Thursday, October 25, 2018

Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World - James & Tom Morton

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.


  1. I just wrote a comment about the SHETLAND cook book and when I tried to publish it, it disappeared right off the screen and I got an error message................ due, I am sure, to my digital ineptness but also very frustrating!

    Although I mostly agree with you about the Morton cook book, I have a copy and I have enjoyed it, probably for the unusual things which are included --reestit mutton among them. Though my family has a large flock of Icelandic sheep (and thus a lot of lamb) I don't plan to make it but I've always been curious as to what it is! Somehow, and this is odd, I totally missed the controversy about black fish but did know about the criminal activities. I am sure that reading about it in a book ruffled more than a few feathers! It sounds like something that happened across Buzzards Bay in New Bedford which is the big fishing port here in Massachusetts. Very criminal and heavy fines! As there should have been. I agree about the tea breads, which I also love including Irish tea brack. I use a simple recipe which is in THE PUFFER COOK BOOK and it is delicious. I liked the photos in the cook book too, although I find that cook books with lots of glossy full page photos of food shown with tarnished silver and on an old plank in a pretty dish generally aren't very helpful and the tarnished silver craze drives me nuts! They are essentially coffee table cook books and not for real use.

    The SHETLAND FOOD AND COOKING by Marian Armitage is one of my absolute favorite cook books -- for sure value and high interest it is a winner. Very expensive over here however. I also love Darina Allen's FORGOTTEN SKILLS OF COOKING (from Ballymaloe Cooking School in Ireland), Julia Child, various old cook books by Irma Rombauer, MRS. APPLEYARD [there are various titles] books about New England cooking and from my own island MARTHA'S VINEYARD COOK BOOK by Louise Tate King and Jean Wexler. It is now 50 years old xince the first edition [there have been 4 all somewhat different] and still selling. A lot of other Vineyard cook books just don't cut the mustard as the saying goes and I am sure that your familiarity with Shetland affects how you perceive the Morton book, to a degree, just as I feel pretty proprietorial about the superiority of the Vineyard cook book mentioned above. Oh I love some British cook books as well, but the older ones when the food scene was just starting There was a woman who wrote fab books about fruit and veg although I cannot now remember her name. Ditto for Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Greek cooking.

    Best wishes. Ginny Jones

  2. Hi Ginny,

    Thank you for emailing your comment after blogger ate it. I don't think it was anything you did at all. The Marian Armitage book is excellent, though currently out of print (or it was when I last checked), I really need a replacement copy! The furore over the descriptions of Whalsay fishermen in the book only blew up a couple of weeks ago when someone finally noticed it. I don't think it was very well handled which was the final thing that I found somewhat disappointing about the whole thing.

    I think the photography is fantastic, and relevant to what's being talked about as well. Not just food, but community - and as you say, you don't always get that in contemporary cookbooks. And yes, I'm much more judgemental because it's somewhere I know (there is a longer list of little niggles which were to petty to share) love, and have my own ideas about.

    I wonder of the fruit and veg books you mentioned would be the Jane Grigson ones?