I was in Shetland on my summer holiday and one extraordinary day it stopped raining and the sun came out. We went swimming in 4mm wetsuits in the loch in the morning and then went to the Agricultural Show at Voe where we saw sheep with curly wurly horns and Shetland ponies in competition. We also bought shortbread and marvelled at giant onions which had won a first prize red rosette.
After viewing all the fun and hoopla, and taking pictures of three people dressed up as Vikings in the car park, we drove a little further to Brae, to visit Frankie’s, Britain’s best and most northerly fish and chip shop.
Frankie’s was voted the country’s Best Takeaway at the National Fish and Chips Awards in 2015. It’s walls are decorated with many other accolades. It is an establishment dedicated to spanking fresh quality and sustainability. The shop runs a fish course for school children to teach them about fish stocks, species and seasonalities and is involved with several local charities. This summer Frankie’s owner, Valerie Johnson, was awarded the MBE for services to the food and drink industry in the Queens Birthday Honours List.
Frankie’s is a little bit perfect. Family-run, founded in 2008, open seven days a week. Inside an unprepossessing industrial unit exterior, the restaurant is clean and modern and efficiently designed. There is a takeaway counter in front of an open kitchen and a separate café area. An LCD screen displays the specials; often deep fried crab claws, sometimes cullen skink or lemon sole panko breaded goujons. Almost all of their fish comes from local waters. Their salad greens are homegrown, the coleslaw and Marie Rose sauce are homemade, there are ‘Bairn’s Boxes’ like Happy Meals, and crayons and paper place mats for kids. There is a whole menu and separate fryer for gluten-free deep frying.
We were not being virtuous. We were just hungry. My boyfriend Adrien is a Frenchman who loves fish and chips. In Paris he always asks for vinegar to shake over his frites in bistros. Without ado he ordered a large portion of good old haddock and chips, extra tartar sauce. I was conflicted; I wanted everything on the menu. I wanted a bowl of blue shell mussels raised on rope lines, or scampi because I love langoustine, or the battered local king scallops. Mercifully, there was a ‘Seafood platter’ so that I could have everything.
Adrien’s haddock arrived, golden batter knobbled, on a fish shaped plate. I watched him take two mouthfuls.
‘It’s an excellent fish and chips,’ he pronounced. The fish that day had been caught, informed the LCD screen, ‘by the local fishing boat the Devosian’. It could not have been fresher. ‘And there’s something extraordinary about the batter.’
I tasted the portion of battered haddock included on my platter and he was right. The batter was thin and crispy and much lighter than the traditional thick pancakey shell made with beer and egg. When I asked what was in it, the waitress said it was only flour and water.
‘And some rice flour,’ clarified her colleague. I nodded. That accounted for its tempura crunch. Rice flour has no gluten and it’s gluten that, mixed with water, creates stretchy saggy proteins.
Next I tried the breaded smoked haddock. The fish was wonderful, without chemicals or fake yellow paint, but rich with extra umami smokiness. The breading was thick and gravelly. The tartar sauce was creamy and salty tangy with capers, a different breed from the usual vinegary salad-cream slop. It was one of those unexpected serendipitous culinary nirvana moments that you can never quite replicate. Why does seafood taste better by the sea? Salt spray in the air, bottle of vinegar on the table, sunshine-spangled waves.
I continued with my platter. I sucked three grilled langoustine tails out of their shells, curled up pink and tender. Then a king scallop, quickly pan fried and perfectly unadorned, so densely sweet that it needed lashings of lemon juice to cut the richness.
‘I think that’s the best scallop I’ve ever tasted,’ I said. And it was, until back to our cottage, a few hours later when I put my wet suit and my mask back on and went foraging in the bay at low tide. I caught four scallops in my net (did you know that scallops swim? They clap their shells like castanets and jet propel themselves in zigzags to try and get away) and sautéed them for tea.