I love picking up local cookery books from places I’ve visited, the more esoteric the better. Visiting Shetland, I was keen to explore the food of the islands and to collect some recipes. I loved my exploration through eating! I had some wonderful food, particularly some excellent baking.
In Shetland I bought a facsimile edition of Cookery for Northern Wives by Margaret B Stout, a book published in 1925, “containing practical recipes for old-time and modern dishes, all suited to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.” Margaret Stout was a Shetlander who wanted to encourage young northern wives to cook simple dishes and also to record traditional Shetland recipes.
This is a recipe for Yeast Buns. They are basically fruit buns. I decided to give the recipe a go! The result was a rather soft style bun, almost like brioche. I expected it to be a bit like a hot cross bun, but it was much softer, more cake like, than a hot cross bun.
I did some tweaking to the original recipe. First, I substituted dry yeast for fresh yeast for the sponge. I also added sourdough starter for extra flavour as I always have plenty on hand from making sourdough bread. This changed the amount of flour I used in the sponge. I have included flour amounts for both using sourdough starter and without using it.
I cut down on the flour in the main mixture, as my baking sensibility suggested that 560g was a bit too much. I added more dried fruit than in the original, and substituted some candied clementine for the candied peel, as that is what I had on hand.
I converted the imperial measurements to metric, rounding up or down as necessary.
The bottom photos are of the original recipe from Margaret Stout’s book.
Sponge 113g strong flour 10g yeast 1 teaspoon caster sugar 113g sourdough starter (or 226g strong flour all up if not using the starter) 400 mls lukewarm milk
For icing: 1 cup icing sugar and enough orange juice to make icing of dripping consistency.
Here is the method, adapted from the rather scant instructions given by a Margaret Stout.
For the sponge, sieve the flour into a large bowl, then add the yeast and sugar and mix in the sourdough starter if using. Gradually add the lukewarm milk, stirring to make a smooth batter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a tea towel, or my favourite, a disposable plastic shower cap. Leave to rise in a warm place for an hour.
Prepare the rest of the mixture. Rub the butter into the flour. Add the sultanas, raisins, caster sugar and candied peel or clementine to the butter flour mixture. Beat this mixture into the sponge, once it has risen, and mix in the beaten eggs. Mix well, for about 5 minutes.
Cover the mixture in the bowl with plastic wrap/tea towel/plastic shower cap and leave to rise again for 1 ½ hours.
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C fan forced.
Form the dough into small balls, place on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Cover the tray loosely with a tea towel and prove for 10 to 15 minutes in a warm place.
Bake in the preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until the buns are a deep brown colour.
Once out of the oven, while warm, brush the tops of the buns with a tablespoon of sugar mixed with a tablespoon of milk.
These buns are delicious eaten as is while warm! You can also eat with lots of butter and jam.
If you think the buns need zhushing, you could drizzle a little icing over the tops, made by mixing icing sugar with enough orange juice to produce a soft icing. I used blood orange juice as they are in season now in Sydney.
These buns keep well as they are enriched with milk, butter and eggs. They are really soft, and they remain soft even after a few days.
I’m so pleased I made them! It wasn’t difficult to adapt the recipe. The results were delicious.
To travel is to broaden the mind, as people say. New vistas, new cultures and new ideas enrich and even change our perspectives.
What this Antipodean writer did not expect when I travelled to Shetland was to be so captivated by the beauty of the wild islands, as well as its history so well preserved, and its fascinating culture, in particular the food and the cooking of the islands. I was under a spell, utterly smitten.
Shetland is a group of islands, north of mainland UK, and surprisingly close to Norway. Described aptly by the official Shetland website, “where Scotland meets Scandinavia and the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.” I can attest to the latter, as I actually crossed from sea to ocean, walking the distance of a whole 80 metres!
In life, I am very much influenced by place, the physical environment, the light, the sky and even the weather. I instantly feel a connection, or not, as the case may be, to a place. I feel the place too, in the mood, the atmosphere, a sense of what has happened in a place, its emotional gauge.
So what I experienced in Shetland is coloured by these kinds of reactions to places that made some very strong impressions on me. I am writing here a little about those places I saw and experiences I had there, to give the reader an idea of the power of Shetland to capture one’s spirit and imagination.
