Our regular Orkney food blogger Rosemary Moon focuses on the delicious cheese available across the islands.
A selection of different textures, strengths, aromas and colours is the secret of a good cheeseboard. There should be a cheese there for everyone and what Orkney can’t offer in terms of blue or mould-ripened cheeses, it soon makes up for with a glorious variety of local biscuits and oatcakes, butter and preserves to accompany and showcase the islands’ cheeses.
When I am ‘oot and aboot’ giving talks and cookery demonstrations I often ask which are the Orkney foods that the audience are most proud of and, almost unfailingly, Orkney Cheddar comes out in the first few answers. It is a real success story born out of necessity: when the troops left the islands after WWII the farmers who had been supplying them with milk had a huge surplus and the supply couldn’t be just turned off. They formed a co-operative and started making cheese.
Orkney Cheese continues to flourish to this day, supplying milk to the Crantit Dairy who distribute it as liquid milk, cream and ice cream, while the co-operative uses the majority of the milk to make their internationally famous Cheddar and the butter that we love so much here. France is currently Orkney Cheese’s biggest overseas market (who’d have thought, Orkney selling cheese to France!) Our family in Germany are always delighted when their supermarkets have the cheese in stock.
We do, however, have a best kept secret about Orkney Cheddar: you can buy the medium, mature or smoked cheese in many places in Scotland, the UK and further afield, but you will have to come to Orkney to taste and enjoy the Extra Mature. It is well worth the journey. The cheese has so much flavour: a sweet, nuttiness and lots of herbal notes from the flora-rich grazing and, as nowhere is far from the sea in Orkney, there’s a hint of coastal pastures in the flavour too. For me, the Extra Mature Cheddar is an essential part of an Orkney cheeseboard, a real cut-and-come-again cheese.
Some Orkney Cheddar is sold to the Island Smokery in Stromness who - you guessed - smoke it and add flavourings such as Highland Park whisky, Kirkjuvagr gin and Dark Island ale from the Orkney Brewery, as well as pickle, black pepper and cranberries amongst others. These flavour-added cheeses are popular additions to a cheeseboard. Humes Artisan Smokers also smoke Orkney Cheddar, using Scapa whisky for my favourite variety. The whisky is subtle and marries well with the smoke. Donaldsons butchers in Kirkwall are amongst the other people smoking the cheese and, as with all their smoked products, they do it well.
Probably the earliest cheese made in Orkney was a fresh, lightly pressed cheese and the most famous example of it locally is Grimbister. It is often cut into triangles, breaded and fried and is one of the most popular starters on many restaurant menus in the islands. Ned Palmer’s excellent book A Cheesemongers History of the British Isles (pub Profile Books) opens with Neolithic Feasting, a period bound to grab the interest of any reader in Orkney. Ned talks about the Seators in Orkney making their cheese (Grimbister) without a starter as would have happened in earliest times. It is fascinating, although the new generation in the family do use a starter now. If you are in Stromness pop into E. Flett Butchers who have Grimbister fresh and unpackaged - the usual wrapped portions are a quarter of a whole cheese. It is delicious.
New to fresh cheesemaking on a commercial scale is retired welder Barry Graham, the maker of Orkney’s latest cheese Burnside, which is on the cheeseboard in the picture. Barry’s cheese stays more readily in chunks than Grimbister when it is cooked and I have used it in curries as a paneer, in pasta dishes and even risottos where it has retained a good texture. It is as at home on a cheeseboard as it is in cooked dishes.
Orkney’s only cheese being made totally with the farms’ own milk is Westray Wife. It is made by Jason and Nina Wilson on their farm by Notland Castle in the beautiful - and very foodie - island of Westray. They have a very peedie (small) herd of eight Ayrshire cows so production is limited and you will only find Westray Wife in very select cheesemongers outwith Orkney. The cheese is washed in a brine and is ready for sale at two months old. The Westray Wife, Orkney’s only true farmhouse cheese, is softer than a Cheddar and is named after the tiny Neolithic figure found in a dig in 2009 at the Links of Notland in Westray, very close to the farm.
Many shops sell the pre-packed cheese but for the best of the often-sticky rind buy it off the block at Kirkness & Gorie or The Brig Larder in Kirkwall, or the Bayleaf Delicatessen in Stromness. If you cannot countenance a cheeseboard without a blue, then you’ll be able to get Blue Monday or Strathdon Blue from Highland Fine Cheeses at Tain on the east coast at Kirkness & Gorie. The Bayleaf Deli also keeps a good selection of Scottish blues.
Any cheeseboard needs biscuits and there are the Westray Bakehouse water and flakey biscuits to offer a contrast to the more traditional Orcadian oatcakes. Just about every bakery makes oatcakes and they are all slightly different. Stockan’s oatcakes are widely available outwith Orkney but you’ll have to come here to find many of the others. I think the newest are Baikies oatcakes, both plain and flavoured, being made in Finstown and distributed all over the islands to local shops, all of which carry a good range of Orkney bannocks and biscuits to go with cheese. Perhaps more of a lunchtime thing with cheese than for a supper cheeseboard, there are also delicious Orkney chutneys to complement the curds.
A favourite of mine is the beer chutney from Glynis Leslie in Shapinsay, the owner of Orkney Isles Preserves. It makes a spectacular toastie with Orkney Cheddar and is also a perfect accompaniment to a lunchtime cheeseboard.
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.