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By Alastair HamiltonJune 26th 2022
Alastair Hamilton

It shouldn’t surprise us that Shetland produces wonderful food. Fresh fish and shellfish have been part of islanders’ diets for thousands of years. Heather and seaweed, as well as grass, sustain Shetland sheep and we have cattle and pigs. Vegetables have always been grown but lately the range is much wider and there’s some fruit, too. A larder of that quality needs a cookbook to match, and Marian Armitage has answered the call.

Marian is a passionate advocate for cooking in general, not just Shetland cooking. Born and raised in the islands, she headed south to study in Edinburgh. Over the following 35 years, she taught in state secondary schools in Norwich, and, following her marriage, in London. “That had its challenges,” she tells me, “but huge, huge rewards.” Now, she’s back home and – among other roles – is the chair of Shetland Food and Drink, which exists to promote islands produce. We couldn’t wish for a better-qualified ambassador.

What lies behind her passion? It developed in her childhood.

“My mam was just an ordinary Lerwick mother, and we were fed good food, but I think the difference was that we were always encouraged to be hands-on. I was curious, so she pretty much gave me a free rein – I had to wash a sticky mess off the kitchen floor many a time! But it’s interesting that parenting nowadays feels a bit sanitised, whereas she was always positive and encouraging.”

Marian studied cookery right up to Higher level at school, in a small class. She says that the four-year course in Edinburgh was “of a really high standard” and she obtained an extended diploma, which qualified her to teach. She learned both how to make things, and how to teach things, “and that’s never, ever left me.”

It was from that perspective that she wrote Shetland Food and Cooking, which was named the winner in the food promotion category at the 2016 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Food: Made in Shetland is a very different book but was written in the same spirit.

“It’s about encouraging folk to do it, from scratch, and I passionately believe that some of the difficulties we have now with problems of obesity and diabetes, all of that, would be resolved if more folk could just have the confidence to get good ingredients; they don’t have to be expensive, and of course there’s lots of folk now, in the media, doing that – Jack Monroe, Jamie Oliver, both of whom I think do really excellent and very important work.” Using inexpensive ingredients, such as lamb flank (below), is one of the themes of the new book.

This second book was effectively Marian’s ‘lockdown’ project, but it was also the result of encouragement from Misa Hay of 60 North Publishing, from whom the book can be ordered. Misa organises textiles tours through her company, Shetland Wool Adventures, and – knowing Marian’s reputation – she had asked Marian if she would prepare a dinner for a party of guests. They came to Marian’s house at Scatness in Shetland’s south mainland and, in the conservatory, enjoyed the meal and the wonderful, ever-changing panorama that can stretch all the way to Fair Isle. The house appears in the new book’s striking cover illustration by Gilly Bridle and both the building and its setting are lovingly described in the book’s introduction. “The house was built by my grandfather and my dad was born there. Although I lived in the town when I was growing up, this was always the family house, and it’s lovely to have it now.”

“I’ve never been a chef, or a caterer,” says Marian. “I’ve always been a home cook, and I think that’s what Misa wanted, the idea of folk coming to somebody’s house. I made a starter with fish, a main course of lamb and a dessert that included rhubarb.”

Marian had taken all the photographs for her first book herself, but Misa brought in a professional photographer, Susan Molloy, to create the superb images for Food Made in Shetland. “Misa has such high standards and an eye for design and detail. She’s already worked with 60 North magazine – beautifully produced – and just has that kind of vision of how I could do some recipes and cooking and she would put it all together.”

Susan’s photography illustrates the recipes very well indeed and some of them, such as this beguiling Le Poirat – a pear tart with walnut and cinnamon pastry – are illustrated stage by stage, bolstering the confidence of the less confident cook. It’s an approach that stems from Marian’s teaching background.

