An Orcadian Culinary Adventure – Orkney Food and Drink
As the wind buffeted plane completed it’s journey across the Pentland Firth and touched down in Kirkwall it immediately became evident that Orkney was unique. A land of ancient civilisation, of unmistakeable Nordic influence, and of a welcome that is warm and very distinctly Orcadian rather than Scottish or even highland. Orkney gets under the skin in increments; the beauty of St. Magnus’s Cathedral, the majesty of the sea at Scapa Flow, the evidence of iron age man at Skara Brae, this is an archipelago that draws you in and leaves you wanting more.
My Orcadian adventure was a mere taster, to whet the appetite, delight the senses, quicken the heart, and set the imagination free. Who were these inhabitants of Skara Brae, who were raising structures 1000 years before Giza ever saw a pyramid? When the Norseman arrived was he welcomed or was the conquest more brutal than peaceful? How did Günther Prien feel as he aimed that third fatal round of torpedoes at the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow? Orkney has a long history, a history that has shaped and continues to shape the modern islands.
But I wasn’t here for a history lesson, my mind was on food and drink; and Orkney is as rich in these as it is in history. Lush and green from a climate which is all at once wet and windy, yet temperate and sunny, it is perfect agricultural land, as the locals say, ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute’. If you only ate and drank from these islands then you’d never go hungry, or feel starved of flavour. There are breweries, gin distilleries, whisky distilleries, even a winery, each of them with a unique flavour, influenced by the land they inhabit. The meat is packed with flavour, all fed on the largest crop, grass, whether Orkney beef or Orkney lamb it has a richness and depth of character. Although it’s not quite correct to say it’s all fed on grass, the sheep of North Ronaldsay, an island far to the north, lives outside the walls of the island on the beach, feeding on seaweed, which gives a very distinct flavour. Just one of the quirks of the food landscape.
Another is beremeal, a traditional six rowed barley which is grown on the island. This is milled at the 300 year old water powered Barony Mill at Birsay on the mainland, and you’ll find its fingerprint through the food of Orkney like a local DNA. Bread, bannocks, biscuits, and beer are all touched by the local barley, all from a centuries old feat of engineering. When you add in cheese and butter from the local milk, and seafood from the icy waters surrounding these islands you quickly get an idea that far from being cold and inhospitable, Orkney is a warming land, diverse, welcoming, and very aware and proud of its own identity. I shall be returning.
I travelled to Orkney as a guest of Orkney Food and Drink