I was gobsmacked by the views. The coastline is stunning, beautiful and largely free of the impact of humans, unending vistas where sheep rule. Wild, but not rugged, to my mind. The absence of trees on the landscape, the verdant slopes, close cropped green pastures, soften the view. The vast expanse of sky and the sheer cliffs, all buffeted by bracing winds, make the landscape wild but not forbidding.
I’m no great walker, but I was able to have the experience of walking this beautiful coastline. The Kettla Ness headland, in West Burra, on the island of Mainland, provided spectacular high views of an extensive and gentle coastline, and gave me the sense of the vastness of sky and ocean.
I loved the island of Mousa. The visit to the island was a memorable day, everything about it was special, from the ferry trip to the walk to encountering my first Iron Age broch.
I was able to walk around a part of this island, where the principal inhabitants are birds, and the Broch of Mousa is a testament to its Iron Age history. Indeed, this Broch is the most well preserved and significant Iron Age broch in Britain. Walkers are delivered by ferry to Mousa, the only humans on the island. Eating an egg sandwich for lunch at the base of the historic Broch was a curious and slightly comforting experience. A very human activity, creating a connection across two thousand years with those people who had ate, slept and lived in that very place.
To the north west in Mainland is Eshaness, rugged and wildly beautiful cliff tops. Sea and wind have carved and shaped the cliffs into fantastic shapes. A circular walk from the lighthouse really made me aware that the sheep of Shetland dominate landscape and agriculture. I loved the walk, where you cross many fences and stone walls with stiles, the startling coastline to the west, untouched by human hand, and undulating pastures to the east, evidence of human occupation.
Unst is the most northerly island in Shetland. I’m not sure how close to Norway the top of Unst is. Walking on Skaw Beach, and on top of Saxa Vord Hill, on a wild and windy morning, I definitely felt that Norway was only kilometres away – quite a few, I grant you – but the Norse connection to Shetland seemed palpable. The top of Unst is another place that is desolate and beautiful, exposed and raw, a powerful place.
It’s hard not to look at the landscapes and seascapes of Shetland without connecting them to Shetland’s history, as they are so intertwined.
The history of Shetland fascinated and engaged me. The Neolithic, Iron Age and comparatively recent Norse occupations have shaped the culture of the islands. The Viking invasions from around 800AD, created the northern outreach, the Shetland islands, of a great Norse earldom that had its base in Orkney, and it’s this that has influenced language, laws and culture in Shetland.
With time Norway, from where the Norse invaders had come, was increasingly under Danish control, and in 1471 Shetland was annexed to Scotland as a result of a marriage treaty between James III of Scotland and Margaret, a Danish princess. The Danish repeatedly tried to have the islands returned to them, but Scotland never agreed. That Shetland has had such a significant Norse influence and occupation in relatively recent history speaks much about the ethos, the outlook of the islands.
I am keen to research more of the Viking story in Shetland and Orkney. I have a connection with Orkney and its Norse past. My given name, Inga, is an inheritance from that past. The wider narrative, told in the Orkneyinga Saga, is a source of both fictional and historical detail and an interesting resource.
You find evidence of an amazing past everywhere in Shetland. Wherever you go, you stumble across places and relics of archeological significance. From deserted Iron Age remains on walking trails, to the Mousa Broch already mentioned, and the magnificent Jarlshof in Sumburgh, Mainland, one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Britain.
Jarlshof is an incredibly well preserved site of human occupation, with remains dating from 2500 BC up to the 17th century AD. There is evidence from Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Norse settlements. Luckily for me this amazing site was next door to the hotel where I was staying in Sumburgh, affording me a close inspection of the site. Standing at the top of the tower and surveying the region on a clear day was another of those experiences of connection with lives of the past.
Muness Castle, on the island of Unst, is a remarkably preserved example of a fortified castle. It was interesting to examine a ruin that was comparatively “modern”, built in 1598 for Laurence Bruce. It is the most northerly castle in the British Isles. Laurence Bruce, a lowlander, was Sheriff of Scotland and an oppressor of its Scandinavian inhabitants. The castle, although ruined, felt oppressive, even menacing, evoking its dark past. Walking in the ruins, into rooms largely intact, where people had lived their lives, seemed to dissolve the five hundred years that had elapsed from the building of the castle to 2019.
The land and seascapes of Shetland are stunning, but part of their beauty is the abundant and at times unique wildlife. Shetland attracts walkers and wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world. There are countless opportunities to observe colonies of seabirds, as well as rare bird species.
