February 8th 2021 | by Shetland Food and Drink in Blog
Shetland Food and Drink's multi-talented chair, Marian Armitage, has built up a lifetime's experience in food and cooking and inexhaustible enthusiasm for Shetland produce. Author of the now 'aert kent' book “Shetland Food and Cooking”, Marian is a true ambassador for the sector.
Marian is a fantastic chef, turning her hand to any dish.
It was approaching 40 years since she’d last lived in the islands when Marian Armitage began the 18-month undertaking that would become her acclaimed publication “Shetland Food and Cooking”.
The book was the culmination of 35 years spent teaching domestic science and, perhaps more importantly, inspired by an upbringing in Shetland which she firmly believes boasts the finest fresh food you will find anywhere.
She always kept in touch with her roots but, from studying in Edinburgh in the early seventies to teaching in East Anglia and on to working and living in London, Marian had not spent any considerable amount of time back home for most of her adult life.
In the late noughties, as her parents’ health began deteriorating, she found herself coming north more regularly. In 2010 her eldest son Alexander married his wife Deepa – the couple have just settled in Shetland with seven year old son Ayanda – and the “absolutely bang on” food, lovingly laid on by Bo Simmons, played a big part in the wedding celebrations.
The early 2010s saw the renovation of a family home at Scatness. The bucolic setting of the stone-built Shetland house is now enhanced with a modern “sitooterie” offering a glorious three-sided window on the world. It captures the summer puffin colony at Sumburgh Head, prehistoric Norse settlement Jarlshof, the scenic West Voe beach and – on a clear day – the silhouette of Fair Isle on the horizon.
The kaleidoscope of colours visible, from the gold and amber hue of long, lazy Simmer Dim nights in June to the angry deep blues and greys in the teeth of a January storm, must be something to behold.
Much of her book was compiled at Scatness, and for Marian it became an exercise in reconnecting with her past.
Her passion for Shetland’s larder is as strong as anyone’s, pairing a respect for its traditions with an enquiring, contemporary edge. But after being away so long she felt a degree of trepidation about how folk might receive her. Thankfully having had a pair of “weel-kent” parents offered an easy icebreaker.
“I was meeting different folk that I had maybe kent in passing and a lot of folk I didna ken at all,” she says. “I must confess I did ‘play the Robert Young card’ a bit – as soon as they knew who mam and dad were, it was fine!
“I was very aware a lot of Shetland folk were going to buy the book, which they did, so it had to be useable. Writing the book was an extension of education. What I wanted was not a photo of the finished thing, but showing what it’s meant to look like mid-preparation.
“I had a stint of a fortnight cooking about five or six recipes each day. Some I did south, some in Shetland. If I needed something really fresh, like fish, I did it at hame.”
The book combines traditional delights like bannocks, Reestit mutton and all sorts of seafood with contemporary Armenian lamb, ceviche and beremeal flatbreads using a heritage barley, the latter one of the Vikings’ more benign legacies.
Few literary genres can be more saturated than cookery, but Shetland Food and Cooking brought something fresh to the table. It is the closest thing to a definitive document of the islands’ cuisine, deservedly earning an accolade at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in China four years ago.
And it’s no coincidence that years spent in the global melting pot of London, building upon a Lerwick upbringing, translated into such a wide-ranging understanding of food culture.
From its opening in 1994, Marian taught vocational courses and hands-on practical cookery at William Morris Sixth Form, a local authority establishment for pupils aged 16-19 in the west London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.
“Some students were with us for three or even four years and you really got to build up a relationship,” she says. “It’s very, very ethnically diverse. Lots of white working and middle class, lots of Somali students, west Indian, African-Caribbean. Everyone shared a lot about home and family and it was really fascinating.
“You get such different traditions in every single culture. And if you go to street markets in Southall, bits of it are almost like being in India and Pakistan – the music, the smells, everything. Wonderful.”
Marian had found herself at a crossroads after finishing her own further education – a four-year teaching diploma in food and nutrition at what is now Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh – in 1975.
“I was 21 and coming home, in the early stages of the oil boom in Shetland, was absolutely not something that appealed.”
Keen to explore new pastures, she ended up teaching at a comprehensive school in Norwich for five years.
Then fate brought Marian and husband James together. His brother married a Shetland school friend of hers in Bigton, and they met at the wedding – Marian having made their wedding cake.
In 1980 they moved to Islington, where they spent the decade. She and James, a now retired engineer who ran several high-profile building projects during his career, bought a “wreck of a house” and renovated it.
“The bairns were born in ’81 [Alexander], ’83 [Ruth] and ’89 [Joseph], and I spent that time bringing them up and teaching.”
Her own childhood at Twageos with her younger sister Wilma, a musician who now lives in Iceland, was a happy one. The grassy banks, pebble beaches and shallow ebb of South Lerwick, tucked out of sight behind a long row of beautifully appointed properties overlooking Bressay Sound, is publicly accessible, yet remains one of the town’s best-kept secrets.
“We didn’t have a boat at Twageos but growing up there was amazing,” she remembers. “The whole beach and foreshore was where I played, and there were a lot of bairns around – we’d go out in the evenings and played right until bedtime.”
She used to go off catching piltocks with her granddad at Gulberwick.
She also remembers well Lorna Ward, her domestic science teacher at the old Anderson Educational Institute, where she also formed a close and lasting friendship with George Jamieson. He would go on to be AHS head teacher.
A plethora of student jobs gave her a flavour of the local industry, including various hotels, Willie Robertson’s grocery shop and, she recalls, “coming home with orange hands” following shifts at HIB fish factory, where she worked the machine that split herring for turning into kippers.
“I did a lot of jobs that involved food, which is what I was interested in,” Marian reflects. “My mam was a Lerwick housewife and dad worked for the hydro board, he went out and came back for his dinner and his tea every day, as was usual at that time.
“Years later, we used to put our bairns on da plane to Shetland in the summer to give all three of them a taste of home, and precious time with their grandparents, which is the stage I’m at now.”
The effects of an unhealthy lifestyle (“too many peerie biscuits and they didn’t get out and about enough”) in speeding up her parents’ decline later in life was something that stayed with her.
“Although I have been teaching all my life, it did emphasise how important it is to look after yourself as you’re getting older – something that’s really important to me.”
Now 66, Marian is certainly a picture of health. Even at the end of a “Magnus day” with her one-year-old grandson she seems more energised than exhausted. She has a lively presence and a youthful gleam in her eye whether delivering cooking demonstrations, working the crowd at Taste of Shetland events or more commonly in the time of Covid-19, dispensing wisdom via team Zoom calls.
It was after attending some Shetland Food Group meetings that she found herself working with Jill Franklin, who she credits as “the engine room” in creating what was to become Shetland Food & Drink.
Now at the heart of growing interest in the local food and drink scene, with a rapidly growing membership, the organisation recently secured a huge boost in the shape of a new funding package until 2023.
Marian, who splits her time between Shetland and London to carry out her voluntary role as SFAD chairwoman, says: “I am so proud to be associated with this organisation. I can’t praise the team highly enough – we have achieved a huge amount in the last three years but there is so much more to do.”