I've been putting off writing about this book because I was disappointed by it, and generally I only choose to write about things I'm enthusiastic about. Then it sparked a bit of local controversy, the Amazon reviews behaved accordingly, and I can no longer resist the urge to weigh in.
Part of my disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations, when I first heard about this book I was hoping for something that would be as rooted in place as Gill Meller's 'Gather' was in Dorset. That was unfair, because 'Gather' was, and is, a landmark sort of book in all sorts of ways, it's recipes a series of polished gems - a hard act to follow.
'Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World' is a self styled love story that has some food in it, specifically it's Tom and James Morton's memories and thoughts about their foody habits, preferences, and prejudices scattered amongst a lot of memories, thoughts, and prejudices about Shetland generally. Which brings me to the controversial part of the book.
It centres on the island of Whalsay, and the black fish scandal. The fishing industry is a big deal in Shetland, the fish that's landed in Shetland a sizeable portion of the UK quota. In 2012 it emerged that around 47 million pounds worth of fish had been landed illegally. The fish processing plant in Shetland was fined for their part in this, and so were a group of Shetland skippers - the fines ran into the hundreds of thousands.
Its a thorny subject to tackle, and a sensitive one in a book like this. The least you could do is make sure you get the figures right. The Mortons don't do that. They over inflate them, and infer that the huge pelagic trawlers are paid for outright by the families who own them (my understanding is that bank loans are involved). Then there's a poem by James that refers to unscrupulous baby seal bludgeoners and what fuels 24 hour shifts at sea. It's not surprising that it caused offence, and it all seems so unnecessary. 5 minutes fact checking and steering clear of youthful poetic efforts would have gone a long way.
Whalsay is known as a rich island, but away from the trawlers in the harbour, and a general air of prosperity about the houses, it's certainly not in an obvious way. Thanks to oil money and low unemployment across the islands there's a general sense of prosperity everywhere, so again picking on one community feels misjudged.
The result was a spate of spiteful one star reviews on Amazon, and whilst their content can more or less be ignored the upset is genuine, and not unreasonable. A series of 5 star reviews followed which are just as meaninglessly partisan. The publicity has only helped book sales.
A bigger problem for me is a general lack of recipes, and the choice of some of the things included. In fairness traditional Shetland cooking is based on subsistence farming and the fish which wasn't sold off. A foody scene is slowly emerging, though neither of the Mortons approve of it. Bannocks, reestit mutton soup, and dried fish are traditional. Reestit mutton (smoked and salted) is iconic (and pretty good). So are bannocks. The image of fish pegged out to dry on clothes lines is still iconic, I'm not sure how widespread the practice actually is though. The bits about mutton, bannocks, and dried fish are excellent.
There's quite a bit about smoking and curing salmon (salmon farming is also big in Shetland) but nothing that hasn't been well covered elsewhere. There's a recipe for lentil soup that everybody should know - and which generations of Shetland children, including me, were taught to make in home economics - because it's both cheap and good, and quite a lot more along the same lines. The chances are you already have these recipes.
Shetland also has a sweet tooth, Sunday teas, and community cafés abound, and there are still a few local bakeries going. That coupled with James baking history (GBBO finalist in 2012) makes the baking chapter a particular disappointment - and here's my prejudice. I don't want, or need, another brownie recipe (nobody has beaten Nigella's, which this one has a close resemblance too) I would very much like some good tea loaf recipes. Tea loaf is the thing I most associate with Shetland, and can't find a satisfactory version of down here. (It's a fruited loaf, bread not cake, and comes in various forms, all of which I miss.) Again, there's just not much in it.
In the end it's just not a great Cookbook, though not a terrible one either. It is a fairly thorough look at the Morton's life in Shetland, and how they cook there, and the photography is wonderful. If you like the way they write (I veered between being engaged, and alienated depending on the anecdote) you'll enjoy reading this, but if you don't it probably won't offer you very much. As a souvenir, or introduction, to Shetland it's worth buying for the pictures alone.