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Meet The Board: Bo Simmons (Bo's B&B)

August 26th 2020

“Betty is my boss now, I just do as I’m told!” laughs Bo Simmons. A fixture on the local food scene in multiple guises since moving here in the late 1980s, she'd been accustomed to self-employment since her teens before taking up her current job at Bonhoga Gallery’s café.

Pretty much anyone who has tried it will say being your own boss can be a blessing and a curse. Bo established The Olive Tree as one of Lerwick’s top lunch spots in the second half of the noughties.

She enjoyed many aspects of it, but the stresses of working from 7am-7pm six days a week took its toll. Now 64, she is enjoying the relative serenity of working with Betty Willmore at the Shetland Arts-run gallery in Weisdale.

She has called the West Side home since first visiting her good friend Ann Prior for a holiday in 1987. They had worked together at the Cherwell Boathouse in Oxford, and when Ann moved away Bo rented her cottage in Bladon – near where Winston Churchill is buried – for many years.

Bo had already moved around a fair bit before arriving in Oxford at 19, having been born in Liverpool and then grown up on the south coast.

Fate intervened when she came to Shetland. After she and Ann had spent the day cooking for a team of archaeologists, they attended a dance at Waas Hall where she met Henry Anderton for the first time.

He had just been offered first refusal on the eighteenth century Burrastow House, overlooking Vaila Sound, but Bo and Ann pipped him to the post.

“Two weeks before I moved up, Ann said there was a place on the market. I initially thought ‘I dunno, I might hate Shetland’, but I arrived on one of those most beautiful May days, a concert in the hall with a great band and dancing.

“I was brought up by the sea and spent all my time hopping over the back wall and walking for miles. As a child I had problems with my ears so I was quite independent, so being in such a remote place didn’t really bother me.

“I thought ‘great, I’ll be able to go swimming in the sea every day’. I have not been very many times because the water is so cold!”

It’s an overcast late July afternoon when we head out west to visit Bo and Henry, who have now been together for three decades.

They stay in a beautiful modern eco house built on the footprint of an old Shetland crofthouse – tastefully ornate furnishings, its walls lined from floor to roof with wooden bookshelves creaking under the weight of all manner of literature, and a naturally lit porch with greenery bursting from its orderly tangle of plants.

“I fell in love with the house, the beautiful setting,” Bo tells us over a divine slice of homemade parsnip cake – as we look out at the light rain coursing through the voe, where Henry is striding purposefully across the fields with their retired sheepdog Jamie.

Before leaving Oxford she had been cooking for university dons and working in a deli. She had also done various hospitality courses, worked in lots of restaurants (“good, bad and indifferent”), run a Woodstock wine bar and taught at a cookery school.

She took on Burrastow, originally built in 1759, along with Ann in 1988. They opened the following year offering morning coffee, lunch, afternoon teas and dinner whenever there was sufficient demand.

The quality of the food soon saw Burrastow garnering rave reviews and industry acclaim. There were appearances in the Good Food Guide, the Michelin Guide and two TV series with Aberdeenshire film company Cinecosse all about Shetland’s larder.

Bo also found time to publish her own cookbook, collaborated with chefs from Faroe, Iceland and Norway on a book, ‘Inspiration’, about food in communities sixty degrees north of the equator.

She recalls getting fish and other goods sent to the guesthouse by bus. She took a horticulture course and installed a polytunnel at Burrastow offering possibilities for budding young horticulturalists.

“It was great. We had mostly our own produce. Henry had beef, lamb – local pork, and duck and turkey when we could, from Lunna Farm.

“When I first came it was Fraser’s [Fish Shop] – Margaret and Alex were fantastic, they got me anything I wanted, turbot, monk, halibut, squid – put it on ice and shoved it out on the bus, and we had fishermen that dropped in on the door.”

Bo continues: “One of us would be front of house and one of us would be in the kitchen one week, then we’d swap over because Ann was a really good cook too.”

Ann was soon on the move again – to Fair Isle, as the seasonal cook at the Bird Observatory.

By that time Henry, with whom Bo had a daughter, Sophie, in 1990, had sold the 750-acre island of Vaila – providing the means to renovate and extend the guesthouse.

“It used local ingredients, lots of fresh local produce. We tried to cook things perfectly so it really showed off the quality, without too much embellishment.”

They created a dining space seating up to 28, and took bookings for small weddings and corporate dinners.

After selling Burrastow to current owner Pierre Dupont in 2004, Bo assumed the “challenging” task of running a deli van for 18 months. She made chutneys, jams, bread and oatcakes, and they imported olives, olive oil, UK farmhouse cheeses and cured meats.

“If people had gluts of veg we would barter our produce for that. We were turning up in lots of rural areas. We should have thought about it more carefully!

“We established a route eventually, but we should have said ‘we’re going north and we’ll stop at such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time’, but we didn’t. We drove all around, which was lovely. The reception we got from people was fantastic. That was quite a lot of fun.

“We got caught in the snow, all sorts of things… I’ll never ever forget the day we were coming away from Skeld and Mary Fraser was coming the other way flashing her lights, and then turning and running down the road behind us!”

In early 2006 she was offered The Olive Tree, in a space tucked underneath the post office at Bolts that used to house video rental shop Da Cellar, which she ran as an immensely popular deli and café for over four years. But it certainly wasn’t without its challenges.

“We tried to keep a close eye on staffing costs and things, but also started using more local produce. Local lamb, chicken that was all Scottish and free range – those things make it more expensive.

“It was a very interesting exercise. It was a difficult time for me, for personal reasons. It’s all the things like the cheese counter, wine tastings, food-and-drink pairings – training people to do all that stuff properly.

“I enjoyed the ‘foodie-ness’ of it, being able to experiment. But I realised quite quickly it needed to be a family running it rather than having lots of staff.”

In 2011 she passed The Olive Tree on – it still trades today in the capable hands of Brian Minty and family – and spent a few years helping Ann Johnson at Scoop Wholefoods, before moving on to Bonhoga.

She grows her own produce for use in the café’s salads – and the Nicolson-Riddell family can vouch that her multiple varieties of tomatoes taste quite exquisite (“Black tomatoes! Yellow tomatoes! That’s ridic-lee-us!” Mara Lise tells us in mock horror on the journey home).

Shetland Food & Drink (SFAD) chairwoman Marian Armitage ascribes to Bo an “inspirational” relationship with the isles’ food, which she has always used in “imaginative and flavoursome dishes and menus”.

Bo was approached to join the board largely due to the wealth of her aforementioned experiences – and her lifelong commitment to the all-important provenance of fresh produce.

“It’s come on in leaps and bounds. In local shops there’s much more availability of local produce,” she reflects, name-checking fishmongers Blydoit and Island Fish alongside butchers Scalloway Meat Co. and Anderson’s.

Bo is full of praise, too, for Turriefield, which has been “instrumental” in spearheading an increase in grow-your-own vegetable production – with polytunnels springing up all over the islands.

Does she share others’ fear for the future of hospitality amid the havoc wreaked by Covid-19? “I’m hoping that we don’t lose too many. We really need to support them as much as we can, and if we’re not going on holidays abroad and have got a bit of money, why not go out and treat yourself?

“Promote Shetland and SFAD are doing a fantastic job, and we can only carry on promoting in the way that we are, just to make sure the places we’ve got stay. We need to get people to support local, in every shape and form, as much as we can.”

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