Such a message is undoubtedly necessary to encourage people to cherish what is on their doorstep and move away from more generic offerings that for too long have spurned the teeming seafood and other fresh local goodies available, instead importing inferior frozen alternatives.
But while few would quibble with SFAD board member Eric Graham’s verdict that generally there has not been enough Shetland produce on offer at local eateries over the past 25 years, highly skilled and experienced chef Mike Skinner is the last person to blame.
It is no coincidence his stints at Bonhoga, the Peerie Shop Café, Monty’s and – perhaps most notably – a hugely acclaimed seven-year stint at Hay’s Dock Restaurant occurred during some of those outlets’ most successful eras.
Indeed, during his days at Hay’s Dock – with the bubbly personality and attention to detail of partner Lorna Graham in charge front of house – it was very much the place to be. Along with Scalloway Hotel and Monty’s, it delivered a high-end dining experience that had previously been hard to come by in the islands.
There he worked with Helen Fullerton, now running the kitchen at The Dowry, currently the hottest upmarket destination in town. Mike has always valued “bringing young people on that are local, as opposed to relying on agencies. I’d like to think I’ve contributed somehow by having people working for me at the beginning of their careers”.
“Since I started cooking I’d like to think every place I’ve worked has been highly regarded as being fairly contemporary and to the forefront of fresh, seasonal, hand-cooked. It’s something I’ve been doing for the last 25-30 years.
“I totally agree with what [Eric] is saying. It is a bit disappointing that some of the bigger operators buy so little local produce, bringing in frozen fillets of fish and defrosting them to order.
“But it depends what you mean by quality produce. It’s not about being critical – some things are maybe not what I like or what I would buy, but there’s a market for different people.”
At Bonhoga in his early kitchen days – Mike is now 63 – he would forage for nettles to make soup, while at Monty’s they would experiment with scabbyman’s heids.
“For me, it’s my hobby,” he says. “When I go on holiday I eat out, go to France – make foie gras, confit – and when I’m at work I take my hobby with me. It’s more than just banging out some produce, some pigs and cows.”
The possibility of doing something at Da Haaf came along in 2014 at a time, post-Hay’s Dock, when he was “footloose and fancy-free”, and spotted an opportunity to bring back a middle-market offering comprising simply cooked, fresh seafood.
While it is unclear when and how many students will return – during term time Da Haaf’s primary function on weekday lunchtimes is as a canteen for college learners – the restaurant’s evening weekend services are currently proving popular.
The menu is perfectly pitched to avoid intimidating middle-market customers, featuring staple offerings like haddock and chips, steaks, Mike’s renowned Cullen skink, and steamed mussels in white wine, garlic and parsley.
More adventurous eaters can try mussel and coriander fritters, a Lebanese mezze platter and a Westside seafood ramen packed with Shetland-sourced scallops, monkfish and hake in a lemongrass, coriander, chilli and ginger broth with noodles and Asian veg.
The early Saturday evening we visit with our young family, along with an ideal menu to keep adults and children alike happy, the experience is simply excellent from start to finish. There is attentive service towards the kids, and a well-spaced, relaxed environment for what was my parents’ first eating-out experience since lockdown.
Ah, yes. Covid. Its presence is still very much being felt. After shutting for the best part of three months from late March, Da Haaf initially got back on its feet in early June and reopened to offer takeaways.
Da Haaf sought to capitalise on the absence of a traditional chippy in Scalloway, offering villagers fish suppers, scampi and macaroni cheese, with pre-allocated time slots for collection.
Since reopening for sit-in meals from 15 July, weekend nights have seen steady trade but weekday lunchtimes – prior to “eat out to help out” at least – saw trade down to around a third of what they’d normally expect.
A small takeaway offering has continued on a telephone-only basis: “We’ve got a few really loyal customers who have phoned in saying they’re slightly uncomfortable coming out, maybe in the older age bracket, and they’ve been getting carry-outs and that’s totally fine.
“On the whole people have been fine, one or two customers have expressed a desire to be seated further away from other people and we’re lucky we have the space to accommodate that.
“Everybody has been very content with what we have in place – there’s certainly been no negative feedback, anyway.”
He doesn’t often find himself praising Conservative governments, but Mike concedes the support for hospitality was “fantastic”, in particular the furlough scheme that took care of the majority of Da Haaf’s three employees’ salaries.
“People that moan about it are being disingenuous because the financial support was amazing, and it was timely as well. It shows these things can be done if there’s political will.”
Mike says the first days of the “eat out to help out” scheme, which gives customers a 50 per cent discount up to £10 per head from Monday to Wednesday throughout August, were simply “nuts”.
“It’s obviously having the desired effect in getting people out,” he says. “Whether that carries on [after August] or are they out because it’s a cheap meal, we don’t know. Undoubtedly it’s going to take a little while for people to get back to normal.
“People are going to gradually start getting back into the habit, assuming there’s no big spikes, no major shutdowns – if that happens we’re back to square one.”
We spoke on the day it was announced Aberdeen was returning to partial lockdown after a Covid outbreak, with the shutters going up on hospitality businesses in the Granite City for at least a fortnight, quite possibly longer.
Since then there have been the first confirmed Covid case within Shetland for months, while neighbouring Orkney has also seen a worrying outbreak.
“There was a lot of uncertainty anyway, regardless of what’s happening in Aberdeen,” Mike says. “At the moment the furlough scheme applies on a part-time basis if people need that, and with that in place the past 3-4 months things have just been ticking over.
“As the financial support comes to an end, this next period is going to be the crucial bit because we don’t know if people will come back in the numbers that you need to keep the business viable.”
But, as Mike says, fretting about things you cannot control is a fool’s pastime. “It’s like worrying about what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow. I can’t affect it. We’ve got contingencies in place and we’re hopeful for the future, but there’s no point worrying about ifs, buts and maybes.”
- Da Haaf is open for lunch from Monday-Saturday and is taking part in the government-funded "eat out to help out" scheme until the end of August. They are also serving dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings, and you can book a table by calling 01595 772480 or emailing [email protected] .