Saturday, 6 February 2016

Britain's most northerly food blogger

Elizabeth Atia, Shetland blogger
Elizabeth: 'I'm a wildling'

When I travel, I try to make contact with local food and drink bloggers - after all they know their patch best. I like getting to meet them, hang out with them, hear their stories, how they live, what they think of their country and their home.
In Shetland I spent a few days with Britain's most northerly food blogger, Elizabeth Atia, who writes Elizabeth's Kitchen Diary. A pretty red head originally from Canada, she's lived in Shetland for 17 years and has three children. She came to Scotland after being inspired by the film 'Rob Roy' to get back to her Scottish MacIntosh roots. She began by applying to every health food store in Scotland including a shop whose owner had an unusual method of selecting employees - dowsing with a pendulum. Fortunately, the pendulum swung Elizabeth's way and she was hired.
This was obviously fated as within weeks she had met her first husband. After having a son, they split a few years later. Then came three years alone as a single parent. Elizabeth met her second husband online, who at the time was living in Birmingham,. He took the risk of journeying to Shetland to meet her face to face, forking out for a flight and booking a bed and breakfast for a week.
She explained: 'He was gorgeous and importantly I knew he worked for the Post Office and that they do a criminal record check, something a single mum must consider'. 
All of us who've done online dating know how rarely that happens; you can fall in love with someone online but within 30 seconds of meeting them in person you know if you ever want to see them again. Things clicked and love bloomed. They recently got married (after two kids) with a stylish 'steam punk' ceremony complete with home-made bridesmaid/groom outfits and a charity shop wedding dress. If you are creative, you don't need much money.
Coming from a small village, Cape Breton near Halifax where 'there were maybe 200 people' makes her an ideal candidate for living in Shetland, which has a total population of 22k. Everywhere we walked, she knew people. And true to most small communities, everybody knows everything.
As well as food blogging and writing freelance for magazines such as Shetland's 60 North, Elizabeth does crafting projects such as this incredible hand painted Fair Isle stair renovation. She's also graduated with first class honours doing an Open University degree in Life Sciences.
 'A couple of years ago I put on two stone because of an injury,' she explained 'I was volunteering for crewing on a RNLI lifeboat (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) and a rope got caught around my ankle'. 
She could have lost her foot- every sailor knows how dangerous this is. Elizabeth was taken to the local hospital (Gilbert Baine Hospital, which they all call GBH) and was laid up for weeks. She used the P90X programme to get back to health. Now she maintains fitness with her Fitbit, doing at least 10k steps a day and more often 20 to 30k. In fact within a few minutes of meeting her, she insisted on doing a lengthy walk around the bay to visit Clickimin broch, an Iron Age stone watch-tower. She bounded up hills and shook off sea spray, red dreadlocks flying behind her, pirate coat billowing in the wind, while I trailed, puffing. (I need more friends that force me to do stuff like this.)
Clickimin broch, Shetland

