Island life and using your loaf

I’m on North Ronaldsay for the day. My aim is to cycle and see some wildlife but I’m distracted. There’s a choice of cafes open and traybakes and fancies are my thing. I’ve only just cycled off the path from the ferry when I see a pop-up shop opposite the recycling area. They have beremeal flapjacks. Bere is an ancient form of barley which has been grown and milled in Orkney for hundreds of years. It’s delicious. I ask for a cup of tea but they’ve forgotten to bring the tea bags and will have to go to the other end of the island to fetch them. That will take up to ten minutes. That’s no hardship with a view of the bay.

I wait and enjoy the tea more for the waiting. It’s one of the first times I’ve paid in cash for something for 18 months. I’ve forgotten what it’s like for someone to give you change which mostly contains five pence pieces. I enjoy the flapjack. It was purely in the interests of research, you understand.

There’s another shop and cafe which I cycle past. That’s one for the trip back to the lighthouse. There’s also a cafe at the North Ronaldsay lighthouse and it’s there I meet Louise and Neal Paterson:

North Ronaldsay - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

They’ve relocated from the Isle of Mull to North Ronaldsay to run the cafe and visitors’ centre at the lighthouse. Or, I should say, they relocated eighteen months ago and due to a global pandemic they are having their first day of opening today. Orkney is full of surprises. What are the chances of finding a chef like Louise, trained in classic French cooking, who is able to bake like a dream, on an island with fewer than 60 people? In Orkney, quite high.

Here’s their loaf with Doves Farm’s emmer flour in it. Emmer is a grain from before widespread breeding produced modern grains. It pre-dates spelt and is similar to grain grown 17,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

North Ronaldsay - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

That pre-dates the domestication of Mouflon, sometime between 11 and 13,000 years ago, which also happened in Mesopotamia. It’s a fitting bread to have on North Ronaldsay, where its most famous inhabitants are the very descendants of those Mesopotamian Mouflon – the North Ronaldsay sheep. Where would we be without great farming advances from pre-history, which took place in Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq? Well, obviously we’d still be in North Ronaldsay, but it would be a very different island. Later, in the same Mesopotamian cradle of civilisation, they would invent writing.

Emmer is also the mother grain of all durum wheat. Just think; without emmer there would have been no pasta. Sorry if I’ve momentarily horrified you. I have the Minestrone soup (yes, that’s the one with pasta in it) and bread. It’s delicious. On the menu they have Westray cheese, Westray hot-smoked salmon and Westray crab. It makes me wonder why Louise and Neal didn’t just relocate to Westray. Then they could have slow-cooked Westray beef too, and fish as fresh as today from Westray Fish.

I wish Neal and Louise every success. The food is delicious, the presentation is immaculate and they’re a warm and friendly couple. When will you pay them a visit?

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