When landing in the lush mist-shrouded green of Orkney, it is no surprise that the northern Scottish archipelago is positioning itself as a prime food destination. The rich flat islands are framed by the violent currents of the Atlantic and North Sea, dotted with fat placid cows, ancient stone walls and culinary treasures.
There are many reasons to visit the 70 islands comprising Orkney. For one, there's their remoteness and beauty. And then the midnight sun, northern lights, the Norse legacy left by Viking and Norwegian rulers over centuries, thousands of breeding puffins, Bronze age burial mounds and mysterious standing stones.
Visitors will also discover chocolatey beremeel bannocks, Highland Park single malt whiskey, blackberry port, Grimbister cheese, Orkney beef, fresh scallops and langoustine, organically farmed and wild trout and salmon, sell-your-soul ice-cream, surf-n-turf lamb – and some extraordinary chefs who can turn these ingredients into dreamlike feasts.
Outside the Orkney capital of Kirkwall, lies the Foveran Hotel, overlooking the historic natural harbour of Scapa Flow. It is here that I encounter my first beremeel bannock – a rich brown griddle-baked bread traditionally served at weddings. It's the shape of pita, soft as cake, with a Maltabella taste. It's made from fine barley flour ground in ancient stone mills. Although one could easily consider the combination of Higland Park whiskey and bannock to be the end of one’s ambitions, chef, Paul Doull, hasn’t yet begun.
The restaurant’s simple dining room serves substantial marvels whilst the misty green landscape outside offers now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t views of the tides of the Atlantic running through the southern islands of Orkney like rivers. For a starter there is homemade oatcakes, cut in triangular wedges like dark shortbread with nutty crispness, alongside gratinated fresh haddock. The main course is Orkney beef fillet topped with caramelized onion and haggis from the butchery in Kirkwall, encased in lattice puff pastry set on a Highland Park cream sauce. It is a combination almost as beautiful as the dessert – a baked sliver of lemon tart with Paul’s marmalade ice cream alongside.
Not far away stands Highland Park, Britain’s northernmost distillery. It makes perfect sense that British naval officers commandeered the distillery for their barracks during the Second World War. Scapa Flow was the main base of the Royal Navy during the war. The stone-built distillery stands on a hill in view of Scapa Flow to the south and Kirkwall on the northern shore. The enterprising officers took their baths communally in the large wooden fermentation vats. This lingering history may be one of the earthy flavours left in a glass of Highland Park whiskey. The distillery does its own peat fire malting with peat cut from the fragrant heather of the islands.
On the road south appears an unexpected signpost for the Orkney Wine Company. The farm road leads from there past flat pastures to a small cellar where Emile van Schayk, an enterprising Dutch man, produces wines from the fruit, herbs and honey of the islands. He is a man who inspires enthusiasm. At harvest time many Orcadian volunteers assist to pick the herbs and flowers that go into his wines. The tasting list is enticing. It includes Strubarb (strawberry and rhubarb) and Elderflower wines. There is also a honey wine which the Vikings first made from fermented honey on the islands during their rule from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries. I lose my heart to the Blackberry Port.
The journey leads from Mainland (the largest island) over the island of Burray to the southernmost island of South Ronaldsay. There nestles the picture-perfect village of St. Margaret’s Hope in a small cove. Overlooking the water is the stark white façade of The Creel, the best restaurant in Orkney (and one of the best in Scotland). The exterior mirrors the neutrality of the interior and the reserve of the chef-owner, Alan Craigie. He is an Orcadian who trained in California and Edinburgh before returning to open The Creel to great acclaim.
The priceyness of the establishment (the most expensive on the islands) irks some of the locals. But Alan is not a man who responds to anything other than the quality of food, paying homage on his daily-changing menu only to what is best on the islands and discarding whatever produce falls short of his high standards (putting him somewhat out of sync with a drive to proclaim all Orkney produce excellent).
The food is uncompromising. With the name referring to a basket for fishing lobster (in evidence throughout Orkney), The Creel specializes in seafood. My meal will stand out in my lifetime – frothy red langoustine bisque with poached halibut and lightly grilled squid; seared hake and monkfish accompanied by a chorizo cassoulet. For dessert, a trio triumph of rhubarb – crumble, custard and homemade ice cream. At £35 for my three-course meal with Australian chardonnay, I found it by no means an extravagant price.
I discover humbler pleasures during my rain-soaked visit to the Stone Age archeological site of Skara Brae on Mainland. During a gale the five thousand year old village was uncovered here by the waves of the Bay of Skaill. Roofless the houses stand remarkably intact with kitchen cupboards, central hearths and beds. Having resisted the wind and rain on the stormy coast with my umbrella in tatters around my ears, I make the unlikely purchase of a tub of Orkney Creamery’s vanilla ice cream. There is something universally irresistible about an ingredient list that commences with "whole milk, double cream" and ends with "Madagascan vanilla (1%)". It tastes real and wholesome, creamy white and, yes, warm in the cold northern greenery.
