Not all local delicacies are weird…..
Stop and think for a moment - yes I know, you’re browsing, sharing cat memes, wondering how to say meme, and thinking was not something you were planning on doing. I apologise for springing this on you but bear with me on this.
Let me ask you this as a way of getting the gray matter ticking. When you think of travel and local delicacies in foreign (or not so foreign) parts what images do you conjure up straight away?
Cockroaches, deep-fried sheep testicles, octopus tentacles, pig’s intestines, maybe something even more bizarre?
Understandable, and I’m with you here. I know these are all delicacies from various (and in some cases many) places. I should know I've tried them all at one time or another!!
Some I may be persuaded to ingest again, others will not be happening unless I have an Epipen to hand (who knew you could be allergic to octopus). But it’s all part of the beautiful tapestry of travel, taking that leap into the unknown and trying what is considered a local treat, something you are encouraged to eat with broad smiles and encouraging gestures, the smiles getting broader as you, someone with different ways and tastes, embraces a small but important part of their culture.
But let me rewind here. So, you now have this image of these strange, bizarre or weird foods as local delicacies in your mind right? Well what if I were to tell you there is an island off Scotland that has a regional food that has been grown there for 3500 years, is still grown there in fact, and exported all round the world? And it’s not slimy, greasy or potentially gag inducing? And is used to make some of the most delicious foods.
So what is this local delicacy?
Bere is an ancient grain. Similar to modern wheat in appearance, it’s related to barley and grown in just 10 hectares of land on the Orkney Islands plus a few locations in the Outer Hebrides. And whilst this all sounds mundane it’s really quite fascinating and has been vital to the local inhabitants.
And what makes it vital? Its known as ‘90-day barley’ because of its short growing season. Sown in spring and harvested in early autumn, the hostile winters that Orkney is well known for means any food that can be grown in such a short season is not just important but amazing.
As if that wasn’t impressive enough research has found that this strain of barley is able to fix nitrogen levels in sandy soils (like those on Orkney), eliminating the need for fertilisers.
Exactly when it was brought to this far-flung corner of Britain is a bit of a mystery – remnants of bowls used for crushing barley have been found at the stone built Neolithic village of Skara Brae, which was occupied from roughly 3180 BC to about 2500 BC. The village, and Orkney, is well worth a visit but more of that in another blog.
Processing the barley has, of course, developed over time. The original advance in technology was the design of the quern stone, a development that has occurred independently in many parts of the world, that moved processing on from simply smashing the barley to grinding it between two shaped stones, the lower (stationary one) being the quern and the upper the hand stone resulting in a more consistent product and much less wastage.
It wasn't until the Norsemen arrived from the East however that the process became less intensive. The Viking invaders brought the knowledge of powered wheels and geared drives which simplified and improved the processing of the bere.
The system is similar the world over - a big wheel turned, using a motive force such as wind, water or man power, connected to a series of gears which turn the stones, removing the tough outer husks in the first stone and then producing beremeal or oatmeal. A process largely unchanged since that time, the only variance being the motive force employed.
Fast forward to today. Barony Mill at Birsay, tucked in the far west of the ‘Mainland’ (the name given to the main island in the Orkney archipelago), is the last place on the islands to mill the grain. Between October and April a tonne of bere husks pass through the mill every two days, it’s dried on the kiln floor before being milled into beremeal, the outer, nutritionally empty husks used to fuel the kiln fire.
This water powered, totally self-sufficient and sustainable Victorian-era mill is still producing flour, from locally grown bere, exactly as it would have been in the 1800's, using a technique that would have been recognisable to those Viking invaders.
And in the summer months it opens its doors to those who want to explore away from the well beaten tourist trail. Orkney, would you believe, can be incredibly busy. The mass cruise ship tourism unloads boatloads (pardon the pun) of tourists onto the island to the well visited Highland Park Distillery and Scapa Distillery in Kirkwall. In striking contrast Barony Mill is relaxed.
On arrival you’re invited on a tour, free, and to sample biscuits made from the locally grown bere, also free. A striking contrast to the commercialised busyness so common of places dependent on tourism.
Jack, who showed us around the mill, was enthusiastic and eloquent and, his passion for the history of bere, made him a delight to listen to. His pride in his Orcadian roots shone through, as did his respect and admiration for his grandmother, the only female miller at Barony Mill.
This unique 'tourist attraction' (it seems wrong to refer to it as such since that’s not their main purpose, they even seem embarrassed about being considered such) even has small bags of flour, stored in a huge coffin like box that are for sale.
So you’ve read all that and thought 'meh, what of it, this all seems fairly normal, everywhere has mills and flour'. But it is what you can do with bere that makes it unique.
Come with me to the Far East – we’re at the ubiquitous market stall, locusts are on the menu, but consider this. There are only so many ways to fry a locust. So once you’ve tried it, you’ve basically tried it for anywhere that serves it. As the original traveller once said “a testicle is a testicle whatever you do to it”. I’d love to know how that came up in conversation!!
Beremeal, however, has been the heart of food and drink in the Orkney Islands over the centuries. Generation after generation have been raised on bere bannocks (flat bread baked on a hot griddle and often served as a starter instead of a bread roll, a real marmite type food which I personally love), everyone on the Islands have tasted a Stockan's Oatcake or visited the Argo's Bakery, the two main commercial clients of this mill.
If the bere is scorched in the kiln before milling, the flavour changes. And when mixed with kirned milk or buttermilk you get a dish known as bursteen, another local staple and treat.
Added to the list of uses is the making of ale. At one time tea was too expensive for the ordinary folk of the islands and, as is the case around the globe when you can't drink the local water, you have two options - boil the water or make alcohol. With the Viking influence and long dark nights in winter, alcohol became the purification method of choice.
Bere is still used to make the local beer. Swannay Brewery uses bere grown in the fields around the brewery to make a unique drink that effuses the history of the islands. And believe me, when you have spent a day out in this rugged landscape with the Atlantic Ocean and a winter gale buffeting you, it warms you from the inside out.
So the variety of ways to sample this amazing wheat are myriad. And nothing takes you back to your visit to Orkney like making bere bannock at home, from flour picked out of that coffin box.
So when you are travelling, don't just look at the obvious headline local delicacies or traditions. Look deeper, look beyond the final product and explore the basis of the dishes you are tasting.