Taste of Shetland: Better Than Ever

by Alastair Hamilton -

Author James Morton and chef Michelle Lepherd led the proceedings at this year’s Taste of Shetland Festival, both appearing at the event for the first time.

James rose to fame when he became the runner-up on the third series of The Great British Bake Off. Born in Inverness, he grew up in Shetland from the age of three and was introduced to baking by his maternal grandmother, who taught him after school each day. Since appearing on GBBO, he has become a newspaper columnist and an award-winning author. His first book, Brilliant Bread, published in 2013, received a nomination for the best cookbook at the 2013 André Simon Awards and won the corresponding Guild of Food Writers Award 2014. His second book, How Baking Works (and what to do when it doesn't), was released in 2015, followed by Brew: The Foolproof Guide to Making World-Class Beer at Home in 2016. He is currently working on a new book about Shetland’s relationship with food. James spoke at the opening of the Festival and also appeared in the Taste of Shetland Food Theatre on the Saturday morning.

he was introduced to baking by his maternal grandmother, who taught him after school each day.

James welcomed the way in which the Taste of Shetland Festival has helped to put Shetland’s locally-produced food and drink on the map. “I’m delighted to be attending for the first time. Shetland produces some of the finest, purest, ingredients as well as some of the tastiest products. With the writing and photographing of this new book, I've returned and revisited Shetland with a fresh set of eyes. Although I'm home regularly, never have I immersed myself in Shetland's food and culture in such a way. I've been amazed, it's been amazing. It feels like I'm coming home."

Also headlining was Michelle Lepherd, one of the UK’s most interesting chefs. Michelle has worked in some of the busiest and best-known kitchens in London, including many renowned Michelin-starred restaurants. She started her restaurant career in E’cco Bistro, Brisbane, Australia, a regular winner of American Express and Gourmet Traveller awards, moving to London to join the highly-acclaimed River Café, Hammersmith, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray’s temple to Italian cooking which has produced chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The River Café is known for matching great respect for fresh ingredients with careful cooking techniques. Every year, staff visit Italian suppliers to gain an understanding of their regions and production philosophies. Michelle’s career also includes St John Restaurant, Farringdon, Fergus Henderson’s “nose-to-tail eating” concept, which has featured regularly in worldwide top restaurant lists and holds one Michelin star.

Michelle was also Head Chef at the Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais. She was invited to run the kitchen, preparing two meals a day for up to 2,200 refugees based at the so-called Calais “jungle” and Dunkirk refugee camps. As Head Chef of The Good Shepherd RC Primary School in London, she was responsible for menu planning and execution of daily lunch for 250 students and 20 staff. From the start of her appointment she eradicated all pre-packaged foods and condiments and preparing everything from ingredients sourced locally. This also reduced food expenditure by almost 30%.

Having worked with produce from all over the world, Michelle Lepherd thinks that Shetland’s is hard to beat. “The freshness and quality of the ingredients is exceptional.” She was excited to meet the producers behind Shetland’s food and drink and to celebrate Shetland’s “fantastic larder”. Michelle opened the Festival to the public and gave two cooking demonstrations on the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon.

The weekend offered lots to see and do, with the two largest event spaces at the Clickimin Centre offering parallel programmes from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon. The third space hosted a large café offering snacks and drinks.

The freshness and quality of the ingredients is exceptional

There were dozens of stalls offering the very best of Shetland produce, including of course fish and shellfish, lamb, beef and pork, and vegetables. There was bread, too, and some very tempting confectionery including chocolates, not to mention gin and beer.

As well as Michelle and James, the Food Theatre also hosted other demonstrations by local chefs, including Akshay Borges, Susie Jacobs and Jakob Eunson, and last year’s winner of the Shetland Cooking Challenge, Chris Percival.

On the Sunday afternoon, the three finalists in this year’s challenge took to the stage, the eventual winner being Susan Msalila. The judges praised her "exquisite use of flavour combinations to enhance the Shetland produce." They were impressed with her creative and confident use of produce with wonderful provenance, including samosas made with local crab, spiced Shetland lamb and homemade ice cream with local buttermilk. She wins a exclusive trip to Michelin-starred Restaurant Martin Wishart in Edinburgh, including accommodation and flights from Loganair. The judges commented on the exceptional quality of the menus of all the finalists. Fiona Stirling and Karen Malone win vouchers from Scoop Wholefoods.

Over in the other large hall, surrounded by another set of food and drink stalls, there were talks from local experts on a whole range of topics, from the history of grain crops in Shetland to story-telling and tips on vegetable-growing.

All in all, it was a really enjoyable and very well-attended event, and the organisers – and the many sponsors who so enthusiastically supported the event – did Shetland’s produce proud. Roll on 2018…

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