Elizabeth has more limited ingredients to work with than bloggers on the UK mainland. Even the large supermarkets such as Tesco in Lerwick tend not to have much in, especially after recent storms Gertrude and Henry when customers panic-buy biscuits and booze. She also uses her local village cooperative.
'When I cook, I don't decide what I want to cook and buy the ingredients, I go to the shop and see what they have and construct something around that. Once I went to the local shop and all they had was a pig's foot.'
She has to be resourceful. Is it frustrating sometimes?
'Come midwinter, around the 21st of December, it can be so hard, mentally hard. But then again in summer we are out kayaking after midnight. You learn to take advantage of the fine weather when it comes, to pick up and go.'
Fresh herbs, for instance, in winter are a luxury. 'Parsley in winter? I'd have to freeze them from summer. '
Things we take for granted elsewhere are difficult to obtain out of season. Elizabeth gets an organic vegetable box throughout the summer and tucks vegetables away in her freezer to use in winter. Yet Shetland is so far north - nearer Norway than Scotland - that rather like Alaska, they have a short but intense summer, known as the 'simmer dim' where there is almost 24 hour daylight. Conversely, the winter months have little daylight, a brief window between around 9 am and 2pm, which is 'a nightmare for shooting food pix' she commented.
Living in such a remote location means that, for a blogger, deliveries of samples are complicated: only non-perishable items can be sent. A hamper of Bulgarian food samples was sent and arrived several weeks after the use-by date. Other problems include not being able to go on travel trips like other bloggers. Companies are reluctant to spend the money when it costs several hundred pounds just to get off the island. Last year Elizabeth and her husband took all three children to England for a holiday, it cost over £3,000. But her children were thrilled to see trees for the first time.
'They were just amazed. Shetland has the odd sparse group of trees but they aren't very big. My son was scared when I took him to Canada to see the redwood forests at the age of four. He was frightened of bears. There are no predators in Shetland; no foxes or snakes, only pole cats (wild ferrets) and lots of rabbits.' 
Five thousand years ago, most of Shetland's trees were felled by the Picts, creating the ubiquitous peat. Furthermore the saline air (no part of Shetland is further than three miles from the sea), the extreme weather and the sheep, mean that new ones have not been able to grow. I experienced 147mph gales during Storm Gertrude, which was really quite frightening, I could barely drive my car which was rocking back and forth. What do you like about Shetland? I asked.
 'It has been described as a council estate in the North Sea' Elizabeth explained in her Shetland burr which had only traces of Canadian 'It's slow paced. I suppose I'm used to that coming from where I lived. There isn't much distraction. On the mainland there is cinema and theatre. When you've got that thinking time, you get inspired, you are creative. You've seen the landscape, it's never the same, it keeps changing. Who knew there were so many different shades of brown, burnt umbers, oranges, browns, green? Then you've got the sea, the big sky, so big and always changing. I'm a wildling. And everybody is so friendly, so helpful. Folk don't ask for anything in return.' 
What is the most surprising aspect of living in Shetland?
 'There is a lot to do. Clubs, fencing, ballroom dancing, yoga. People keep themselves entertained. Bands come up to Shetland, for instance for the folk festival in May. '
What gives you the most pleasure here?
'Being outdoors, the freedom. You can walk for miles and miles and not see a single soul.'
Have you ever felt lonely?
Elizabeth hesitates. 'During the winter. I have no extended family here. But I was raised to be resilient and self sufficient.'
Will you be staying?
'Sometimes I get homesick for Canada. But I've only been a grownup here. I don't know if I could be a grown up in Canada.'

FIVE PLACES TO EAT IN SHETLAND recommended by Elizabeth

Fjara Cafe Bar - situated on the Lerwick waterfront this cafe serves gorgeous sharing platters, indulgent desserts and quality coffees all while offering superb sea views. You might even get to watch the seals basking on the rocks nearby.

Victoria's Vintage Tea Rooms - Britain's most northerly tea rooms located on the island of Unst - serves Posh Penelope sandwiches and splendid afternoon teas. Reopens again for the season in March.

The Scalloway Hotel - Shetland's only rosette winning restaurant located in the old capital of Shetland. Fine Shetland dining at its best - quality fresh, local seafood and a mouth watering menu.

Burrastow House - a wild intimate retreat on the remote west side of Shetland. The menu served is whatever the chef fancies cooking on the day using local produce. Reopens in the Spring.

Frankies Fish and Chips - the UKs most northerly fish and chip shop and #1 fish and chip shop in the UK in 2015. Serves local seafood and you'll even know the name of the fishing vessel your haddock was caught on that day!

Elizabeth Atia, Shetland blogger
Blogger Widgets

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Alpine foods: tartiflette recipe



The Alps, Europe's largest mountain range, passes through France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy and Slovenia and boasts a distinctive culinary culture. Alpine food is unashamedly heavy fare - stuff you can bolt down after a wintery day. Guilt-free carbs are one of the pleasures of skiing holidays, along with hot chocolate, gluwein and vats of bubbling cheese. 
More in January's Ham and High here. 

Tartiflette recipe
Serves 6

1 kilo of potatoes, waxy, unpeeled, cut in quarters
50g butter
3 or 4 shallots, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 fresh bay leaves
A pinch of mace
600ml of single cream
1/2 tsp salt (truffle salt if you have it)
150g smoked salmon, turn into strips
1 reblochon cheese, slit horizontally in half

Prepare the potatoes and parboil them in boiling salty water for about five minutes. Drain.
Take a large deep frying pan or wide shallow casserole that you can also use in the oven. 
Preheat the oven to 180ºC.
Melt the butter in the frying pan and add the shallots, sweating them down until soft and translucent. Add the garlic, the bay leaves and a pinch of mace. Then add the drained potatoes, tossing them in the butter and aromatics for a few minutes.
Add the cream and salt, warming it up, adding the smoked salmon at the last minute.
Finally, add the two halves of the reblochon cheese, rind side up, and put the pan into the oven to bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until bubbling. Place a metal prong into the potatoes to check that they are cooked.
Serve hot accompanied by a green salad dressed with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette and a crisp white wine, preferably from the Savoie region.


Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Great Italian Tinned Tomato Taste off and a recipe for 'white' tomato sauce

Tinned tomato tasting
I wrote this article for The Guardian. It seems to have caused a bit of controversy...600 comments and counting. I've been reading below the line and howling my head off with laughter. I've been called 'part of the 1%' because I'm prepared to pay almost a fiver for a jar of tomatoes. Check out the Guardian facebook page for even funnier remarks.

On the best tomatoes for canning:

For preserving it's best to use a firm fleshed tomato with few seeds and little juice that can withstand the canning process. Neopolitans believe the best tomatoes are grown around Naples, aided by the volcanic soil of Vesuvius.

  • Roma are a generic plum tomato frequently used outside of Italy.
  • Dattarini, named after dates for their shape and sweetness, are small tomatoes from Sicily
  • Corbarino, from Corbara in Campania.
  • San Marzano tomatoes, originally from Naples, are the most well known. Look for the Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) label because there are many imposters. 
  • Torpedino is a mini version of San Marzano.
Here are the raw scores:

Waitrose Own Brand: 4/10 'fine for a curry'
Cosi Come red: 5/10
Cosi Come yellow: 7/10 'colour puts me off' said Dino.
Heinz: 3/10
Napolini: 3/10
Tarantelli: 4/10
Strianese: 5/10
La Carmela: 5/10 from 'Great packaging' 
Cirio: 4.5/10 'sweet' 'tastes like a leather book' according to Joe. These did better cooked.
Giovanni Paudice: 5/10
Metelliana:4/10 'tastes as metallic as the name' 'disappointing'
Ocado Own Brand: 1/10 'crime against humanity'
Mr Organic: 3.5/10
Antonella: 7/10 These are from 'very good'
Puma Conserve: 5.5/10
Gustarosso: 3/10
I sapori di corbara: 9/10 raw
I sapori di corbara sua eccellenzia: 8.5/10 but the winner when cooked.
Agrigenus San Marzano: 7/10
Agrigenus slow food with heritage tomatoes:7/10

What did I do with the rest of 21 open tins of tomatoes? I cooked up a massive tomato sauce which I boxed up for the freezer.
pasta with 'white' tomato sauce

'White' tomato sauce with pasta recipe

Dino Joannides, author of Italian cookbook Semplice told me: 'One of the best pasta sauces I ever had was by Chef Gennaro Esposito from Torre del Sarancino. It was white, with no colour, but tasted intensely of tomato. He'd used just the water from fresh tomatoes.'
I want to try that. Many chefs are including the vines in tomato sauce now, to extract more flavour. So yesterday I used just the water from i sapori di corbara tomatoes. 

Serves one greedy person or two moderate eaters

3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 clove of garlic, minced
Water from jarred plum tomatoes
a Sprig of fresh basil
1/2 tsp of good sea salt
150g of good pasta

In a good saucepan (I use a copper saucepan from Mauviel, this really makes a difference to cooking sauces) heat up the olive oil, add the garlic, soften, then add the tomato water, the basil and the salt.

Cook for five or ten minutes while the pasta is cooking.
Drain the pasta and mix it with the sauce.

Spending on what goes in your mouth

Depending on what I'm cooking, I'll buy a cheaper supermarket brand (especially as I live nowhere near Chelsea where the winning tomatoes are sold) especially if it's just for a curry or chilli where the pure taste of tomato is masked.
My interest lays in food and drink, so that's what I spend my hard-earned dosh. I come from a background where my family spent their money on interesting travel and food, while some of their friends forked out for first class hotels, designer clothes, handbags, posh cars, a big TV - things I would regard as 'status' buys. Spending over £50 on a handbag that might get stolen or over £20 on sunglasses that you will lose is a waste of money for many but everyone has their own priorities. What goes in my mouth, my body is very important. In Italy and France people spend a far higher proportion of their income on food than the British.
Good food is too cheap in this country although that doesn't help the thousands of people on the breadline. Farmers don't earn very much and that is why many of them are simply giving up. Last year I visited Featherdown Farms where the farmer no longer bothered to sell his potatoes, which were of high quality, because it wasn't worth it by the time distribution, transport, cut taken by the supermarkets was counted. The markup in supermarkets on fresh fruit and vegetables is around 45% whereas junk food is sold with a profit of pennies. It's all wrong, all topsy turvy.
Do you think we spend enough on food? Is spending a fiver on a jar of tomatoes absolutely ridiculous?