Cooking on Orkney is always a pleasure – made even greater by the interest Mark is taking in it, enjoying helping with preparation and cooking and, on Mondays when I have been playing Mah Jong (Monday afternoons are sacrosanct I can tell you!) he decides on what he fancies cooking and … cooks it. Which is wonderful. We try and cook at least one new recipe a week – obviously within the limitations I am going to tell you about!
I think the joy is the excellence of the ingredients, though it has to be said that obtaining locally grown fruit is decidedly challenging, and actually getting local vegetables isn’t much better! Tatties (for those of you reading this from afar, that’s the local name for potatoes), Neeps (Swede), Carrots, Cauliflower, Broccoli and Cabbage can easily be found but anything more exotic, even in the right season, basically has to be sourced from Tesco or the Co-op. The Co-op is generally my preferred option, but its choice tends to be more limited. And you can’t always rely on getting a particular ingredient or herb that is a must-have for the recipe you have in mind.
However, all this is balanced by our excellent choice of meat and fish. And my local butcher does in fact have a reasonable selection of vegetables, basic fruits and herbs and – if local versions are available – locally grown ones too. And eggs. With the most glorious of golden yellow yolks, fresh from the farmer. Sometimes duck eggs too, though at the moment I get my supply of those from Shearer’s in Kirkwall. I don’t know what breed of ducks they are but the size of the eggs – well, it makes one quite uncomfy. I bought four the other day for a Victoria Sponge and when I baked it I thought it was going to hit the top of the oven it rose so high.
The availability of different cuts of meat is generally pretty stable, so deciding on a particular type and cut of meat can be done in advance but even there one has to be prepared to re-think a menu occasionally. Topside of beef was my planned dinner last weekend but had to be changed for brisket with a very different cooking time.
Chickens (whole ones) are a bit problematic as they come up “from South” normally on a Thursday, so it requires a bit of planning if I want one. And I have had to get used to slightly different names for cuts – Rib Boil doesn’t have quite the same ring as Short Rib does it ? A gigot of lamb had me puzzled for a while too – seems it’s from the French and is the leg but it’s the normal name for it here.
Fish – well I could wax lyrical about the fish here for hours. Just look at the picture of my local fish shop, Orkney Fish on the day the boat came in last week ! The joy is that it doesn’t smell of fish because it is gloriously fresh. However. However. Planning a meal involving fish in advance is risky in the extreme. If it’s been too rough the boats won’t have been out. Maybe the skate stayed away that day. Or you can only get cod or haddock when you wanted skinless sole. Or only smoked haddock when you had a recipe for roasted cod with a home made pesto and crumb crust in mind. And then you may not be able to get your vegetables or herbs of choice to go with it.
Certain substitutes have to be made – things like Chinese Soy Sauce for Japanese Soy sauce (I doubt there is much difference), and again you have to make a decision sometimes whether to order certain exotic ingredients on line, buy them on the odd trip south or … manage without and substitute something that you can get. But to be honest there is normally a way round and I don’t hanker for things I can’t get.
Basically the answer is – well those of you who watch Master Chef may be able to guess – that meals become a sort of Invention Test. I buy ingredients that I fancy doing something with and then decide what and how to do it when I get home, obviously depending what I have in the cupboards here in terms of dry goods, spices and so forth. And if I do Persian lamb and can’t get a pomegranate to scatter over it, well we do without the pomegranate. Obviously some dishes are impossible without the specific ingredients, but it’s surprising how easy it is to wing it with the ingredients one has. So – you just have to learn to wing it. And it’s great fun to do as well!
Friends are welcome any time for coffee and cake, tea and cake, or dinnner … just give us a shout to let us know you are coming!