Food Journeys

Orkney fare at Portsoy

© Allan Robertson
Written by Liz Ashworth

My paternal grandfather, affectionately known as ‘Pappa’, was an accomplished pianist, one of Columbia’s first recording artistes; his first disc was released in 1927. Originally from Leith, he came to Elgin in the 1920s with his bride Elizabeth, my Orcadian grandmother, as manager of a piano outlet, eventually founding his own music business which he named Barr Cochrane.

My father joined the business on his return from Japanese prisoner-of-war camp to form Barr Cochrane and Son, based at 142 High Street, Elgin.

Pappa became friends with the Countess of Seafield through their love of music, most particularly the piano. The Countess owned an impressive Bechstein Concert Grand, tuned regularly and lovingly by my grandfather. On one such outing he took me with him. I was at that age when being small of stature and sheltered in experience, everything was larger than life, in an Alice in Wonderland way.

The piano was, indeed, extremely ‘grand,’ dominating a round room of many windows which illuminated the space with bright sunlight. This in turn was reflected by large crystal door knobs shooting prisms of colour over the walls and ceiling. As Pappa tuned I sat on the floor nearby, listening, watching shafts of rainbow hues dappling the music.

With work completed for the day, it was decided, after due deliberation, to drive along the coast to the Station Hotel at Portsoy for ‘luncheon’.

Here the assembled company were ushered with due ceremony into a dark-panelled dining room to be seated round a vast white-clothed but well-appointed table. Warned to be on my best behaviour, I was seated propped up on several cushions with a large white damask napkin tied round my neck to catch the spills.

Mouthwatering smells emanating from the kitchen beyond heralded the arrival of a thick hearty soup contained in a large, brightly-coloured vessel which I now know was a soup tureen. This steaming receptacle was passed round the diners who ladled copious quantities into their respective wide-rimmed soup plates to sup the steaming contents with hunks of home-made bread and butter.

The first food journey of my life!

Since then I’ve visited the town many times, in its snug setting on the Banffshire coast. The old harbour is more than 300 years old, and was regarded as the safest in the north-east of Scotland. It handled much trade with England and Europe, including the shipment of Portsoy marble – actually polished red and green serpentine from a vein running through the area. Some of it was used in the Palace of Versailles.

The ‘new harbour’ was built in 1825 by the Seafield Estate for the growth of the herring fishing, and at its peak there were 57 local boats. Soon after came the development of stake-net salmon fishing.

The story of Portsoy and its industries is told in the Salmon Bothy Museum, housed in a vaulted former ice house built in 1834; the upstairs netting loft is now a very atmospheric music and theatre performance space.

The Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, now in its 21st year, brings more than 15,000 people to Portsoy for a weekend of great activity at the end of June. There are opportunities to see beautiful traditional boats from Scotland and overseas, and to learn sailing and other maritime skills. There is traditional music, song and dance, and also maritime and rural crafts, and in the Festival added another dimension with the Food Fayre at the Wally Green.

Each year the weather is a challenge but no matter because working together all involved with the Fayre have created something unique, which first and foremost is all about local food producers and the bounty of quality they produce, in cookery demonstrations and tasting sessions. The food on display is varied, from oatmeal products to Portsoy Ice Cream where flavours range from Chocolate Orange to Lemon Cheesecake.

Some Orkney fare came onto the Portsoy menu in March this year when the Portsoy Festival’s annual fundraising dinner in the Station Hotel featured food from ‘Peedie Producers’ in Orkney.




Serves 6 to 8 people.
Takes 10 minutes to make.
No cooking required.

You will need:

500g flaked smoked mackerel
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
100 ml thick double cream
Ground black pepper

To make:

  1. Blend the ingredients together adding more cream if the mixture is too stiff.
  2. Season with plenty ground black pepper.
  3. Chill till service.

To assemble:

  1. Make the mixture into egg shapes called a quenelle by using two wet dessertspoons in both hands. Use your right hand to lift a spoon of the mixture and the bowl of the left spooning the mixture from one to the other spoon to shape.
  2. Lay onto a side plate and repeat till the mixture is finished.
  3. Garnish with slices of smoked salmon in twisted rolls.
  4. Serve with two relishes – Smoked Tomato Chutney from Orkney Isles Preserves in Shapinsay and Fairtrade Onion Marmalade from Westray Preserves. Use two teaspoons to deposit a spoon each of the relishes by scooping with one and pushing off with the back of the other to give a clean finish.
  5. Garnish with a snip of parsley and shredded lettuce leaves. Add a slice of lemon and serve.



Made with Selected Orkney Beef and Orkney Buffalo

Serves 4 to 6 people.
Takes 2 hours to prepare and cook.
Oven temperature 200C, 400F, Gas 6.

You will need:

675g (1.5lbs) diced Orkney Angus beef shoulder steak
350g (12ozs) diced Orkney Buffalo meat
3 large onions peeled and diced
1 bottle Scapa Special Ale
Sea salt
Ground black pepper
450g (1lb) puff pastry
Beaten egg to glaze

To make:

  1. Brown the meat in its own juices stirring continuously in a deep pan over a medium heat.
  2. Stir in the diced onion and cook for a few minutes to soften.
  3. Add the Scapa Special ale and stock to cover.
  4. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper.
  5. Cover the pan and simmer on a low heat till tender about 45 minutes.
  6. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
  7. Uncover the pan and turn up the heat to reduce the gravy and thicken if needed.

Roll out the puff pastry and cut into 6 squares or rounds. Brush with beaten egg and bake in a hot oven at 200C, 400F, Gas 6 for 15 minutes or till risen and golden.
Serve in heated individual dishes (I use soup bowls instead of pie dishes).
Spoon in the meat and top with the hot pastry and serve immediately.



Serves 4 to 6.
Takes 45 minutes to prepare and cook on the hob.

You will need:

(for the base)
350g (12ozs)  risotto rice
2 cloves garlic peeled and crushed
2 large onions – peeled and finely diced
Selection of seasonal vegetables – diced carrot, chopped spring onions, handful of garden peas or broad beans.
Olive Oil
Vegetable stock – at least 1 litre
Finely chopped parsley

(and to finish)
175g (6ozs) grated Grimbister cheese
115g (4ozs) diced Veira Russell’s farmhouse cheese
Sea salt and ground black pepper to season

To make:

  1. Melt a generous slice of butter with a generous glug of olive oil and stir in the rice over a low heat to coat the grains.
  2. Gradually stir in enough stock to cover and bring to the boil.
  3. Reduce the heat and simmer slowly gradually adding the stock till the rice is tender and creamy and the stock is absorbed.
  4. Add the vegetables with the last addition of stock.
  5. Fold in the grated Grimbister cheese to melt over a low heat, stir in Veira’s cheese and stir to heat through.
  6. Serve hot garnished with plenty parsley.
  7. A quick way to do this is to snip the parsley over the hot risotto using sharp scissors.



Makes 4 individual cheesecakes.
No cooking needed.

You will need:

(for the base)
50g (1.75ozs) crumbed digestives
50g (1.75ozs) crumbed oatcakes
40g (1.25ozs) butter
25g (scant oz) icing sugar

To make:

  1. Melt the butter and mix with the other ingredients.
  2. Oil and line 4 plate rings or ramekin dishes.

Divide the mix evenly between the four and press down. Put into the fridge to set.
Meanwhile make the topping.

You will need:

25g (scant oz) caster sugar
200g (7ozs) cream cheese
200mls (7flozs) double cream
1 vanilla pod
Woodstock Chooks lemon curd

To make:

  1. Scrape the inside of the vanilla pod into the cream in a bowl to infuse for at least 10 minutes. You can do this before preparing the bases.
  2. Whip the cream and sugar together till stiff.
  3. Beat the cream cheese till smooth and fold the two together.
  4. Pipe the mixture onto the set base leaving a hole in the middle.
  5. Fill the hole with lemon curd.
  6. Chill 30 minutes at least to set.
  7. Serve garnished with fresh fruit in season and a fruit coulis.



Use soft fruits in season – I like to use a mixture raspberries, strawberries, redcurrants and blueberries. If not use frozen berries thawed. You also need icing sugar.

To make:

  1. Gently cook the fruit in its own juices perhaps with a squeeze of lemon juice till tender.
  2. Pass through a sieve to remove all the skins and seeds.
  3. Sweeten a little if needed with icing sugar.
  4. Store in the fridge and use within a week – can be frozen. Try ice cube trays and then take out as many cubes as you need.



There are as many bere bannock recipes as there are bannock bakers.
This recipe was given to me by my friend chef Paul Doull at the Foveran Hotel, St. Ola. He bakes bannocks fresh every day. Imagine having a kitchen window that looks out over Scapa Flow! That is just where he is.
Makes 2 round bannocks.
Bake on a girdle or thick-bottomed frying pan.
Takes 20 minutes to mix and make.

You will need:

2 cups Barony Mills beremeal flour
1 cup plain white flour
2 heaped teaspoons baking powder
Scant level teaspoon of sea salt
Water to mix

To make:

  1. Put the girdle or frying pan to heat on medium.
  2. Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl and then mix with the water to make a soft pliable dropping dough.
  3. Test the girdle with a little white flour, if it turns golden the heat is correct, pale turn it up a little and if it burns leave to cool.
  4. Divide the dough into two and deposit straight onto the hot surface. Immediately sprinkle with beremeal and using the palm of your hand gently flatten to a round bannock shape about half an inch or 1 com or so thick.
  5. Reduce the heat a little to let the heat penetrate the base of the bannock and begin to bake it towards the middle.
  6. The bannock is ready to turn to bake the top side, when it is easily lifted using a fish slice or palette knife and has a golden crust on the base.
  7. Repeat till the base is golden and the bannock has a hollow sound when knocked with the knuckles.
  8. Cool, wrapped in the clean tea towel, on a wire tray.

Sandy Firth from Kirkwall reckons that the best supper is bere bannock freshly baked with Orkney farmhouse cheese topped with rhubarb and ginger jam.


About the author

Liz Ashworth

Liz Ashworth is a Scottish food writer and food product developer, with a particular interest in using local products to make high-quality wholesome food. Inspired by the work of F. Marian McNeill and her teacher Catherine Brown, she believes strongly in the value of preserving Scotland’s food heritage and using it to develop new products for the present day. The author of a pioneering series of cookery books for beginners of all ages, she writes food columns in various publications, and coordinates the food programme in the annual Orkney International Science Festival. Her most recent book is Orkney Spirit.