The crowd of bairns piled into the Ness Out Of School Club where the excellent facilities were already emitting the savoury aromas of a Shetland Vegetable Soup.
Primary Seven is a great age – these bairns are the oldest in the school and and they exude confidence and charm. For the next hour and a half I was entertained and informed by their lively but polite questions, opinions and comments.
This was the first of 2 sessions over two Friday afternoons. These sessions were arranged to complement the School Food Project which is a main focus across all ages in the school for the whole academic year.
It also coincided with the news that the turnover of the Shetland Fishing Industry’s local fleet had increased by more than 40% last year. Much of this increase is due to greater mackerel landings following quota increases.
The other piece of news that caused considerable controversy was about reducing the offer of fish and chips from school dinner menus from weekly to fortnightly.
It was reported that instead of freshly caught local white fish (and chips) being served that mackerel goujons might be substituted. Nothing wrong with lovely fresh mackerel, in my view, but will these be the frozen, breaded and deep fried mackerel goujons available from wholesalers? From Sooth? Could they become the ‘turkey twizzlers’ of fish school dinner ‘cuisine’? I most certainly hope not.
Back to the Ness. The fish was fantastically fresh. Hake and squid straight from the wholesalers – QA Fish in Scalloway and Mussels from Blueshell in Brae. As for the mackerel and crab – they were alive just off the Roost the day before and supplied by the trusty Jim Black.
The Baked Hake with Root Vegetable Purée is a favourite from ‘Shetland Food and Cooking’
I received puzzled looks as I skinned the lovely large fillet and passed it to the bairns in front of me. ‘What does that smell of?’ I asked – they looked relieved and replied – ‘the sea, really.’ Hake was a new fish for many of them but it is a really great, firm and meaty white fish, plentiful in Shetland and a good price too. Some squeezed lemon juice, freshly ground pepper and a bit of rind was added.
I had the puree half-made so all that had to be done was to put it into an ovenproof dish, add the hake and – bob’s your uncle! Into the preheated oven (160ºC) for about 20 minutes. Easy.
Next the Mussels. This time – many of the bairns had eaten them before but were not necessarily familiar with the preparation and cooking processes.I pointed out that to cook mussels to restaurant ‘standard’ then onion, garlic, chilli, lemongrass, white wine and cream can all be used. My aim was to cook them ‘au naturel’ to give them the true taste of the sea.
We discussed the ‘rules’. The mussels were ‘reeseled’ (rinsed with agitation) in a basin of clean cold water and then checked for excess beard and broken shell. Any mussel still open goes straight into the bin. Then into a pan with just a sprinkling of water – high heat and lid firmly on. Once steam is being generated turn the heat down. After 4-5 minutes give the pan a really good shake. Check – the mussels will now be open. Any not open – straight into the bin. The mussels were tipped into a serving dish.
At this point Head Teacher Lesley Simpson joined us and confessed that she was not really a fan but agreed to use her Viking bravery to have another try. She led the class for the mussel tasting with of course – great approval!
The other really hands-on activity was dealing with the crabs. Again, several of the bairns had eaten these but mostly just freshly cooked. We went through the preparation stages – removing the claws, separating the body from the shell- taking off the ‘dead mens’ fingers’ which they correctly identified as gills – removing the head and stomach bag. We set – to with hammer, nutcracker and poking tools and separated the brown meat from the white. (The previous week someone in Shetland told me that they didn’t know you could eat the brown meat.) We went on to dress a crab by putting the brown and white meat alternately into the shell. We used a hard-boiled egg to garnish: the yolk grated and the white chopped and mixed with the white meat. We also made a lovely crab pasta which was devoured with enthusiasm.
The mackerel arrived at my back door in a bucket the day before – minus their tails which Jim had used for bait.
I was keen to use my recently received birthday present of a peerie home hot smoker (which is fantastically easy to use – and clean afterwards – Thulecraft have sold many dozens of these to Shetlanders over the last few years) I quickly filleted the mackerel, sprinkled on a little salt, rinsed them and after about an hour got them straight into the smoker. Half an hour later they were done and goodness me how good they were!
I brought in the smoked mackerel and we went on to make the simplest ever smoked mackerel pate which the bairns mixed together and piled on to those lovely peerie Skibhoull Bakery oatcakes. Another winner.
The Shetland Vegetable Soup was used as the base for cooking the stuffed squid. It was also quickly turned into Fish soup by the addition of small pieces of hake and squid. This was really well received by the bairns and they were impressed by the tenderness of the squid as well as the lively couscous stuffing. I would really urge you to try this delicious recipe which you can vary endlessly – with vegetables of your choice (leaving out the chorizo for non carnivores).
It is a pity that it was not possible to have the bairns doing more of the actual cooking, however they were definitely hands-on and they were able to see, taste, smell and become inspired to try a wider range of the fish which is such an important part of the Shetland economy and so very, very good to eat.