On my Edinburgh Food Safari, we visit Armstrong’s of Stockbridge https://armstrongsofstockbridge.co.uk/ where my guests love their famous delicately smoked salmon. Gary Huckle and his team slowly smoke a whole Scottish salmon over wood chips in the back shop, then marinate it in Pickerings 1947 gin.
Armstrong’s source their salmon from Cooke Aquaculture Scotland’s seawater salmon farms in Orkney and Shetland, chosen because the salmon has plenty of strong tidal water to work out with – no risk of flabby fins – and also no need for chemical intervention in case of sea lice, thanks to good currents and cool temperatures.
Off to Orkney
So I was thrilled when I was asked by the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) to go on a publicity trip to Orkney to learn more about the farmed salmon industry. Salmon is the fish you are most likely to see in a UK shopper’s basket and it ranks in the top three of the UK’s food exports.
We started off visiting the Cooke Aquaculture processing plant in Kirkwall, the main town in Orkney. It’s a very slick operation; thousands of salmon which have been harvested (humanely stunned) at sea, come off the boats in ice – having already undergone rigor mortis, then at the plant, they are gutted, checked, weighed, packed in ice by hand
and then down to Larkhall near Glasgow to be dispatched worldwide within 24 hours of being taken out of the sea and in some cases are actually on the dining plate within 24 hours.
Then, time for feeding – not us – the salmon. We donned bright orange oilskins, wellies, life vests and were taken on a fishing trawler to visit a salmon farm site just off the island of Hoy. Some 20,000 salmon were in a round floating ring structure – about 100 metres in circumference supporting a large net bag hanging in the water. Fishmeal which is a ‘hot’ topic at the moment is fed to the salmon at set times of the day using a huge spraying machine which deposits the food pellets directly on top of the pen area. We were able to jump down from the small trawler to the circular pens and walk round to the feed barge to watch the process via the underwater cameras; the words ‘feeding frenzy’ do spring to mind. It’s all very mechanised; there were electronic microscopes to monitor plankton levels, digital thermometers for the water temperature and gauges showing the feed levels in the stores. Salmon like swimming in shoals, so they will tend to swim together, regardless of the area provided. The SSPO hopes at some point the public will be able to see live feeds from Scottish salmon pens – not quite as cute as penguin feeding at the zoo – but there does seem to be a real effort in the farmed salmon industry for transparency. The SSPO are keen to stress Scotland’s feed suppliers are sourced from responsible and sustainable fisheries.
Our guide lifted a salmon out of the pen using a net – during feeding time. To my untrained eye, the fish had shiny eyes and shiny scales so looked healthy/happy but as miffed as a salmon could be, when removed from its place in the lunch queue.
But what I could see for sure, were so many locals of all ages working in the salmon industry. They seemed to be enjoying and stimulated by their jobs, not just at the processing plants and fish farms, but at the fish pen-making site, the fishmongers, fish smokers and restaurants.
Knock on effects?
Orkney will always attract tourists including masses by cruise ship, because of its rich heritage; it has the best preserved stone age village in Europe, St Magnus Cathedral, wildlife; puffins, seals, seabirds, but tourism alone could threaten to turn a community into a Disneyland film set. Fish farming offers work to people not just on the Orkney mainland, but also on the more remote but also inhabited smaller islands. This does seem to make for an incredibly get up and go dynamic community from house builders turned gin-makers and coffee machine suppliers turned coffee roasters which benefits both locals and tourists.
On the salmon front, I had local – obv. – wonderful poached salmon at The Foveran http://www.thefoveran.com
We also visited Jolly’s of Orkney https://www.jollysoforkney.co.uk/collections/all where they had a fantastic non-regulated way of smoking the Cooke’s salmon.
The salmon was smoked over wood chips, and timed depending which way the wind was blowing, which was a refreshing change after all those machines we saw regulating everything – and it tasted delicious – quite smoky actually.
Its not just salmon, if I lived in Orkney – I could easily create a food safari – there are so many fantastic local products, just check out the Orkney food and drink site https://www.orkneyfoodanddrink.com/
At the Orkney Roastery. Sara and Euan showed us how green beans could be roasted and ground to their spec and of course drank! https://www.theorkneyroastery.com/
The gin craze has certainly not bypassed Orkney: Orkney’s Sea Glass Gin was named Winner of the Great British Food Awards 2019. https://www.deernessdistillery.com/
Kirkjuvagr Orkney Gin https://www.orkneydistilling.com/ won Scottish Gin Destination of the Year accolade for its five-star Kirkwall distillery and visitor centre, which we visited; I loved the upturned boat ceiling in the bar/coffee shop. Kirkjuvagr won Silver for its Arkh-Angell ‘Storm Strength’ gin (57-per-cent gin)
There are also fantastic local cheeses – including my favourite crumbly cows cheese Grimbister (also ready to cook deep-fried breaded Grimbister) butter, cheddar, oatcakes, beer , preserves, whisky and even rum.
Many of these can be sourced directly including Cooke Aquaculture Scotland’s smoked salmon from Jolly’s of Orkney https://www.jollysoforkney.co.uk/collections/all so you could too, can have your own food tour without leaving home – which might just inspire you to get on a plane/boat to eat and drink Orkney.