FOOD AND DRINK: MORE THAN WHISKY GALORE

The Orkneys may be a real hike for dinner, but, says Michael Bateman, the islands' lobster, cheeses, lamb and whisky will excite even the most restrained of gourmets; DINNER DESTINATIONS; No2: THE CREEL, SOUTH RONALDSAY

IN THESE days of long-haul flights, pounds 500 can get you as far as Costa Rica, San Francisco or Johannesburg. Well, a flight from London to Orkney also falls into this bracket. Awesome, isn't it? At pounds 500 a throw, it's hardly a practical dinner destination for most of the country.

But, just once in a lifetime, wouldn't it be rewarding to check out the claim that the sweetest lobster in the world comes from Orkney? Along with the best crab, the best farmed salmon, the best beef, the unique North Ronaldsay lamb, and a raft of other goodies: bere bannocks and oatcakes, cheese, fudge, ice-cream and the famous smoky Highland Park malt whisky.

It will come as a surprise to some that the Orkneys are a much-visited travel target, the most popular cruise destination in the UK (with Scandinavians, mostly). Great liners such as the QE2 and the Viking Sun coast into Kirkwall nearly every day and disgorge hundreds of tourists who hurry off to enjoy the sights.

What sights? Five-thousand-year-old burial tombs. Three-thousand-year- old ruins, larger than Stonehenge but these are ragged stumps rather than the orderly Lego pieces of Salisbury Plain.

Not a lot to see then? Well, you can gaze at the deep waters of Scapa Flow where in June 1919 the whole German navy, shunted here after the Treaty of Versailles, scuttled itself (on the command "Paragraph Eleven Confirmed") and sank to the bottom. A fleet of 74 battleships, cruisers and destroyers.

Only the odd mast sticks out of the grey water, so not a lot to see. But wait a minute, what about the Churchill Barriers? In the Second World War, the British navy docked in the Scapa Flow and, following a daring U-boat raid which bypassed the block-ships sunk at the entry to the eastern approaches, Churchill ordered them to erect barriers of concrete blocks.

Very well, it's not a beautiful sight, but these were built by Italian POWs captured in the North African campaign ... and in their camp on the island of Lamb Holm they converted two Nissen huts into a passable imitation of a baroque Italian chapel, a triumph of trompe l'oeil painting. Now, 50 years on, it is one of the Orkney sights eagerly sought out.

Of course, Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, has its own rather grand kirk, the red sandstone St Magnus Cathedral, a credit to Norwegian craftsmanship. For the Orkneys were part of Norway until the 13th century, and to this day don't see themselves as Scottish.

When they speak of the mainland they do not refer to mainland Britain, but the main island of Orkney as opposed to the 70 others in the archipelago (20 of which are inhabited). The mainland of Scotland is light years away (at least 6 miles, anyway).

The Orkneys have been getting themselves rather a good press for their food in the last few years and it's no accident. The dozens of producers who struggled ineffectually on their own have been pulled together by the Orkney Enterprise Board, funded by the Scottish Office and the EU. United they have successfully created a very strong business base.

Their cheeses win prizes at the Nantwich International Cheese Festival. The better fishmongers sell Orkney pickled rollmops. Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's boast of their Orkney smoked salmon. Their quality beef goes into major stores.

John Clarke, the Orkney Enterprises marketing executive, met me at the end of my long haul under inky blue skies, overlooking steel-grey Orkney seas reaching to the battleship-grey islands. But the landscape of hill and valley glows with a palette of greens: pea-green, sea-green, seaweed green and a fiery Irish green speckled with points of buttercups.

Grass is what they are good at here. Shetland, only 60 miles to the north, is an altogether bleaker prospect, its icy winds hostile to pastureland. But the Orkneys (in common with the south-westerly Scillies) catch the Gulf Stream, ensuring almost no frost or snow. And being so far north, they enjoy long hours of daylight, allowing grass to surge, providing optimum grazing for cattle. Beef grows slowly, feeding on grass, to be killed at around 22 months rather than the 16 to 18 months in other parts of the UK. Grass-fed beef is considered tastier than that fed on barley.

