It’s not always easy to impress food writers who have 'been places and eaten stuff'. But a picnic on the beach at Skaill before a visit to Skara Brae did just that.
Plates were loaded with smoked salmon and salmon pate, Orkney cheddar, smoked ham, cured beef and Orkney Isles Preserves including the smoked tomato and beer chutneys. Orkney butter was slathered onto Orkney sourdough made with mixed flours including beremeal and from the first mouthfuls onwards there were happy and contented comments. A result indeed. Maybe it’s eating outside by the sea but there were barely any crumbs left for the seagulls.
For Jane and Paul of JP Orkney, a local picnic is a big part of a day for visitors touring around Orkney with them in their electric people carrier. This food-centric couple are leaders in green tourism initiatives in the islands. Paul says that whether people want to visit distilleries, archaeological or wartime sites, or just get outside get out to do some nature watching, a local picnic is part of their day.
Along with their own JP preserves, tiffin and bakes, and salads from their polytunnel, they use all Orkney produce to give the best possible Orkney experience. In fact, their picnics are so good that they often work with companies like Wilderness Scotland and Intrepid Travel to keep visitors well fed with Orkney food as sustainably as possible. Even if you haven’t booked a picnic and tour from them you can add their bakes to your own picnic from their honesty box in Birsay.
It is easy to shop for an Orkney picnic, especially if you pop into one of the local stores like Jollys, The Brig Larder, or Shearers in Kirkwall, or Fletts the butchers or The Bayleaf Delicatessen if staying in or near Stromness. And you’ll pick up a fabulous range of picnic foods from any of the village shops on the Orkney mainland or the outer isles as they stock local all year round - it’s what Orcadians and visitors like best.
One couple that I spoke to on the beach had done just that. Wanting to picnic by the sea on a sunny day, they had popped into a village shop and bought smoked ham from Williamsons, two of the very popular flavoured smoked cheddars from The Island Smokery, Stockan’s Great Taste Award-winning new spelt wheat, herb and pepper oatcakes (they are delicious), Orkney butter and some chutney. I think I spotted a couple of bottles of local beer and some biscuits too! They were out for the day and all set to relax and enjoy themselves.
For most of us a holiday picnic is sandwiches to eat half way round a walk and Orkney has many fabulous walks to explore. Bakeries like Argo’s offer freshly made sandwiches to take with you if you don’t want to make your own, as do butchers like Donaldsons where there are often pies stuffed full of local meat on offer as well. Crab rolls are always a favourite, and Orkney’s brown crabs are amongst the best. Anywhere. A pack of crab claws, or crab toes as they are known here, makes good picnic food but keep them cool. We have happy memories of eating homemade crab sandwiches next to Midhowe Broch in Rousay on holiday before we moved here. Maybe it’s the crab sandwiches that drew us back to live?!
Every picnic needs something sweet to finish with and our wonderful Orkney bakeries have temptations for everyone. The Birsay Bay Tearoom deliver their home bakes into a number of local shops including Shearers, well packaged for a knapsack and a hike. Orkney’s bakeries produce fabulous shortbread biscuits: try the beremeal shortbread in Argo's Traditional range, or the new Baikies shortbreads from Rendall’s.
And if you have a flask of coffee with you, Westray Bakehouse Ginger Parkins must be the best dunkers ever.
Eating Orkney food on a picnic here on the islands can mean that you are supporting artisan makers and small producers in more ways than you might imagine. For example, if you buy The Island Smokery smoked cheddar, you are supporting all the local dairy farmers who are in a co-operative supplying the milk, cream and ice cream of the islands as well as making the cheddar. Some of the cheese is then smoked by The Island Smokery using wood shavings from one of the island’s leading carpenters and furniture makers, as well as a bodhran maker who crafts the traditional Celtic skinned drums.
That’s music to the ears of all of us who care about island life.