The Shetland Food Trail - A Grand Foodie Adventure

by Elizabeth Atia -

My last week was spent traveling the length and breadth of Shetland, from the very top in Unst to the south in Sumburgh, as far west as Braewick, Eshaness and to Scotland's farthest eastern island group the Out Skerries.

I was on the Shetland Food Trail, speaking with producers, retailers, chefs, cafes and restaurants, sampling the finest produce and photographing my adventures along the way. I went on a bit of an Instagram marathon with my iPhone (which, incidentally, I bought second hand from a friend for the whopping price of a bag of organic onions!) If you're on Instagram you can find me here.

There are so many things written down in my notebook to share with you all now, so many recipes and truly inspiring stories from such a dedicated, inspiring people united under one cause: to provide great food. There are too many things to write down in all one post, so for now I will just highlight a few of the most memorable Food Trail experiences I've had over the last week.

My adventure began began in Unst, the most northerly inhabited UK island where, after the ferry strained to get positioned correctly so we could dock, the winds picked up and I ended up stranded on the island for the night! I could think of worse places to be stranded, as Unst is one of my favourite places in Shetland. It always feels like I am on holiday when I visit there.

My first stop was at Skibhoul Bakery where bakers Desley Stickle and David Laurenson were busy making a batch of their popular oceanic oatcakes. The ingredients for their oatcakes are carefully measured out on a gorgeous antique set of scales, and they really do use oceanic seawater in their recipe. The water is collected near Balta Isle where the tide quickly runs past and it's brought back to the bakery where it is boiled and used to make the oatcakes.

For lunch I indulged in the Deluxe Chocolate Experience at the North Base Cafe & Foords Chocolates Britain's most northerly chocolate producer run by husband and wife team Aaron and Cassie Foord. My deluxe experience consisted of a hot chocolate with marshmallows, cream and chocolate embellishments served with a selection of filled and solid chocolates and shortbread biscuits dipped in chocolate. If one is going to start a food trail adventure with a bang that's the way to do it!

After a tour and chat with Aaron about all things chocolate I headed to the most northerly UK brewery, Valhalla Brewery, who make a range of mighty fine ales. There was nothing happening in the brewery at that moment to photograph, so the owner, Sonny, and I spent ages just chatting food and drink and drinking coffee. I asked if anyone had used his products in recipes and, besides Shetlandeli's newly launched Valhalla Chutney, he said that the Sjolmet Stout made a rather fine beef and ale pie. I put this to the test. It does!

This was the view I was faced with when I left Valhalla brewery. Gale force 9 winds created a wild, turbulent sea and sea foam was spraying everywhere. A combination of tides and wind meant the ferry off the island was cancelled, so I headed to the Baltasound Hotel, #3 on the food trail, to see if they had room for a wanderer!

Fortunately they did, and I had a very good night's sleep in their Scandinavian style wooden cabin despite the wind. For my evening meal I had a gorgeous three course meal starting with local pan seared scallops with black pudding and creamy mustard sauce. This was followed by Shetland salmon and scalloped potatoes with steamed fresh market vegetables grown on Unst. Pudding was a choux bun filled with ice cream and covered in chocolate sauce, and I enjoyed a glass or two of red wine with my fellow guests that evening in the bar.

Yes, I could think of worse places to be 'stranded'.

The following day the weather cleared and I headed south to the west mainland of Shetland to enjoy a superb lunch of cullen skink made with fresh local seafood at the St. Magnus Bay Hotel. This was followed by a lengthy conversation about food with the hotel owners Andrea Manson and Paul Bird over their gorgeous home made scones with jam and cream served with tea in china cups. Positively civilised! I have a historical recipe from this establishment to share with you in the near future, so there will be more on them then!

Half an hour after I finished my tea and scones I found myself standing among a field of cattle in Braewick, Eshaness. The Braewick Cafe (#8 on the food trail) is closed this time of year (although I shared a story and recipe about them this summer), but things are still very busy on the croft next door where they rear their own beef, pork and lamb for the cafe. I confess, I'd never been as close to a pig as I had that day and they're quite intimidating creatures, as are the cattle when you aren't used to them! I hovered very close to the crofter the whole time.

I was quite taken with the fella on the left, he kept making faces as I was taking photographs!

That evening I finally returned home, only to begin my adventure again the following morning on Shetland's west side. I had breakfast at the Bonhoga Gallery (another gorgeous home made scone with a cafetiere of coffee) before having a quick look around the exhibition (as you do!). This was followed by a visit to J.K. Anderson's butchers in Weisdale where they were just finishing making a massive batch of pies. Using as much locally sourced meat as they can they make a wide range of pies; their reestit mutton and pulled pork ones being the most popular.

After the butchers, and a few other stops, I headed into Lerwick, Shetland's main town. There are 22 establishments in Lerwick on the Food Trail, including a variety of hotels, restaurants, cafes and shops so there wasn't enough time to visit them all. Scoop Wholefoods, in the Bolts Shopping Centre, sells a wide range of locally sourced produce, including local cheese, eggs, lamb, beef, peat bog brownies, vegetables and much more. Just down the hall from Scoop is the Artisan Foods pop up shop selling Shetland Cheese, Vidlin pies, preserves and sweets.