The thick spring grass also provides very creamy milk, but low-fat milk being the fashion of our time, it is skilfully diverted into a thriving Orkney ice-cream business. Lambs which graze such rich pastures are privileged indeed; North Rondaldsay lamb particularly excites gourmets, the dark meat tasting strangely of the sea, for it feeds on seaweed along the shore. Strictly speaking, this is mutton, not lamb - these spirited animals, no bigger than spaniels, don't reach maturity for three or four years.

A high point was my visit to the Highland Park distillery, where the secret of the whisky's smoky taste became clear; the ovens which dry the malted barley are fired with peat dug from their own heather bogs (they have enough to last at least 50 years more). But for the gourmet, there is no sight comparable to the Orkney Fisherman's Society lobster ponds in Stromness, where they store these coal-black monsters of the rocks. This is a cooperative which guarantees an all-the-year round price to fishermen and is very forward-looking: they have an experimental tank where they grow lobsters from the eggs, seeing them through five changes of shell over 30 days, until they are strong enough to distribute among chosen sites.

The Society also processes crab-meat, their brown crabs packed with bittersweet flavour. But the lobsters are the aristocrats, too good for London markets, snapped up by discriminating customers with deep pockets on the Continent. The live lobster I took home and dealt with in the privacy of my own kitchen (eaten warm with a little melted butter) was quite the best I've ever tasted; a sensual experience, chewy, sweet and nutty.

For all the quality of the seafood and shellfish, beef and lamb, the Orkneys have not been renowned for their cuisine. Luckily for them a local lad, Alan Craigie, came home after a brief spell cooking for the British consul-general in Los Angeles and opened The Creel. Tucked into a watery inlet on South Ronaldsay, one contributor to the Good Food Guide called this restaurant "reason enough to travel to Orkney".

Alan is an enthusiastic Orcadian who, at 39, counts himself lucky to have learnt to cook first from his grandmother, and then from their housekeeper, Mary Muir, who'd worked in hotels and great houses: "She taught me how to roast and how to cook fish." He was also apprenticed to a Kirkwall baker, so one of the specialities in the restaurant is bere bannocks, flat buns made with bere, the local grain (like barley but an older strain). Bere bannocks are to Orkney what soda bread is to Ireland, made a similar way, with baking powder.

The quality of lobster, crab, salmon and scallops are a chef's dream, though Alan's own favourite is the spootie (also known as the razor clam or, inaccurately, the notorious razor fish), shaped like a cigar tube.

"They dig themselves in the sand when they hear you coming," says Alan. "You catch them by walking backwards - you see a little 'spoot' as they dive. Reach into the sand with a knife and touch the shell, and they stop. Then you can dig them out, put them in water to clean for an hour, remove them from the shell, and pop them into a hot pan with a bit of butter and chopped garlic. You must eat them at once."

I enjoyed Alan's perfect dressed crab ("the simplest things are often the best," he says) with the earthy-tasting bere bannock. I was torn between smoked beef and fish, choosing the fresh fish stew which is really roast fish with a sauce, and finishing with some locally grown raspberries. Definitely worth a pounds 500 detour.

THE CREEL FISH STEW

Serves 2

350g/12oz each of fresh haddock and hake

225g/8oz fillet of salmon

For the sauce:

approximately 50g/2oz chopped leek

approximately 50g/2oz chopped onion

2 large tomatoes

I carrot, chopped

1 red pepper, cored and chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

50g/2oz butter

glass dry white wine

1 pint fish stock (trimmings such as head and bones simmered with onion, carrot, celery, bayleaf and water for 20 minutes and strained)

For the stew:

white of one leek, diced

1 small onion, diced

1 carrot, diced

50g/2oz butter

50ml/2fl oz double cream

four or five basil leaves, finely chopped

To make the sauce, sweat vegetables and garlic in butter till softened. Add a glass of wine. Cook till reduced. Add fish stock. Simmer gently for 20 to 30 minutes. Mix in a blender and pass through a sieve.

