.
Like Fletts, Donaldsons in Kirkwall have local meats and they both have a range of home-made ready meals too. If you are in the West Mainland but not in the towns, you might pop into the Dounby Butcher. Barbara Sinclair doesn’t just specialise in local: the beef and lamb on sale in her shop comes from her own family farm in Sandwick. Treat yourself to a steak - you are on holiday - and check out my Valentine’s Day steak recipe.
Back to Kirkwall and just down the street towards the harbour from Donaldsons you’ll find The Brig Larder. An emporium. Meat is supplied by Williamsons whilst the fish, ready meals and food-to-go like filled rolls for picnics, or just to eat on a bench looking at the harbour, comes from Jollys of Orkney. Jollys is our largest smokery and first ‘farm shop’ (it’s on the trading estate on the site of the Hatston WWII airfield, not a farm).
The Brig also has a good selection of local vegetables and cheeses. You have to try Orkney smoked mackerel: it is just the firmest and meatiest that I have ever had, and perfect in a simple salad with some crusty bread from one of our two sourdough bakeries. You’ll only get Eviedale Bakehouse and Orkney Sourdough breads in our local shops like the Dounby Butcher, The Brig and William Shearers, or in The Bayleaf Delicatessen in Stromness. Spread with Orkney butter, what could be better?
I say Jollys was our first ‘farm shop’ but William Shearer was established in 1857 and to many would seem to be the archetypal farm shop - they are agricultural merchants as well as a fabulous food shop. The front of the shop on Victoria Street in Kirkwall has foods of such diversity that it could be in any major town or city. Luckily for us it is here in Orkney!
Local veg, Caithness summer fruits in the season and a selection of pre-packed local meats and fish jostle with the local cheeses on the shelves and the famous Orkney butter which is lauded in so many TV cookery programmes.
Here, as in The Brig and many of the excellent village shops around the islands, you will also find Orkney Beremeal, a rare ancient barley prepared at Barony Mill near Birsay. Barony Mill is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2023 and is the only mill grinding bere in the world. The flour is used extensively by Orkney bakeries and home cooks and gives a sweet nuttiness to our baking. It’s a great take-home gift for keen cooks and their friends, but you will also find local beremeal biscuits in all the local shops.
Orkney’s cheeses are mainly in a younger, fresh style. Russells and Burnside cheeses stay well in chunks for cooking. At the other end of the flavour and texture spectrum try the Extra Mature Orkney Cheddar from Orkney Cheese. Orkney Cheddar is available across the UK and in Europe, but you will only find the extra mature here. The best selections are to be found in The Bayleaf Delicatessen in Stromness, or the hidden gem that is Kirkness & Gorie. The latter is down an alleyway opposite St Magnus Cathedral, between The Longship shops. Don’t be like us and find this wonderful food and wine shop on the last day of your holiday in Orkney!
Fresh fish is available from Jollys at The Brig or at Hatston but also from the Orkney Fisherman’s Society on the industrial estate going into Stromness - it’s well signposted and easy to find. Quality Shellfish are in a shed on the Hatston estate in Kirkwall - turn by McAdie and Reeve on the corner and it is towards the end of the road on the right in a cabin by a shed. They carry a good range of white fish and local scallops as well as Westray produce like the legendary Fatty Cutty biscuits which are half-way between a shortbread and a Garibaldi.
Many of our excellent restaurants and cafes make a point of using as much Orkney produce as possible. If you eat out at lunchtime it’s so simple to put together a deli supper of cheeses, cured meats and smoked fish, chutneys, bread and crackers and butter. Local beers from the Orkney or Swannay breweries are widely available and the Akvavit from the Orkney Gin Company - either neat or with tonic - makes a fabulous accompaniment to an island cold collation. Scotland’s first akvavit, the name and the taste of this drink reflect our Scandi links and heritage. Like the smoked mackerel from Humes, a small artisan smokery, the Akvavit is a three-star Great Taste Award winner.
Orkney’s food and drink is just as much a reason to come to the islands as our wildlife, archaeology or wartime history, and it is the true flavour of the islands.
Rosemary Moon ‘retired’ to Orkney after a long association with the salmon industry in the islands. The author of 19 cookery books and countless more recipes, including writing for Waitrose and Lakeland, she has brought journalists and food writers to Orkney in the past to show off our diverse and delicious food and drink. After several holidays here Rosemary and her husband Nick have settled in South Ronaldsay but, once a cookery writer always a cookery writer, Rosemary is finding it impossible to stop jotting down the new recipes that she is creating with the island produce.