Lucky, lazy natives...

Performing for the tourists, bad news about a caddy and ideas for words that rhyme with puffin

A misleading sense of calm has descended upon the isle this weekend. Any visitor lucky enough to be here today, strolling around in the warm sunshine, will be marvelling at the tranquil, trouble-free lifestyles that we islanders appear to lead. Perhaps even a hint of jealousy will cross their minds as they saunter past and wave hello at the lucky, lazy natives. But then they will remember, with a sudden flash of relief, that no, while doing nothing all day is certainly appealing, it really wouldn’t be good to live this far away from Marks and Spencer’s.

It is easy to see how they might come to their conclusion. There is a stillness about everything today. The sea, for once, is pressing gently against the shore, rather than trying to attack it; the sheep and their lambs are lying sleeping, ignoring the discomfort of their thick, winter fleeces; even the windmills have stopped turning now, and stand, motionless, over everything. But what do people expect? It is Sunday, after all.

Our last lamb finally appeared this week, nearly ten days after the penultimate one. We were beginning to wonder if the ewe was simply pretending to be pregnant, but she got it right in the end. The season has been very successful overall, with 44 lambs and only two mortalities. One of the lost lambs was, unfortunately, the first of our two ‘caddies’, who died on Friday night. Bottle-fed lambs are apparently very prone to digestive problems, and this one had been poorly for some time. We tried everything that the vet, our neighbours and we could think of, but she just didn’t quite get through. It was sad to lose such a good-natured caddy, particularly for her companion, who has been moping around the field alone since then, looking bored and lonely.

This morning we planted some of the last few empty rows in the vegetable garden: spring onion seeds went in, as did the red cabbage and curly kale seedlings. Most of the other vegetables have also been planted or transplanted in the past couple of weeks, and not much remains before all the space is filled. Then it’s just a case of weeding, watering and waiting our way through the summer.

This afternoon has provided an opportunity for a brief sigh of relief, before the next sharp intake of breath is required. I felt not a glimmer of guilt as I sat reading in the sunshine, enjoying myself immensely, thank you very much. I am now sunburnt, but satisfied. What more could I wish for on a Sunday afternoon?

On Tuesday the first of this year’s cruise ships will arrive, with just over one hundred people on board, all expecting refreshment, entertainment and suitable things on which to spend their money. Knitwear, crafts and other gifts will be offered for sale; drinks and home-bakes will be provided; music will be played. Even those of us who have no desire to be involved in the tourist industry seem somehow unable to avoid it entirely.

I will be playing and singing, along with some of the island’s other musicians; though I’m sure my songs must be something of a disappointment to people. I imagine that folk want to hear songs about Fair Isle: about birds and cliffs and boats and sheep and things like that. Unfortunately, I don’t know any. If only I could write a song about puffins, I’d be a millionaire by now. But the problem is that puffin doesn’t rhyme with anything; in fact, puffin rhymes with nothing. Well, it nearly does anyway.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad