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7 classic Shetland dishes

by Laurie Goodlad -

As we’re all stuck at home, many of us are trying new dishes to keep our minds occupied. Without being able to visit the world, we can surely taste it instead – in the past few weeks I’ve visited Spain, Italy and France, sampling paella, homemade pizza and a lovely creamy chicken and peaches dish – all this from the comfort of my own kitchen.

Today I want to focus on Shetland’s culinary staples, dishes that you will find in most kitchens throughout the isles and ones that are revisited time and time again. Hopefully they will lead you on an adventure through Shetland, and right into the heart of our kitchens.

Most of these dishes are simple, wholesome and hearty. Most feature tatties, a real staple here in traditional cooking.

Reestit mutton tattie soup

Reestit mutton is a traditional way of preserving mutton. After mutton was soaked in a salty brine, it was hung up to dry in the ‘reest’ (eaves of the house, remember – traditionally, Shetland houses were single-storey croft houses). Hanging it up to dry would allow it to cure and the added peat-smoke gave it a distinctive flavour.

Today, reestit mutton can be bought in the local butcher shops, and people still make and enjoy it at home, although for most, it has lost that added peaty flavour.

One of the best-loved ways to eat reestit mutton is in tattie soup, making it one of Shetland’s most distinctive dishes. The perfect tattie soup is made on the stock of the boiled reestit mutton. The soup itself is fairly simple: tatties, neep, carrots and onion. I like my soup mashed with a fork and quite thick, others like it with lumps, and some like it runny. My husband mashes an oatcake into his, although I’m not sold on that particular take on this classic dish.

Fish an’ Tatties

What could be simpler? Boiled fish and boiled tatties, covered in lashings of Shetland butter.

Fish has always been an important part of the Shetland diet; we sit amongst the best fishing grounds in the North Atlantic, just a stone’s throw from the rich waters on the edge of the Continental Shelf. Shetlanders have always been tied to the sea, and it is often said that we have ‘saat in the blӧd’ (salt in the blood).

Often fish was salted to preserve it, and served simply, with potatoes. When fresh fish was available, this was treated similarly. Shetland fish is so fresh that it needs little more care and attention to get it from sea to plate. This simple method allows the flavours to sing for themselves.

Mince an’ Tatties

Perhaps this dish is better associated with Scottish cookery, but here in Shetland this is a firm weeknight favourite in homes around the islands. Simple, filling and hearty, this dish, perhaps borrowed from Scotland, continues to be a popular one.

Mince and tatties is made using beef mince, carrots, and onions (and perhaps a stick of celery if you’re feeling fruity!). Add to this, beef stock, a splash of Worcester sauce and serve with buttery mashed tatties – this truly is comfort food at its best!

Leftovers? No problem, layer the tatties onto the mince and bake it in the oven to give the perfect shepherd’s pie.

Krappin an’ Stap

This is perhaps a more outlandish recipe and one that is not as common as it would have been in the past. However, for many true Shetlanders, this is the highlight of the foodie calendar.

This is another fish classic, involving a mixture of fish, oatmeal and fish livers (usually olick or piltock), stuffed into the cleaned head of a fish, and is generally an acquired taste!

I must admit that this is one that I don’t really relish. I can cope with the fish head and the oatmeal, but the liver is not for me – although I don’t particularly enjoy any liver dish so this is perhaps a matter of personal preference. However, it’s probably the one dish that really makes my dad’s mouth water.

Sunday Denner

This is another that is perhaps borrowed from our mainland UK neighbours. Shetlanders love a good roast dinner. Think Thanksgiving every Sunday, and you’ll get an idea of what’s involved!

Lamb or mutton are generally used for the traditional Shetland Sunday dinner as it is readily available – sheep are the most common livestock reared here. It's unusual to find a freezer without a leg or two buried at the bottom!

Again, simplicity is key, slow-roasted lamb served with tatties, and seasonal vegetables is unbeatable. I like to give my lamb a good glug of red wine and some garlic, thyme and rosemary as it cooks to really make it sing – not only does it leave a homely, welcoming smell in the kitchen, but it tastes divine too.

Shetland lamb has a distinct and unique flavour; this comes from the grazing the sheep enjoy: salt-misted heathery hills, green infields and the tangy shoreline all add to the taste of this delicate meat.

Rhubarb Crumble

Rhubarb can be said to grow like a weed in Shetland. Nobody is quite sure why, but it seems to thrive in our northern soils and landscape. Often patches of rhubarb can still be found happily growing around the ruins of houses where the inhabitants have long since left.

My absolute favourite is rhubarb crumble, made using the first sweet shoots of spring; it is a taste of summer, a symbol of hope and optimism that we have now moved from the long winter into the lighter months.

Rhubarb, with a thick oaty crust, in my opinion, is the ultimate taste of early summer in Shetland.

Tea an’ Tabnabs

Finally, to conclude our foodie adventure around Shetland, I include tea and tabnabs – a quintessential Shetland experience best experienced at one of our infamous Sunday Teas. Tea refers to the drink, strongly brewed, and tabnabs are cakes, biscuits and finger foods.

Popularly served as ‘8 o'clocks’ (at 8pm) in Shetland homes, this is when the family would come together and have tea and perhaps a slice of Burra brӧnnie and yarn (talk) as the women’s knitting wires clacked and the men puffed on a pipe and tended to fishing lines of kishie (straw basket) making.

Today, you can experience Shetland’s home baking at one of our Sunday Teas. Held throughout the summer months, community halls open their doors, and their kitchens, offering tea, coffee, sandwiches, soups, home bakes and puddings. For a nominal price, you can enjoy as much Shetland hospitality as you can hold. With 50 halls in Shetland, there is often the opportunity to attend a couple of Teas in one afternoon – sure to satisfy any sweet tooth! If you are visiting, look out for roadside signs advertising ‘Teas’, or check the local media to see which halls are holding them on any given weekend. Money raised from teas generally goes to charity, and these events heavily support many local causes.

We would love to hear from you – have you tried any Shetland-inspired dishes during lockdown? Tag @promoteshetland and @shetlandwithlaurie and let us know!

Posted in: Local Food

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