Prepare the stew. Sweat the diced leek, onion and carrot in butter till tender. Pour on the reserved sauce above. Finish with double cream and the basil leaves.

To prepare the fish, cut the haddock and the hake into quarters. Cook in a low oven on a buttered baking sheet, brushed with butter and a dribble of white wine, for 10 minutes or until surface is opaque. Cut the salmon into four slices, 0.5cm (14in) across. At the last minute, place in hot dry iron or non-stick pan to sear.

To assemble the dish place white fish in two bowls or soup plates. Pour the hot stew over it. Arrange the dry crisp salmon on top, so that it doesn't submerge.

SMOKED, CURED BEEF

Like a ham, this can be kept chilled and sliced as required. It can also be used unsmoked as described below. It will serve over many meals.

2.5kg/5lb trimmed topside of beef (or silverside)

2 litres/312 pints Orkney Dark Island beer or another strong beer such as Guinness or Newcastle Brown

2 litres/34 pint water

350g/12oz coarse salt

225g/8oz black treacle

4 small dry chillies

handful of fresh herbs such a parsley stalks, dill, or tarragon, as available

Bring the beer, water, salt, treacle, chillies and herbs to the boil and simmer till salt is dissolved. Leave to cool.

Place the beef in a suitable non-toxic receptacle (a plastic box with a lid is ideal) and pour the marinade on. Put in the fridge to cure for 10 to 12 days, turning the meat over every two days.

If you have access to a smokery, ask them to smoke it for you over oak chips for eight to 12 hours. Serve, sliced very thinly, with rhubarb chutney and bere bannocks (see below).

If you can't smoke it, you can do what Alan Craigie sometimes does, air- dry it. Wipe it dry, then hang it in a cool, drafty place, such as a shed or larder, overnight. Slice thinly and serve as before. Or you can bake it, as he also does, in a very low oven for no more than two hours. In each case, the very, very finely sliced meat will be a lovely pink and red inside.

ORCADIAN BEREMEAL BANNOCKS

Makes 4 medium-sized bannocks

225g/8oz beremeal (barley flour can be substituted)

225g/8oz plain white flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 heaped teaspoon cream of tartar

2 heaped teaspoons baking soda

425ml/34 pint buttermilk (or natural yogurt with juice of half a lemon)

50g/2oz butter

Sieve the flour, salt, cream of tartar, baking soda, and add the beremeal (or barley flour). Rub in the butter with your finger-tips. Mix in the buttermilk (or yoghurt and lemon-juice) to make a soft dough.

Shape into flat rounds 9 to 13cm (4-6in) across, and cook on a hot griddle or iron pan for two or three minutes each side.

RHUBARB CHUTNEY

Makes about 1.5kg/3lb

1kg/2lb 4oz rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 2cm/1in lengths

500g/1lb onions, chopped

750ml/112 pints malt vinegar

1kg/2lb 4oz demerara sugar

500g/1lb seedless raisins

2 tablespoons mustard seeds

Combine all ingredients in a heavy-bottomed pan, stirring over a medium heat till sugar is dissolved. Stirring well, bring to boiling point, then to a simmer, using a heat diffuser if you have one.

Simmer for about one and a half hours until it cooks into a smooth puree, stirring from time to time to prevent sticking. As the liquid evaporates the mixture reduces and thickens. It is done when a wooden spoon drawn across the surface leaves a trail. Leave to cool slightly before transferring to clean jars.

The Creel, Front Road, St Margaret's Hope, South Ronaldsay, Orkney Islands KW17 2SL (tel: 01856 831311)

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