Walking to the top of Sumburgh Head, to the lighthouse, there was an abundance of bird life to see. This was my first introduction to puffins, that iconic symbol of Shetland wildlife, as well as fulmars and gannets. On the island of Mousa, there are Arctic and great skuas, Arctic terns, gulls and storm petrels, those much sought after residents of this small island.
In islands where the sea is king, sea mammals proliferate. Otter tracking, and seal and whale spotting are popular. I was lucky enough to encounter the first two of these sea mammals.
An otter tracking morning on the island of Yell provided an opportunity to see an otter in action, if only from a distance. Otters were probably introduced to Shetland. As there were no large rivers they had to adapt to living by the sea. Their holts or dens are next to fresh water so they can wash the salt off their fur when they come ashore. Our otter was spotted near the low lying shore, and did indeed make a bolt for his holt!
Seals are plentiful and easy to see. We saw quite a few seals, sporting in the shallows or sun baking on the beach or rocks on days that were not really that sunny…
The land, the sea, the wildlife are special, but it’s the people and the stories of the past that I wanted to find out about. For me the social history of the islands was important and I particularly wanted to investigate food and culture in Shetland.
There is so much wonderful produce in Shetland – in particular, seafood is amazing – fish, scallops and mussels. It’s obvious that sheep are an important food source. While lamb is delicious, I did try reestit, a leg of mutton that has been dried and cured. I think this might be an acquired taste!
A really interesting look at social history was at the Croft House Museum in Dunrossness, Mainland. The Croft House Museum is a mid-nineteenth century Shetland croft, beautifully preserved to show the day to day life of the crofter and his family. I loved the cooking arrangements over the hearth, complete with legs of reestit mutton hanging up to dry.
The roadside provided a wealth of views and insights into Shetland life. The wedding displays with bride and groom on Unst (I don’t know what these are called), the “furnished” bus shelter also on Unst and the cake fridges, where all manner of cakes can be picked up from the fridge by the roadside – paid for of course with an honesty system.
The craft scene is big in Shetland, with much of it based around wool. Fair Isle knitwear is everywhere, as well as more contemporary designs in knitted items. I was happy to sport the Fair Isle look with a jumper or two and a really warm beanie.
I am really interested in the baking in Shetland. I had lots of scones, cakes and crumbles wherever I went. Alas I didn’t get to eat bannocks, those floured scone like creations traditionally cooked on a girdle hung over the fire, and still cooked today, on girdles on stove tops and also oven baked. I’ve made bannocks here in Oz, and I wanted to know how mine compared.
Sunday Teas are legendary in Shetland! They are an institution, where local communities provide sandwiches, baked goods and all sorts of treats, and of course tea, for a modest price, as a fundraising activity.
The timing just didn’t work out for a visit to a Sunday Tea. But I did get to go to the Walls Show, on 10 August 2019. The Tea Tent provided the same kind of fare, with a lovely array of delicious cakes, traybakes and scones.
It was so much fun to go to the Show, and I was reminded that country shows all over have a lot in common, with lots of animals, exhibits, prizes for “best in show” and of course things to eat. The Walls Show was a great day out. I loved the sheep, the Shetland ponies, the jumpers and the afore mentioned Tea Tent! The Vikings even made an appearance!
Just about everything I had to eat in Shetland was delicious. I have to mention the tea, scones and cakes at Victoria’s Vintage Tea Rooms in Haroldswick, Unst, “The Most Northerly Tea Rooms in Britain”. Victoria sponge to die for, Jammy Dodger cupcakes, tiffin and those scones with clotted cream. Yummy.
My experience of Shetland was memorable. I need to mention here the wonderful Shetland Nature, so knowledgeable and willing to provide that Shetland experience, and in particular Rob Fray, whose expert guidance from the south to the most northerly tip of Shetland not only showed me the physical land but also the heart and spirit of the place and its people.
It’s August 2019 and I’m in Shetland, seeking out the unique wildlife of the islands and finding out more about its Norse heritage. And doing some sampling of the food of the islands too.
So what has this got to do with sourdough you may ask? Quite a lot actually!
I have been making sourdough for a couple of years, but have been actively practising this particular sourdough recipe throughout this year, making loaf after loaf, every other day, trying to get a loaf that ticks all the boxes. I am by no means there, but I feel happy enough to write up my latest efforts for this post.
