Eating In is a big part of self-catering. Finding the best local ingredients is not always entirely straight forward and this guide is intended to point you in the right direction. While we are fully committed to supporting locally owned business it would be foolish not to start with the Chains.
For general shopping Kirkwall is served by three supermarket groups, The Co-op, Lidl and most recently Tesco. Both Tesco and the Co-op have been substantially re-furbished and the quality and range of produce is now pretty good. Lidl here is, I assume, similar to all the other Lidls and is very good value at what it does. Stromness and Dounby have a small local Co-op, and the Co-op have just opened a convenient smaller store in Kirkwall's main Albert St, on the old Cummins and Spence site.
Supermarket Vegetables have always been a bit of a problem. Shipment times and distances involved mean that quite a few days of shelf life are consumed before they arrive so the advice is to look closely at sell-by dates to make sure you don't end up with a fridge of out of date produce. During the growing season local veg is a better bet and available from a number of shops, probably the most comprehensive is Shearers , (71 Victoria St, Kirkwall).
Shearers is a great shop, a modern Orcadian take on an old fashioned general store. An eclectic range of sometimes mundane but often very high quality goods are available and if you want to avoid the sameness of supermarket shopping then this is the place for you.
Amongst local fruit and Veg, and due to the favourable cool and moist conditions, rhubarb grows to a good size in Orkney. Most gardens have a giant patch in one corner or another; we have five varieties growing here at Heddle. Please ask me if you would like some, from April - July.
Strawberries and tomatoes are grown locally mainly by Bob Nelson in glass houses and poly tunnels out in Birsay. Sold from June and July in the local shops, the strawberries are very good and sweet.
Tomatoes are sold a little later in the summer and together with traditional types Bob often grows a selection of interesting heritage crops for the more discerning customers. Due in part to the peculiar maturation cycle so far north providing such lengthy daylight the tomatoes can be unusually tasty.
Butchers are not plentiful, but quality is very high. Fletts (63 John St, Stromness) of Stromness is an old fashioned top quality butcher, a must for good meat lovers. Similarly, Jolly's of Hatston (near Kirkwall) is now offering organic Orkney meat. The prices can be high but you pay for what you get, which is the best.
Jolly's , (Scotts Rd, Hatston, Kirkwall) used to be primarily a fishmonger and remains the most convenient source of fresh fish.
If you want to give your prospective dinner a fighting chance then in fishing circles the wild brown trout of Orkney lochs are famous. The fish are reputed to be abundant, they fight hard and taste sweet. All the lochs contain brown trout, although some fish better than others. For example, Lochs Harray and Boardhouse are known for their numerous small sweet 'breakfast trout', whereas Loch Swannay is reputed to contain the real bigguns !
Wild salmon is not at all common in Orkney. So most of it is farmed around the islands. There is a local smokehouse and some smaller enterprises also produce good organic smoked salmon. It is locally available in the better stores, as well as by mail order and in the local eateries.
Given that Orkney is an archipelago of islands, it is perhaps surprising that seafish is a not more widely available. As part of the general decline in Scottish Trawler fishing the whitefish industry is today restricted to Westray, where almost all of the catch goes immediately South.
Perhaps the best known local seafish product is the very successful and delicious Orkney herring, produced in a variety of marinades in characteristic bright plastic tubs and stocked in most supermarkets and fish outlets in Britain. Otherwise it is possible to arrange an afternoon of line fishing Sea Angling where you will certainly catch sweet fresh Mackeral and possibly some giant Cod may be hooked on your line.
If you're looking for free food, the rocky coasts are covered in smaller shellfish, which can be harvested at low tide. If you have the skills to harvest them Spoots or Razorfish and Winkles are particularly abundant and Orkney winkle omelette is a great holiday standby.
A variety of Local produce has spread its wings across the UK, in some cases across the World. The most famous of these is of course Highland Park Whisky, founded in 1798 and judged by many aficiandos to be perhaps the best all round whisky in the World.
We are blessed with two world class micro breweries. Rob Hill's recently founded Highland Brewing Company, (Swannay, Evie) with the Dark Munro voted Champion Beer of Scotland at the Scottish Traditional Beer Festival 2007, and the Orkney Brewery, (Quoyloo, Sandwick) who's fabulous Dark Island, Northern Light and Red Mcgregor have won numerous gold awards all over the world.
We even have a Winery. The Orkney Wine Company (St Ola, Kirkwall) was founded by Emile van Schayk in the late 90's and not perturbed by the lack of grapes Emile and his wife use locally grown berries, flowers and vegetables to ferment a variety of excellent and unusual wines. They are quite potent and should be treated with respect.
If you are not intending relying solely on a liquid diet then Orkney has lush pasture land, good herds of grass-fed dairy cows and subsequently high-quality dairy products. It is an unusual comfort to be able to see exactly where the milk and butter comes from when you buy it in the shops.
The Orkney Creamery process all the local milk. In addition they produce both Orkney ice cream and Orkney Fudge, two very successful and award winning products that fight well above their weight. The Ice cream is much in demand and sold not only in the shops, but also in almost all of the Orkney eateries, from cafes to top restaurants. It is remarkably rich and creamy.
Orkney farmhouse cheese is not like the Orkney cheese that you sometimes see in supermarkets, tightly wrapped in plastic and tasting like cheddar. It is a rich, soft cheese that somehow still tastes of the cow. It can be crumbly, like Grimbister cheese - or wetter and smoother, like Shapinsay cheese. Grimbister farmhouse cheese is the most commonly available.
There are several varieties, including Plain, Smoked, Chive, Garlic, Caraway, Walnut, Pineapple and of course, Whisky. The Elfth and Saftee mandarins have made local cheese production very difficult and a little old fashioned natural maturing of these soft cheeses undoubtedly improves the depth of flavour.
One of the best ways to eat Orkney cheese is with a bere bannock or Orkney Oatcake. Generations of Orcadians have grown up on them. Bere is a barley-like grain which has been grown in Orkney for thousands of years, both for human and animal food. The short growing season makes regular barley a marginal crop and the more primitive bere was and is simply a better bet.
Bere is still milled at the Barony Mill by Boardhouse Loch in Birsay, and bags of the flour can be bought there, or in certain local village shops. If you're using it for bread-making, it will produce a heavy rye-like loaf and can be mixed with wholewheat flour for a lighter result. Various tried and tested Recipes can be found locally.
Traditionally eaten with cheese, the very excellent Orkney oatcakes are found in most British supermarkets, and often around the world. In addition to these globetrotting oatcakes a wide range of tasty sweet or savoury locally made biscuits can be found in most local stores.
Orkney Fudge is also sold all over the world and it is all made at the fudge factory in Stromness. These days it is made in a variety of flavours: plain, chocolate, rum and raisin, honey and coffee to name a few. Try it.
So forget about the bird cliffs, the beaches, the fishing, the craft trails and the archaeology. Visit Orkney to eat and drink!