To the furthest north graze beasts of mythological description are the beach-wandering sheep of the island North Ronaldsay. An eight-seater plane can carry you to this most remote part of the Orkney Islands. Dangerous tides surround the little island. Its sparse arable land is enclosed by a centuries-old stone dyke, framing the cold beach where goat-like sheep survive. About 3,000 of them eat exclusively seaweed that washes purple black onto the white sand. They are small, horned creatures with long hair and wild skittish natures. Communal farming activity sees them herded together at high tide for shearing, to prevent them swimming across small inlets.
The meat of the surf-n-turf sheep is unique and has been discovered by chefs, including Gordon Ramsey who flies it into London when available in the spring. I have come to the wild island in mid-summer for a taste of this phenomenon. It is lambing season and the short time in the year (until end July) when the ewes and lambs can graze inside the dyke on greenery.
The island has only 59 inhabitants and is devoid of hotels and restaurants, but I find a mutton pie at the Brurian Pub. It's a dark gamey meat simply encased in pastry from which the salty aroma of kelp steams. The pie is utterly exotic in its unremarkable form.
The island to savour the best and freshest fish is Westray, also the most prosperous and (with just under 600 locals), best populated of the northern islands of Orkney. The unassuming Pierowall Hotel is owned by the Rendall-Fergus family who also owns the local fishing company. Fish from the cold Orkney waters land daily in the hotel kitchen, renowned throughout Orkney for "the best fish and chips". The morning’s catch (some names you are likely never to have heard of before) are displayed on an unembellished black board, and arrive on your plate in a golden heaped profusion. I order Torsk, a white fish that feeds on small crustaceans that imbue its delicate flesh with the flavour of lobster.
Pierowall also boasts the most renowned bakery in Orkney, and the only one off Mainland. The small Westray Bakery is situated alongside the fishing harbour. I walk there at five in the morning in the full summer sun, that generously fails to set so far north for less than a few hours per night, following the curve of the bay past the small fire station and the ancient gravestones and church ruin marking the shore. In the small bakery a few men prepare soft buns and golden Westray shortbread – grainy in texture, meltingly buttery and thick-cut.
Back in Kirkwall the cobbled pedestrian main street leads to the medieval St. Magnus Cathedral, built in sandstone by die Vikings. On the way is the well-stocked Peppermill Deli specializing in local produce. Throughout the islands I have heard the reputation of Grimbister handmade farmhouse cheese mentioned, and I sample some here. It is a pale crumbly cheese with a mild yeasty taste made from unpasteurised milk. Alongside I try the strong Orkney Cheddar. On the waxy paper in my hand, as I walk up to the imposing ancient cathedral, there is a northern cheeseboard of strong-soft distinctions in keeping with the duality of the fat Orkney landscape in its extreme surroundings.
Orkney is mercifully bare of fast-food chains and high-street retailers. No McDonalds, Burger King or Tesco spoils the food landscape. What you find to eat here is real, seasonal slow food. You are everywhere surrounded by the clear cold water that produced your fish, the green pastures and the unpolluted big sky. These things can be found in the distinctive tastes on each plate.
There is great luxury of natural abundance and time in Orkney. In the most luxurious setting of all, Balfour Castle on Shapinsay Island serves dinner in the stately Victorian dining hall – fresh grown and fresh caught, simply prepared and offered with genuine warmth. Balfour Castle can sustain princess fantasies. It stands alone on the wild water’s edge in multi-turreted grey splendour amidst colonies of breeding seabirds. After a generous dinner of langoustines, scallops and chicken with dewy bright vegetables, follows a sumptuous bowl of homegrown strawberries – sweet, small and irregular in size – under thick cream.
To sleep here is to envy Rip van Winkle (the literary character derived from a Norse legend about a Shapinsay fiddler abducted by music-loving trolls). Years of sleep can be had in the large rooms, with their fireplaces, endless romantic views and plush antique four-poster beds.
On these islands decadence and luxury lie in simplicity. To leave Orkney and head back to mainland Scotland is to mourn. You will find ancient history, resilient beauty and delicious food slowly grown and prepared from the wild seas and fertile land. Above all, the earthy beremeel bannocks will stay in my memory as the taste and texture of these islands – and will prompt my inevitable return.
You can get to Kirkwall from Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen or Edinburgh in Scotland with LoganAir ( www.loganair.co.uk ). Once there, it is recommended that you rent a car to explore the Mainlaind. The southern islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay are connected by road to the Mainland. Other islands can be reached by ferry or small eight-seater planes operated by LoganAir.
For more information, consult The Rough Guide To Scotland (available at Exclusive Books and Wordsworth) and the official website for Orkney tourism services at www.visitorkney.com.