My version is based on the recipes of James Morton, the Shetlander baker known for his bread making skills and in particular for his passion for, and scientific approach to sourdough. His latest exploits on Instagram @bakingjames are a fascinating diary of a keen bread maker!
It seems appropriate, therefore, to be blogging about sourdough while I am actually in Shetland.
My sourdough procedure is based on James’ recipe from the book Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World, co-written with father Tom Morton, but also on his original sourdough recipe from his book Brilliant Bread. I’ve got my own take too, on these recipes, and what I am blogging below is as much about my experience of the pitfalls of sourdough as well as its exquisite joys.
Shetland is utterly beautiful. I am gobsmacked by its rugged coasts and verdant pastures, and its birds, otters and seals. I am also quite smitten with the sheep of Shetland – picture perfect flocks, more romantic than our more prosaic Australian sheep!
Today I’ve been in Hillswick and in Eshaness, walking stunning cliff tops and enjoying the local food at the St Magnus Bay Hotel and writing my sourdough post.
So here’s my take on James Morton’s recipes for sourdough, blogged on Shetland.
Note: This recipe calls for baking the bread in a cast iron pot or casserole. It’s an amazing way of cooking the bread, allowing you to cook at quite high temperatures. I also use a bread proving basket. Not quite as necessary as the cast iron pot, but a really good investment if you’re a bread maker.
100g organic stoneground flour
100g fresh orange juice
Mix the flour and fruit juice together in a glass jar, big enough to hold at least triple the amount of the original starter. Leave this for about 5 days, or until the mixture is bubbly and frothy but has begun to settle. Now you can feed the starter with equal parts flour and just water. For the feeding stage, I use 125g flour:125g cooled boiled water.
Leave for 12-24 hours until the starter is bubbly and has expanded in size. It’s now ready to be used.
Keep on feeding every day in this way. If you’re not baking bread, you will need to discard a lot of the starter, to make room for more flour and water. You should have only about 200g of starter in the jar left before feeding.
If you don’t want to feed your starter every day, you can put it to sleep in the fridge and feed it just once a week.
250g tepid water
200g sourdough starter
400g strong white flour
10g or 1.5 teaspoons salt
Pour the tepid water into a large bowl.
Add the sourdough starter and stir together with the water until the mixture is loose and just mixed. It’s so loose it’s almost like soup!
Add the strong white flour and salt on top of the water/starter mixture. Use your fingertips to mix the salt into the flour, then a wooden spoon to mix everything together into a dough that is quite rough and sloppy.
The bowl needs to be covered and left for half an hour. I use a plastic shower cap, the kind you find in hotel rooms. I collect them just for this purpose. Or you could use cling wrap or a large plastic bag. Leave somewhere in the kitchen where it’s not draughty.
Remove the cover, and with the tap running, wet one hand, (to stop your fingers sticking to the dough), fold the edges of the dough over and into the middle. The dough should start to feel stretchy. Do this for about 30 seconds.
Put the cover back on the bowl.
You need to repeat this stretching and folding of the dough 3 more times. I make the time interval in between stretching and folding suit whatever I am doing on the day. The minimum time is 30 minutes. I often leave the dough 2-3 hours in between stretching and folding if I’m busy during the day. As James says: “Timings aren’t that important, as long as the stretching is done.”
After the last stretching session, cover the bowl and leave for 2 hours.
Sprinkle a work surface with some flour.
Flour a proving basket. Proving baskets are great for shaping your loaf! If you don’t have a proving basket, put a tea towel into a large bowl and sprinkle liberally with flour.
Turn the dough out onto the floured surface, making sure there is enough flour on the working surface so the dough doesn’t stick.
Now here is the interesting part. That is, how to shape your bread. I have used the James Morton method very successfully, as described below. I also discovered another way on an Instagram video from @season_adam. I suggest looking up this Instagram video as it’s well worth the look. It’s too tricky to try to describe here.
Here is James Morton’s method:
Using lightly floured hands press the dough out slightly flatter. Next you want to roll up your dough as if rolling up a Swiss roll or a Persian rug really tightly.
Turn the rolled dough 90 degrees and roll it up again.This time it will be harder – it will feel tight and try to spring back. You’ll now have piece of dough with a seam on the top and a smooth surface on the bottom. You want to keep this smooth surface on the bottom and sit the dough in your proving basket or prepared tea towel in a bowl.
