18 Oct Mussels, haddock and more: recipes from Scotland's Seafood Shack
“We can eat langoustines whenever we want,” says Fenella Renwick. “We’re lucky.” Renwick is at the Seafood Shack in Ullapool, on the north-west coast of Scotland, which she co-owns with Kirsty Scobie. It’s 9am, Scobie’s partner, a creel fisherman, has dropped off crab claws and langoustines, and they’re sketching out the day’s menu. Renwick thinks they should fry the langoustines in plenty of garlic butter, sprinkle over some thyme and serve them with a chunk of bread. “They’ll fly out,” she says. “People love them.”
“Fenella will have them for breakfast,” Scobie says, “straight out the pan.”
Planning the menu is how Renwick and Scobie start the day from April to November, when the Shack is open. They’ll order fish the night before, although they’re never quite sure what will be waiting for them. “We’ll take anything, any time,” says Scobie. “The food we make is quick and simple, not messing about with the produce too much.” Menus are short – six or seven dishes – but flexible enough that if their scallop supplier pops by and asks if they want any (the answer is always yes), they can be serving them in 20 minutes.
While they love being able to showcase the connection to their produce, weather or broken boats can limit supply. “Sometimes it can be stressful if all you’ve got is smoked trout and sweet-cured herring,” Scobie admits. Renwick shrugs: “That’s just the nature of it.”
Out-of-towners are keen on lobster served simply with herb butter, but for locals it’s more of a treat to have it in mac and cheese. There will usually be something in bread: either a fish finger sandwich with minty peas, or their biggest seller, tempura haddock wrap with lemon mayo and pesto.
They opened the Seafood Shack in 2016. Neither had worked in a professional kitchen before, but their partners were fishermen, so they had the right contacts. They wanted their own business, and had each other for encouragement as money was tight. “We thought we’d go for something we could just about afford,” Scobie says of the Shack, a catering unit in a small courtyard. “We wouldn’t want to change it now.”
Their instincts paid off. They serve up to 300 people a day – mainly tourists in the high summer, with loyal locals propping up the beginning and end of the season. This year has been especially busy: “Everyone has wanted a Highland holiday.”
Seasonal work is common in the Highlands: people know they have to get the hours in while it’s warm and light. To fill time in the winter months, Renwick and Scobie decided to write a book. They wanted to show that anyone can cook seafood, and to share some of the stories of the fishermen they work with, who are important to the local economy and happy to see some of their catch stay in Ullapool. “They were never not going to be in the book,” says Scobie. “Though I’m not sure they enjoyed getting their photos taken.”
Scobie and Renwick have adopted the same approach to writing The Seafood Shack: Food & Tales from Ullapool as they did to starting the Shack itself: make it happen. They approached publishers whose books they enjoyed, and tested domestic versions of their recipes. Initially they found it hard to scale down everything and be precise (“We just usually throw things in,” says Scobie), but they knew it could work. “Everything that we do gets cooked as you would do it at home, we don’t refresh vegetables or any of that.”
They hope their story will inspire others to start their own businesses. “We’ve had so many people phone us about starting their own shacks,” says Scobie. Rather than be threatened by competition, they’re thrilled. “We want people to sell and eat more seafood,” says Renwick. “It’s cool to be able to help.”