Why does Marian think that Shetland’s food is special? “If it’s fish, then it must be the fact that we’ve rich fishing grounds all around Shetland. We have a variety of species, with migrating shoals at different times of the year. But the reason we have the quality and the selection here is the way that the fishermen look after the fish. We also have the incredibly impressive electronic market, which keeps the price high, so it’s a good living”. She’s encouraged by the fact that the average age of a Shetland fisherman is 38, indicating it's an industry that's attracting young people to participate.

Shetland’s native lamb is another highlight on the Shetland menu. “The peerie native lambs are just delicious, they’re small and hardy. It’s that peerieness that I think makes them so succulent, though that’s in the breed as well, of course.” Marian says the same of Shetland native cattle and the superb beef that comes from them; and although the pigs bred in Shetland aren’t a native breed, she feels they, too, probably benefit from the good feeding and the climate.

Marian has seen big changes in Shetland’s food culture over the last couple of decades. Quite simply, “more folk are interested in food”. Today, the scene has been transformed, with a good choice of restaurants and cafés and a clear emphasis on local ingredients.

Shetland Food and Drink has been very active in promoting local produce and she’s especially keen to see young people involved. “We have this ‘Peerie Bites’ competition that we set up, and we’ve had three years of that at the food festival. It was just such a joy seeing the bairns; some of them brought along their granny as their assistant; that multi-generational thing is how we all learn.

Marian feels that the remaining gap in Shetland’s larder is in fruit and vegetables, some of which we’re always going to have to import. But even that has changed in recent years, because of the advent of the Polycrub, which is an extremely robust, locally-manufactured greenhouse that was inspired by a wish to recycle materials. These have, Marian says, “made a huge difference and they really are part of the Shetland landscape, and thankfully quite easy on the eye!” Many Shetland homes now feature one, enabling folk to enjoy soft fruit, apples, pears, plums, nectarines and all sorts of vegetables.

Marian doubts if there will be a third book, but she’s keen to help out with all sorts of projects. She’s going to be cooking at another local author’s forthcoming book launch, and really enjoys cooking for small groups. “I have energy and passion for encouraging folk. I did enjoy cooking the meals in the book and having Susan doing the photography; it was really great!”

Marian has dedicated the book to her sister, Wilma Young, who lived in Iceland until her death in April 2022. “ There’s an awful lot of her in the book. So, there’s sadness, but also a lot of love for Wilma.”

So, what of the recipes? Well, they’re a delight, and sure to provide inspiration. The book offers sections on fruit and vegetables; eggs and dairy; fish; meat; and baking.

Needless to say, Shetland ingredients feature prominently throughout. There are no fewer than 17 fish recipes involving everything from catfish and crab to hake, herring and mackerel, and much more besides. The gravad mackerel with dill cream sauce, seen above, takes at least three days to complete, but patience will be rewarded!

Meat recipes demonstrate the potential of those cheaper cuts, such as slow-cooked beef cheeks and the lamb flank. There’s a pie (shown below) made with reestit (salted and air-dried) mutton.

Beremeal, from the ancient grain, pops up in bannocks and shortbread, and there’s a trio of oatmeal recipes.

Rhubarb – that Shetland mainstay – is used in a compôte and a cordial, which, having made it, I can confirm is delicious. Carrots generally grow very well in lighter Shetland soils, so there’s a very appealing roast carrot salad and a carrot cake. Shetland kale, widely grown, is paired with cherry tomatoes and hazelnuts.

But Marian’s cooking experience embraces many cultures, so from Portugal there’s bacalao (made with salt cod) and pastel de nata, those moreish custard tarts. The menu also includes lechon asado (Cuban roast pork); bunny chow from South Africa; Scandinavian cardamom buns; and more. Spices are deployed in interesting ways in many recipes, from a carrot chutney to a shoulder of mutton.

Our bookshelves may already be well-filled with books about food, but it's worth finding a space for Food Made in Shetland. It’s a brilliant collection of recipes, but it’s more than that, each section being prefaced by a fascinating essay touching on Shetland’s food heritage and exploring the riches that are available from our producers today.

Marian Armitage has done full justice to both that heritage and today’s vibrant food scene.