The dough should be proved again in the proving basket or bowl. Put the dough in the proving basket or bowl in the fridge to rest for a few hours, or overnight if you reach this stage at night. This fridge prove is important as it allows the bread to develop flavour.
Heat the oven to 240 degrees C half an hour before you want to bake the bread. Place the cast iron casserole pot, lid on, into the oven to heat up over the half hour.
After 30 minutes, carefully remove the pot from the oven and take off the lid.
Turn your dough out into the pot, so the smooth side is on top and the seam side is on the bottom. This can be tricky, but be bold – and careful – and turn the dough out as deftly as you can.
Score the dough with a sharp serrated knife or lame. This is a sharp razor blade attached to a handle and is really useful to have if you bake a lot of bread. Replace the lid and put the pot back in the oven.
Bake for 30 minutes with the lid on. After this time turn the oven down to 230 degrees C. Then carefully remove the lid from the pot and bake for another 20-25 minutes until the loaf is very brown. The loaf needs to be a really dark brown colour. Don’t be afraid to go an extra 5 minutes to get that colour.
Once cooked, remove the loaf and turn out onto a wire rack to cool. You need to wait an hour before slicing as the bread is still cooking!
Serve with lashings of butter and homemade jam. Sourdough toast is lovely with a boiled egg too!
Special note re oven temperatures!
The temperatures given work well for me in a fan forced oven. I have read several recipes which also use similar high temperatures. And I have made this recipe countless times using these temperatures. However, you know your oven and whether the suggested temperatures would work for you.
The magic of any bread, but particularly sourdough, is seeing how much the bread rises. I am always nervous on lifting the lid after the first part of the baking to see how much it has risen. But it’s a fantastic feeling to see that beautiful risen loaf in the pot! And when you take the bread out of the oven after the final bake there is another moment of triumph when you see your brown risen sourdough loaf in all its glory.
I’ll bake anything that involves flour. If it’s yeast based, all the better. And baking with your very own sourdough starter is the ultimate in satisfaction.
So I sometimes forget those lovely bakes that just involve self raising flour or plain flour and baking powder. They can be just as satisfying as yeast baking and are a lot quicker.
I recently acquired Shetland: Baking on the Edge of the World, by James Morton and his father Tom Morton. James is my favourite bread baker and I’ve been cooking his recipes since he first rose to prominence on The Great British Bake-off in 2012.
I was fascinated by his discussion of bannocks, both girdle cooked and oven baked. I’ve made both, but opted for the latter as they were easier to manage and produced a lighter product. I have served them up to friends who seemed to think they were scones… I kind of agree, although this might be an heretical thing to say!
Here’s James’ recipe for oven bannocks as I have made them. I’ve included the original quantities, which makes 16. I have actually made a half quantity each time I’ve produced them. This gives me at least 8 decent sized bannocks, more than enough for a morning or afternoon tea.
550g self-raising flour, plus extra for shaping 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda ½ teaspoon table salt 25g caster sugar 50g butter salted or unsalted (I prefer salted) 280ml buttermilk 150ml natural yoghurt 150ml full fat milk
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C or 160 degrees C fan-forced. Line two baking trays with baking paper. Very lightly sprinkle them with flour.
Into a large bowl put the flour, bicarbonate of soda, salt and sugar. Mix these roughly together with a wooden spoon. Add the butter and rub in with your fingers until the mixture resembles floury breadcrumbs.
Add the buttermilk, yoghurt and milk and mix together, then add to the flour using a wooden spoon, doing this quickly so as not to over mix. The mixture will be lumpy and quite wet and will need flour to handle it.
To make the bannocks, heavily flour a work surface, and scrape all the mixture out on top. Add more flour, and pat down the pile of mixture with your hands, into a rough square, about 2cm or ¾ inch thick.
Use a round cutter to cut out bannocks, or cut into rough squares with a knife, and then place the bannocks onto the prepared trays.
Bake the bannocks for about 12-15 minutes, or until light golden all over. You will need to watch them carefully, as there is a point at which they are golden and cooked, but still soft in the middle, and ready to come out of the oven.
Remove from the oven, and leave to cool a little before serving with lashings of butter or cream, and a good jam or conserve.