By Alastair HamiltonNovember 27th 2020
Alastair Hamilton

With Christmas approaching, the thoughts of many – in Shetland as elsewhere – have turned to Christmas preparations. What part does food play in the islands?

Christmas will feel different this year, thanks to the covid pandemic; some Christmas dinners will be virtual, or partly so. But much will remain the same. There are cards to write, presents to buy, a tree to decorate and letters to send to Santa.

And, as ever, there is food to think about. In describing Shetland Christmas Past a number of years ago, I explained that the season – usually known as Yule – was marked by some specific customs in which superstition played a large part. On the Sunday before Yule Day, the menu wasn’t the most appealing, at least to modern tastes…

On the Sunday before Yule Day, called Byaena's Day, supper consisted of half a cow's head, boiled; a sheep's head (or other animal's) would be used if no cow was available. Brose was made with bursteen (a kind of oatmeal) and fat from the cooking liquid. The skull was cleaned and a candle was stuck in the eye-socket, ready for Yule morning when it would be carried through the house.

superstition played a large part

In those days, it seems that duck, rather than the rarer goose or turkey, may have been the Yule Day centrepiece for many families, but there could also be mutton, beef or pork. Fish – probably salt or dried – would often have played a part.

Today, turkey may be the conventional choice, but Shetland folk respect some of the old traditions. One of them involves reestit mutton – mutton that has been steeped in brine, then air-dried, traditionally above a peat-fuelled stove. Once boiled, it can be served as a snack or appetiser on a bannock or an oatcake, but it also forms the basis of a really tasty soup made with potatoes. In fact, that sort of tattie soup is made for all kinds of celebrations in Shetland, not only at Christmas – it’s practically our national dish. There’s more about reestit mutton, and a recipe for the soup, in this article by Elizabeth Atia.

The starter

Tattie soup, with bread or bannocks on the side, can be a meal in itself, but a smaller portion is a fine starter. Reestit mutton also works well on canapés, as does salt beef.

Other options to open the meal can of course be fish-based and smoked fish is always a delicious option. The simplest choice is probably smoked salmon; in Shetland, those making it include Hand-Made Fish and Blyd ‘O’ It Fish Shop. However, smokeries elsewhere produce it using Shetland salmon – the label should tell you – and it’s to be found on the shelves of many supermarkets. A paté made from smoked salmon or smoked mackerel is another good option, and local firm, Thule Ventus, has recently added a salt cod version to their range of products.

The main event

For a change from turkey, goose or duck, or if two roasts are on the menu, then a favourite in Shetland is always local lamb. Shetland native lamb is special and is protected by the EU’s PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) rules, in the same way as regional specialities such as Melton Mowbray pork pies, camembert or champagne. Feeding naturally on grass, heather or – in some parts of the islands, seaweed – it has a distinctive and very fine flavour. Leg of lamb is probably the most popular cut, but roast shoulder can be particularly tender and succulent.

It’s possible to obtain Shetland lamb outwith Shetland by getting in touch with suppliers such as Briggs’ Shetland Lamb; alternatively, some high-class butchers such as Lidgate’s in Holland Park, London stock it in season, in their case from Uradale Farm.

A good range of locally-grown vegetables is available in Shetland and, with other ingredients, can either complement the traditional bird or joint or be the basis of a really delicious vegetarian or vegan option. The Shetland Black potato is a beautiful colour and very versatile; best of all, it makes spectacularly good roasties! They’re not all that easy to track down, but you may be able to buy them in independent greengocers’ and I’ve occasionally found them in Waitrose.

it makes spectacularly good roasties!

The perfect pudding

When it comes to puddings, how about a traditional plum pudding? In Cookery for Northern Wives (Shetland Heritage Publications) – a real period-piece among recipe books, first published in 1925 – Margaret B Stout offer two recipes and I’ve adapted them slightly to produce this one.

  • Half a pound (225g) of breadcrumbs
  • Two ounces (60g) of flour
  • Half a pound (225g) of suet (shredded, either original or vegetarian)
  • Half a pound (225g) of dates, stones out and chopped
  • Half a pound (225g) of sultanas
  • Half a pound (225g) of currants
  • Two ounces (60g) of mixed peel
  • Two ounces (60g) of lemon peel
  • Two ounces (60g) of almonds
  • One teaspoonful of mixed spice
  • One lemon
  • Four eggs
  • Half a pound (225g) of Demerara sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • Some milk

If you prefer, you can substitute chopped apple, figs or nuts for the dates, or a combination of these that comes to the same weight.

Grate the lemon peel and combine all the dry ingredients in a basin, then beat the eggs and add them, with a little milk. Mix together, and if the mixture seems very stiff, add a little more milk to loosen it; it should be moist.

Margaret Stout offers three options for cooking the pudding: firstly, you can turn the mixture into a buttered basin (¾ full), cover with greased paper and steam for 8 hours. Alternatively, the pudding may also be boiled for 5 hours, either in a cloth or in a basin (full), covered with a floured cloth.

How about drinks?

The climate is certainly warming in Shetland, but we’ve some way to go before crofters can start thinking about planting vines – well, other than in polycrubs – so we have to look south for wine.

We do, though, have gin, distilled in Shetland by Shetland Reel, and they also offer a very nice blended malt whisky (an unusual thing in itself) which, though not distilled in Shetland, is partly aged here. There’s local beer too. The Lerwick Brewery offers a good range of lager, IPA and stout, and they do mail order.

Although much of the food at Christmas in Shetland may be familiar, the islands offer some truly great ingredients from land and sea, generously garnished with local tradition.

If you would like to find out more about ordering food from Shetland, a web search will turn up many sources of supply. An excellent place to start, though, is at the Taste of Shetland website, where you can meet many of our food suppliers and order some local products, such as oatcakes and butter.

Bon appetit!