The fuel for my Lerwick day trip came from the gianormous beverage pictured below. This beauty is the new fudge hot chocolate from Coffee & Keetchin, who, in addition to making a wide range of lunch time dishes using as much local produce as possible, roast and grind their own coffee blend. They've got free wifi too, handy if you happen to be on an Instagram-athon.

Thursday's food trail adventures took me to the rural west side. My two favourite experiences that day were meeting the young baker Robert Tonkinson (pictured right, below), the man behind the all-wheat Westside Cob, one of my favourite loaves made here in Shetland. He works in the Walls Bakery (#22 on the food trail). Regular Taste of Shetland readers might remember me raving about that loaf and how good it is in a grilled cheese sandwich with monterey mild Shetland cheese (ooh I'm salivating just thinking about it!).

I couldn't believe the speed at which these bakers worked. I asked if they'd sped up just because I was there with a camera, but no, they are like a well-oiled fast machine. At times dough was literally flying through the air! It was a fascinating process to watch.

Next, a visit to Burrastow House. I hadn't intended on visiting here as I was told it was shut for the season, and that the owner, Pierre Dupont, had flown back to his native Bruges for the winter. However, during a quick visit to refuel at the Walls Shop I was told that no, he was home, he'd been spotted in the village shop earlier that morning. So, I gate crashed his guest house and I am so glad I did!

Burrastow House was built in 1750 and is now a seasonal guest house offering visitors a quiet remote retreat during Shetland's summer months. When I arrived Pierre was filling hollowed frozen oranges with home made ice cream for the last of his guests. We sat in his kitchen and had a very enjoyable chat over one of the best coffees I have ever had. When he reopens in the Spring I will be queuing at the door to try his cooking, which he does with whatever seasonal produce is available at the time and whatever he fancies making on that day. That's my kind of cooking!

There are fourteen village shops on the Food Trail all selling Shetland bakery and butcher products, local eggs and vegetables. The most remote of these shops is on the Out Skerries, a 90 minute ferry journey both ways! Friday was dedicated to visiting these remote islands and A. Humphray's village shop simply because I'd never been before.

On the ferry trip over I was invited into the wheelhouse for a better view of the lighthouse and incredibly narrow channel into the harbour. You kind of wanted to hold your breath and suck your stomach in so you'd fit better! Although the seas were rather calm that day (for our standards) the waves crashed dramatically all along the cliffs of the islands.

I spent four glorious hours walking around that island waiting for the next ferry back to the mainland. I saw my first great grey shrike in the bushes and watched the birdwatchers visiting the island look for some little rare brown number that was hiding from them.

The village shop is in an old stone building and they sell absolutely everything including Skerries eggs. I saw their flock of hens pecking away at the seashore on my travels. The lack of ceiling, just the bare wooden roof and the bare light bulbs added to the appeal of the place.

The following day I had the most superb lunch at the Scalloway Hotel after a quick visit to the Scalloway Meat Company and a chat with Danny the butcher. In addition to using local reared meat as much as they can the Scalloway butchers make a wide range of their own products: black and white pudding, sassermeat, sausages, etc. You name it they make it. They have an extensive gluten free range too.

Now... that lunch I just mentioned.

Oh my goodness gracious me!

I confess, my husband and I ate at the Scalloway Hotel many, many years ago. It was a lovely meal but it didn't encourage us to return again. My opinion has changed after my lunch there last week.

Owners Peter and Caroline McKenzie have reinvested a substantial amount of money into their hotel kitchen, and they have some new very highly trained chefs. They would like to be seen as a destination restaurant, and winning three A rosettes in the last three years and reaching the finals in three out of the last four years for the Best Restaurant Experience means you won't leave disappointed. Just have a look at my starter, artfully titled 'The Shetland Seashore'.

Beautifully presented on a black slate this starter consisted of a perfectly cooked Shetland scallop, two Shetland mussels, a crab claw, a lobster tail, winkles and samphire all on a bed of bread crumbs and topped with sea water foam!

My main course, troncan of turbot with duck egg yolk and beet mash ravioli, smoked celeriac puree, spinach and hazelnut pesto was also a show stoppingmeal. It looked beautiful, it was cooked to perfection, and it tasted amazing. Pudding was a home made chocolate and peanut butter parfait with chocolate soil, praline and peanut popcorn. I will be returning again, this time with my husband in tow!

I finished off my journey on the Shetland Food Trail on the Sunday on the south mainland. I didn't get the chance to visit all sixty-two places on the Food Trail due to time constraints, seasonal opening hours and holidays but I did manage to visit the majority of them for a chat and a few photographs. What I've shared with you here is just scratching the surface.

Shetland has a rich larder and the Shetland Food Producers Group have created the Shetland Food Trail as a means for you, the consumer, to locate the finest Shetland has to offer. Keep an eye out for the "We're on the Food Trail" signs dotted throughout the islands and you'll know you're getting high quality, local produce.

CALLING ALL FOOD LOVERS!


Have you had a great foodie experience while in Shetland? The Shetland Food Producers Group would like you to nominate your favourite Shetland Food Champion for the first ever Shetland Food Champion Award. The winner, with the most votes, will be announced at the annual Shetland Food Fair in November. Visit the Food Trail website to find out more.