Exploring Orkney's larder - festive season shortbread

Discover new tastes and recipes from Orkney's food and drink producers.

Our regular food blogger Rosemary Moon has come up with a delicious Orkney recipe for anyone with a sweet tooth this Christmas.

In Orkney we like to make our shortbread with a base of wheat flour and beremeal, our native ancient grain. By adding crystallised ginger and warming festive spices, this Christmas bake reflects a spice trade into the islands which is nearly four centuries old.

Visitors are drawn to our windswept islands for many reasons but one of the most alluring is history. That Orkney was central to the development of Britain in the Neolithic has been proved without doubt and the number of times that the BBC TV series 'Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney' has been repeated helps to bring visitors flocking to the Ness of Brodgar dig site each summer.

In more recent history Orkney was the last port of call for explorers, and then traders, heading to North America. Captain James Cook is known to have set sail across the Atlantic from Stromness and the town later became a base for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Local fiddle player Graham Rorie’s album The Orcadians of Hudson’s Bay was celebrated at the Orkney Folk Festival last May. Graham’s album notes state that by 1800, 79% of the company’s employees were from Orkney, with Orcadians making up 418 of the 524 total staff.

Over half a century later Orcadian John Rae discovered the missing link in the Northwest Passage that Franklin had failed to find. It is hoped that in 2023 an Orcadian ocean rower will be part of a crew attempting to navigate Rae’s route. The Orkney Distillery has released a delicious Northwest Passage Expedition Gin to help raise money for the expedition, flavoured with botanicals from the shores of both Orkney and Hudson Bay.

Today when shopping, even in our fabulous local shops, it is all too easy to just assume that ingredients like olive oil, sugar and spices will be there without thinking about where they came from and when they first arrived in Orkney. I was amazed to learn that the remains of an amphora which had held olive oil was found at The Cairns dig in South Ronaldsay, an Iron Age site. I have been told that sets a date for olive oil here in Orkney around 200 years either side of the Birth of Christ. Now this is turning into a more Christmas/festive blog…

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute here is not only researching ancient history. The LIFTE Project is looking at trading into and outwith the islands and I am excited that the first references to spices have shown up on ships cargo lists from the 1660s. As Orkney’s merchants started to expand their trading range after the restoration of Charles II (and to keep copious records, held in the Orkney Archive), more and more ‘luxury’ goods started arriving: spices, tea, sugar and tobacco (ref: Anne Mitchell, LIFTE Project, UHI Archaeology Institute). I have heard tales of brandy around that time too.

It seems, therefore, highly unlikely that my recipe is the first for a spiced barleymeal shortbread. It is delicious though - it has been taste-tested up and down our lane for the level of spicing - and it will definitely be part of our Christmas baking. Whether you make a rubbed-in or a creaming method shortbread, the ingredients as specified will work.

Spiced beremeal shortbread

Ingredients (makes 12 pieces)

  • 50g crystallised ginger
  • 200g plain flour
  • 100g beremeal (available by mail order)
  • 100g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
  • 1tsp ground ginger
  • 0.5tsp ground cinnamon
  • 0.25tsp Chinese 5-spice
  • 200g firm Orkney butter from the fridge


  1. Finely chop the crystallised ginger. Butter a 20cm sandwich tin and preheat the oven to gas mark 4, 170C.
  2. Combine the flour and beremeal with the sugar and spices. Cut the butter into small pieces and rub it into the flour mix until it starts to come together. This is easiest in either a table mixer or by pulsing the ingredients in a food processor.
  3. Add the chopped ginger and continue mixing until the dough is starting to form small lumps. Turn into the prepared tin and press down evenly and smoothly with a palette knife.
  4. Mark the edges of the shortbread with a fork and then prick it all over, inserting the fork down to the tin, right through the dough.
  5. Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour. I always use 170C in my electric oven which is correct to dial. For most fan ovens bake at 160C and check after 45-50 minutes. In a gas oven bake on a low shelf below the centre of the oven. An overall even colour and texture indicates baked.
  6. Loosen round the edge of the shortbread as soon as it comes out of the oven and carefully cut it into 12 petticoat tails, then sprinkle with a little caster sugar. Leave it in the tin until cold, then cut it again and remove it to your biscuit tin, or wrap it in foil.

Cooks tip: make a double quantity… ;-)

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.

Rosemary also writes and vlogs about whisky and is particularly interested in whisky and food matching. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram and on her rosemarymoon.com.

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