Icons of the isles: Four distinctive foods from Scotland's islands
- Jay Thundercliffe
- 6 July 2021
From unpasteurised cheeses to wildflower honey, these four food items carry with them the unique island flavour from which they hail
When it comes to expressing the character of a place, food can talk. Here we'd like to introduce four island specialities that have plenty to say.
Isle of Mull Cheese
Through history, Scotland's islands attracted a steady stream of religious pilgrims, but these days you're just as likely to find a cheeselover on a journey of reverence to Sgriob-ruadh Farm near Tobermory. The dairy farm is home to Isle of Mull cheese – quite probably the nation's most famous and distinctive farmhouse cheese.
Set up in 1980 when the Reade family moved up from England and took over the derelict farm, the cheddar-style cheese has been made on site for 40 years (a second, Hebridean Blue, joined it ten years ago). The unpasteurised milk used is as fresh as it gets – the time it takes to move from milking parlour to cheese vat. Provenance is guaranteed, food is grass and spent grains from the distillery, and no colouring is used.
Isle of Mull cheese is a fixture for cheesemongers across the UK, who will eulogise it with words like fruity, sharp, savoury, full-bodied, upfront and boozy. The operation has expanded to an on-site shop and café (housed in the impressive Glass Barn) with everything powered by their own wind turbine and hydro-electric system – and self-guided tours are on offer to round off the pilgrimage.
Stornoway Black Pudding
Ask anyone to name Scotland's most famous sausage and they will, of course, nearly always nod to the haggis, or 'Great chieftain o' the pudding race' as the bard Robert Burns dubbed it. In these parts, however, it has a rival known in Gaelic as the marag dubh, the black pudding – and in particular the variety produced on the Isle of Lewis, officially, and very specifically, called Stornoway Black Pudding.
The pudding is still made using the same few ingredients – beef suet, oatmeal, onions, blood, salt and pepper, nothing else – that crofters have used on the island for hundreds of years. The blood can come from sheep or cows as well as pigs, while the suet and rough oatmeal give it a unique and lighter consistency, while deepening the savoury flavours.
The Stornoway pud has protected geographical status – formerly granted by the EU, and now bestowed by the UK similarly to protect its integrity – only allowing the label 'Stornoway' when the puddings are produced in the town or parish of Stornoway. The marag dubh has helped lift the reputation of black pudding – showing that this premium sausage isn't just for a breakfast fry-up but can now grace dishes in the fanciest of restaurants.
Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus), the large flatfish that can reach nearly 5m in the wild, is an endangered species, with conservation groups recommending we avoid it. Its usual habitat is the cold waters of the North Atlantic but the fish is also to be found on the small Isle of Gigha off the Mull of Kintyre, thanks to Gigha Halibut – the only land-based halibut farm in the UK, and one of only a few around the world.
It's not easy farming halibut due to the protracted early growth stage and the poor survival rate. The project began on Loch Fyne in the early 1990s but it wasn't until 2006 that the fish were moved to Gigha, ready for harvest the following year. It's a process that has taken 20 years to perfect. The resulting halibut is not only recommended by the Marine Conservation Society as sustainably produced but top chefs including triple Michelin Star holder Alain Roux, and Scot Pam Brunton at Inver, sing its praises.
The company also smoke the fish (to order) using oak chips from whisky barrels. Many awards have since come its way for innovation and sustainability, as well as for the great taste of their produce.
Isle of Colonsay Wildflower Honey
Bees have endured a rough time of late with diseases and disorders, plus human impact, significantly disrupting global populations. The situation is rather rosier on two west coast islands – Colonsay and smaller neighbour Oronsay. In 2013, the islands became the UK's first official bee sanctuary – protecting our native honeybee, the European Black Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera). Instrumental in getting the official stamp on the sanctuary was Andrew Abrahams, who moved to the island in 1978 and began his concerns of oyster raising and beekeeping. He now has 60 colonies – from which he produces his highly prized Isle of Colonsay Wildflower Honey.
As the awareness of the bees' plight grows, so does our appreciation of their contribution to the environment and our lives – and also to the quality of their honey, akin to an expensive single malt that you dip into occasionally for a treat. The hardy island bees feast on an unusually varied diet that includes an abundance of wildflowers – half of all the British wildflower species can be found on the islands. This mixed diet will produce variations in the honey depending on the season and weather, but the fragrant and unique wildflower flavour will always be there.