Today I bring you a small part of an article from The Food Journal: A Review of Social and Sanitary Economy and Monthly Record of Food and Public Health, Volume 3 (London, 1873.) The topic of Shetland: Its Manners and Diet was covered over two editions of the journal, and the author began by noting:
“Until within the last few years, Shetland was almost a terra incognita, and the visitors to its bleak and barren shores were few. The state of things is greatly changed; the number of tourists increases every year, and, indeed, Ultima Thule bids fair to be as regularly "done" as any other fashionable resort of the pleasure-seeking Briton. The absurd notions entertained respecting Shetland, its climate, and its people, are, as a consequence, rapidly vanishing, to be replaced by others more correct.”
The second part of the feature covered the fisheries and the food of the people.
The Food of the People.
Every fisherman in Shetland is also a farmer, having five or six acres of ground, the produce of which supplies him with the greater part of the oatmeal he requires for himself and his family, and at the same time with fodder for his cattle. Each patch is cultivated by manual labour, the chief implement used being the tuiscar, or native spade, and in the vore, or labouring season, every member of the family capable of working, male and female, is pressed into the service. . The usual crops are black oats - the light-coloured or Scotch kind, though much better and yielding more meal, not being reckoned so suitable to the climate – beans, potatoes, and turnips. As the Shetlanders sow the same ground year after year without intermission, the soil, naturally poor, soon becomes completely worn out, and they are obliged to recruit its exhausted strength by the imposition of fresh earth. This, which they call truck, is brought from the neighbouring scathold, or outlying and uncultivated district, with great pains and labour, and is formed into a kind of compost before being used. In consequence of this constant scalping, the ground for a considerable distance around each hamlet is as bare and barren as a stony desert.
The staple article of diet among the Shetlanders is fish, and so fond are they of it that they could eat it at every meal, and never wish a change. What they call the greyfish, or sillock, already alluded to, is the most esteemed. These swarm in countless numbers along the coasts, and whenever weather will permit every spare moment is spent in catching them. It is surprising how a man will sit on the rocks, or in his boat, on a cold winter day, regardless of the piercing winds and driving sleet, till he has filled his "buddie," and so secured the evening's meal and next morning's supply. In cooking these fishes the people boil them with potatoes, as it is supposed that a finer relish is thus imparted to the latter. The piltock, which is the sillock in its second year, is with all classes reckoned a great delicacy, especially when eaten cold with vinegar. Sillocks and piltocks are used fresh, or sour, or "blawn." The "sour" are semi-putrid, but are much liked notwithstanding. "Blawn" sillocks are those which have been dried for some time in the open air. Before they can be used they must be thoroughly soaked in water, and even then are very insipid. Great quantities of these are regularly prepared by every family for winter consumption, and hung in rows under the roof of their houses. The skate is also in great repute, and in summer it is common to see two or three hung up at every door, drying in the sun. Like the "blawn" sillocks, they need to be thoroughly steeped in water before they can be used. With plenty of butter they are very fine. The larger fish, such as cod and ling, are not much eaten, and the people imagine that they are not so good for the health as the grey-fish; but the chief reason doubtless is that the cod and others mentioned are reckoned the property of the tacksman, and to appropriate them would be little better than theft. Turbot is used in its season, and, among the very poorest, even the dog-fish is used for food, but only in the absence of everything else. The roe of the cod boiled entire is an excellent dish, and the same, mixed with flour, is formed into a paste called "slot," which is eaten fried with grease or suet. The cod is eaten with its own oil, and this dish, which the Shetlanders like very much, is called "fish and gree." Many a hearty meal is made of the heads and livers of the cod, after the fish has been prepared for salting.
In taking their meals, the Shetlanders do not arrange themselves around a table, but each person sits wherever he finds most convenient. The pot, with the potatoes, stands near the fire, and the fish is laid upon a square wooden platter with raised sides, called a "trough," and placed upon a small table. No knives or forks are used, but every one helps himself with his fingers, and holds a bit of fish in one hand and a potato in the other. In every house there is a pig or two, which the family either use for themselves or send to the market. The Shetland native pig is not an attractive specimen of its kind, and its flesh is not the best of pork, the quality by no means being improved by the feeding, which almost always imparts to it a fishy taste. The flesh of fowls is affected in the same way. These last are small, but are very tender when young. Beef and mutton are not extensively used among the lower classes in Shetland, but it is not uncommon for two or three families to join in having a cow killed at Martinmas for their winter's stock of provisions. This was until recently the invariable custom with the better classes, but now fresh meat can be had all the year round. The beasts intended for slaughter are entirely grass-fed, and generally from ten to twelve years old, at which time they are considered to be in prime condition. The meat is very fine, but shrinks considerably in boiling.
