Kirkwall Harbour last Monday evening – a truly wonderful sunset followed on Tuesday by glorious blue skies showcasing the Orkney mainland’s rolling fields and many lochs at their best.
(It didn’t last…. By Wednesday the mists had come down restricting visibility to about 100 yards and by the time I left on Thursday morning, it was chucking it down with rain!!)
But that certainly did not dim the enthusiasm of the Orcadians, gathered for the annual Orkney Science Festival, a truly amazing seven day feast of talks and lectures. Do take look at the site just to see what great events were on offer.
This year there were a number of presentations on food – hence my presence. These had been largely organised by our good friend, Scottish food writer Liz Ashworth who had corralled both me and Professor Yun Wei from the genetics research facility at the Inverness campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands. He to talk about his fascinating research on the micrombiome, me to talk about freefrom. Indeed, not wishing to under-employ her experts, Liz had also arranged for me to speak to the catering students at UHI in Inverness and for us both to talk to the students at Orkney College in Kirkwall. An excellent follow on to the work I have been doing with TUCO.
Since I had never been to Orkney I was keen to squeeze in as much as I could, including some hopefully delicious local fish. So Tuesday morning saw me off bright and early in my hire car heading across the mainland – so called not because it equates to what most of us would think of an a mainland (you can drive round the whole of it in less than a hour) but because it is so much larger than all of the other Orkney islands! I soon blew into Stromness – and blew it was as the sun may have been shining but the Orkney wind felt like a Force 10 gale! Stromness is a lovely little town with one extremely long flagged main street running behind the harbour.
My assumption, based on the complaints that we so often hear – ‘if you live outside the M25 finding freefrom food is almost impossible’ – was that Orkney would be a bit of a freefrom desert. Indeed I rather wondered why Liz had though there would even be an audience for us to talk to about it. But how wrong can you be.
Half way down Stromness high street I came across the Bay Leaf Delicatessen – not only cool in décor and serving an excellent cup of coffee but stocking a generous collection of freefrom goodies including such super-recent arrivals as black bean pastas!! A chat with Gavin, the owner, revealed that Stromness was very freefrom aware – a bit like a mini Edinburgh, he said – and he had no difficulty in finding customers for his freefrom offerings.
The following day, when I met Liz, she assured me that he was far from alone – and took me along to meet Richard Shearer of William Shearer – established, since 1857, in Victoria Road in Kirkwall just beyond the cathedral. And if I had been surprised by the Bay Leaf Deli – Shearer’s is just something else!
It is one of those wonderful shops which used to be found in all small towns which sold everything that its locals could need – and when I say everything, I mean everything! Shearer’s not only had a larger range of freefrom products than the Bay Leaf Deli but it also stocked a huge range of local Orkney foods (and there are some excellent ones), an interesting range of health foods, standard store cupboard foods and all the usual household appurtencance in terms of cleaning and maintenance. Plus….. a good range of kitchen pots, pans and utensils, cake decorations, a reasonable range of personal and healthcare products and a good range of birthday and other cards. But…
‘Out the back’ I discovered a very well stocked hardware shop (tools, screws, saws, paints whatever..), car maintenance kits, coal scuttles, storm lanterns, a comprehensive fishing department with rods, clothing, wetsuits and goodness knows what else; a shooting department; an agricultural seed department and a large gardening section with everything from garden furniture and tools to huge banks of packets of garden seeds; a pet department with the largest bird food offering I have ever seen and even, tucked in a corner behind the shelves of every size of battery, at least three dozen different types of fire grate!
Richard echoed what Gavin at the Bay Leaf Deli had said. Although local Orcadians bought his fire grates and his taties, it tended to be the ‘immigrants’ from mainland Scotland and England and the visitors who kept his freefrom sales up. And like Gavin, he emphasised how vital a good wholesaler was to outlying establishments like Shearer’s – both used, and were massively complimentary about, Green City Wholefoods in Glasgow.
Well, so much for retail freefrom, but what about food service? Well, I am delighted to report that Harbour Fry Fish and Chips in Bridge Street (which has some ace reviews on Trip Advisor) will do you gluten-free fish and chips any day – although you have to order them half and hour in advance as they have to heat up the gluten-free fryer. And that The Reel in Broad Street can offer you gluten-free panini, sandwiches, scones and cakes and is happy to accommodate other allergens with warning.
Of course I am fortunate enough not to need to eat freefrom but I was very anxious to try some local fish. I must admit that my first two nights’ worth were disappointing – sadly I had not discovered the Harbour Fry at that point!
However, on night three, Liz booked me into The Foveran, just outside Kirkwall. (Amazing view – had I been able to see it through the mist!!!)
The Foveran entirely restored my faith in Orkney fish with the MOST delicious scallops, John Dory and turbot that I have tasted in years – and my faith in Orkney cooking with an utterly divine chocolate fondant made with the local bere barley and superbly runny middle….
Chef/owner Paul Doull, an Orcadian himself, is very allergen aware – you can get a print out of all the dishes on offer with their appropriate allergen marked. And if you were to ask in advance he would be happy to accommodate most allergens. However, you would need to ask in advance as when I was there the only dairy and gluten-free dishes actually on the night’s menu were the steak and the sorbet.
I did mention that Orkney is very food aware – indeed, it is a completely fair trade island! And there are some great local products – such as the bere barley that was used in the Foveran’s fondant. And I did track that down too – in a wonderful working late 19th century water mill….. But enough for now! Check back later for ‘cultural Kirkwall’ and bere barley….