“This is the perfect summer holiday,” said Adrien, my boyfriend, as he sat on a Shetland pebble beach wearing a 4mm wetsuit. Grey overcast skies, grey seals bobbing up their Labrador heads in the bay, sausages sizzling in the pan on the driftwood fire. He was not being sarcastic. “No heat, no sun, no mosquitos, no other people.”
We took the boat out and hauled up creels teeming with velvet crabs and swimming crabs and psychotic crabs with red demon eyes. Plenty of big brown crab to eat too; we sat out an afternoon gale at the kitchen table, picking them with a silver cuticle pusher. Cold crab with mayonnaise, crab cakes, crab and chilli spaghetti. Arthur, my 7-year-old godson, is a champion fisherman. He netted tiny shrimp along the moorings and hunted baby crabs under rocks, “This morning I found 56!” Out on the boat in a drilling rain he put down a mackerel line and pulled up four tiger-striped beauties for tea. We saw oyster catchers with their elegant orange beaks, razorbills with blunt black beaks angled like a box cutter knife. Flocks of puffins scattered into the air, big orange feet dangling like life vests as they flew up to their nests.
My best friend gathered sugar kelp, dried it on the radiator and baked it into umami crisps in the oven. Sandy, her husband, caught brown trout in the loch and we fried them for breakfast. One day we found two giant sea urchins in a canyon cove. One was pale orange and one was pink. When we put them in the bucket with seawater we saw that they had hundreds of tiny waving tentacles. The pink one pulled a strand of seaweed over itself, as if to hide. Dotty, Arthur’s 10-year-old sister, was our good conscience and made us put them back.
The island farm of Vementry is owned by Sandy and managed by a Shetlander who comes from a long line of sheep farmers. Heather hill, summer green pastures strewn with puffs of white wool and limpet shells dropped on the rocks by the gulls. The cliffs drop down to the pewter waves. There’s money in fishing these rich cold Atlantic waters; Lerwick lands more fish than any other port in the UK except Peterhead. There’s money working “on the oil.” But there’s no money in sheep any more.
There hasn’t been in a long time. When Sandy came across the farm accounts from the 1950s he saw that one year the flock’s wool had fetched £900 and paid for a new Land Rover. The price of wool, even the fine Shetland wool, has declined since the invention of nylon. These days the farm scarcely makes more from its wool crop than they did 60 years ago. And that kind of money doesn’t buy a Land Rover any more. Like a lot of farmers, Sandy has diversified. He farms mussels and relies on subsidies that have become more about husbanding the landscape than commercial farming.
Shetland sheep are small and hardy, hefted to the land. The lambs are born in May. By September they are big enough to be sold. For a while Sandy sold Vementry lamb directly to a couple of fancy restaurants in Edinburgh as a premium product, but it was hard to maintain consistency and volume. The window for producing saleable lambs is small. Most Vementry lambs are sold live to intermediaries, who may finish them on sweeter grass on the mainland before slaughter. But if there’s a bad spell of weather the transport boats can’t launch, if there’s an early frost the grass can get burnt off before the lambs are ready. Shetland sheep are half the size of most other breeds and the price is by the kilo. Even when they were getting a premium from restaurants, it just didn’t quite add up.
It’s hard to make a profit sheep farming. While in Shetland I read The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebank which describes a life of sheep and fell in the Lake District. Rebank raises Herdwick sheep, a heritage breed like the Shetland, but it’s a labour of love, rather than a rational economic endeavour. New Zealand imports compete with British lamb which is more seasonal and expensive. But lamb has yet to find a premium foodie fan base in the same way that Aberdeen Angus beef and Gloucester Old Spot pork has. Shetland lamb is under known and under valued.
The Vementry breeding flock is put “on the hill” through the dark wet windy winter. There are usually a few lambs that are too small to be sold and these are put on one of the islands and slaughtered on the farm (legally you are allowed to slaughter your own animals for your own consumption) the following Autumn, when they are a year and a half, or two summers old. These are the lambs that we ate out of the deep freezer at Vementry.
I roasted a couple of racks one night, pink inside and crispy fat. Under a year old, it is called lamb, an adult sheep over two years old is mutton, what we ate was the hogget in between. It is one of the great shames of modern farming that our meat tends to be raised only to its minimum slaughter age, developed for weight not flavour. The Shetland hogget was delicious with the redcurrant jelly I made with berries that Dotty picked in the garden. Another night I made a lamb neck stew with carrots, beetroot, cavolo nero cabbage and garlic. It was multicoloured and rich and wonderful. I am converted, now I just need to figure out where I can find mutton.