Tea is a favourite beverage with the Shetlanders, and the value of yearly imports is considerably more than the rental of the whole country. With a great many it is as much an article of extravagant dissipation as whisky is in other places. It is drunk without cream or sugar, and generally boiled. Sometimes a piece of lump-sugar is held in the mouth, which sweetens the tea as it is swallowed. The bread eaten with it is oat-cake, which is used in almost every house throughout the isles. Wheaten or bakers' bread has, however, lately begun to come into use, even among the peasantry; but formerly it was a thing scarcely ever seen in any family, and when it was procured it was enjoyed as a great delicacy. The Shetlanders also use oatmeal porridge, but not so much as the lower orders in Scotland. In winter, boiled cabbage, potatoes, and fish are commonly taken at supper.
The Shetlanders are not a drunken people, but although they are all very fond of a glass of spirits at times, they generally contrive to keep within due bounds. Their principal times for rejoicing are Old Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Johnsmas (St. John's day), and the foy, which every boat's crew has at the close of the haaf fishery. Even at such times it is very rare that there is much excess of any kind.
Owing to the exceedingly healthy nature of the climate and the temperate lives of the people, many of the Shetlanders attain a great age.
The famous Victorian chef, Alexis Soyer was well aware of the common prescription of cod-liver oil by the medical men of the day – although clearly the hardy folk of the Shetlands would have had no such need. In his book A Shilling Cookery for the People (London, 1854) Soyer noted:
Being aware of the immense quantity of cod-liver oil taken by delicate persons, now-a-days, and the great benefit derived from its use, I asked the medical officer present his opinion of its efficacy. Nothing can be better," was his reply, "in many cases. But," said he, "many patients cannot take it, being of such an unpleasant taste, more especially children, and as we in this establishment use the second quality, from motives of economy, it is doubly unpleasant." I myself tasted some, and must say that I found it anything but relishing.
After bidding adieu to the doctor, I and my host left, and while returning to my hotel, I thought that something could be done to alter the present unpleasant way of administering it. Accordingly, upon reaching home, I sent for the following:—
103. One pound of fresh cod-liver; I then peeled and steamed two pounds of nice floury potatoes, then cut the liver in four pieces, placed it over the potatoes, and then steamed them, letting the oil from the liver fall on the potatoes; I then made some incisions in the liver with a knife, to extract the remaining oil, afterwards dishing up the liver, which was eaten with a little melted butter and anchovy sauce. The potatoes were served up with a little salt and little salt and pepper. Both dishes were found extremely good.
The following is another way of extracting the oil of a cod's liver, with the aid of that abundant article, rice.
104. Rice and Cod Liver.—Boil half a pound of rice in two quarts of water. When nearly done, remove three parts of the water; then put over your rice a pound of cod's liver, cut in large dice. Put the saucepan in a slow oven for about thirty minutes, by which time it will be nicely cooked. Then take the liver out, which serve as above directed. Stir the rice with a fork, and serve it; if allowed by a medical man, add a little salt and pepper. If no oven, cook the liver and rice on a very slow fire, for otherwise it would burn, and be unwholesome as food.
Of course you can easily see what a blessing such diet as this must be to a person incapable of taking the oil by itself, as, by mixing it with the food, it entirely loses that rancid quality for which it is proverbial.
105. Tapioca and Cod Liver.—Boil a quarter of a pound of tapioca till tender in two quarts of water; drain it in a cullender, then put it back in the pan; season with a little salt and pepper, add half a pint of milk, put over one pound of fresh cod liver, cut in eight pieces. Set your pan near the fire to simmer slowly for half an hour, or a little more, till your liver is quite cooked. Press on it with a spoon, so as to get as much oil into the tapioca as possible. After taking away the liver, mix the tapioca. If too thick, add a little milk, then boil it a few minutes; stir round, add a little salt and pepper, and serve. If you have a slow oven, use it in preference to the fire; but if you are without an oven, here is another good way of cooking it:
106. Put three inches depth of water in a largish pan; then put the pan containing the tapioca in the above-mentioned pan; let it simmer till quite done. It will take about an hour. By adopting this plan, all fear of burning is obviated; afterwards remove the liver, which serve as at No. 103.
107. Sago, or semolina, may be done the same way, and by adding an egg, it will make a delicate pudding; or by cutting the liver in small dice, you may add it to your pudding, putting in a little more milk to make it moist; then add a couple more eggs, well beaten, and mix; putting it in a basin, previously well buttered; then let it simmer in a stewpan for half an hour, or till set; then turn it out on a dish; sauce with a little plain melted butter, anchovy, or parsley and butter.
A little stringent food, such as the above, will be found to be very refreshing, even to persons in good health.