A tour of Scotland for food-lovers
- Anna Millar
- 22 August 2011
Fresh seafood, locally-sourced game and top-notch tourism in Scotland
Anna Millar uses a road trip north to explore the culinary delights Scotland has to offer, from five-course meals to locally caught fish and chips and top-notch delis
Standing in the Scottish drizzle at the heart of Monachyle Mhor, a dramatic vista greets us. In front, a stunning Loch Voil. Behind us, bounding black Labrador, Betty, a relatively new addition to owner Tom Lewis’ family. The air is fresh, the pitter-patter of rain the only noise. A fellow guest, an American, Mr de Winter, has moments before emerged from a day’s fishing nearby. Greeted by Tom, he happily hands over his catch: a bucket of large, shiny, fly-caught trout. Within an hour, they will land on our plate, a spontaneous last-minute addition to a menu already boasting Kyle of Tongue oysters and Isle of Mull scallops. Our plan, five days before this, had been to head north from Edinburgh, and explore some of the interesting chefs, delis and innovators making their mark on the culinary scene. The result: a full-bellied success.
Edinburgh to St Fillans and Loch Earn
There are, of course, many ways to get from Edinburgh and Glasgow to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, whether by plane, train or automobile, but for the purposes of our trip we rely on our old banger Dusty to do the hard work, allowing us to make the most of a scenic early evening drive over the Forth road bridge into the heart of Perthshire towards Loch Earn and the Four Seasons Hotel. Nestled at the end of St Fillans village, this former school master’s house has been converted into a hotel with chalets also available on the wooded hillside nearby. As the night comes in, the loch view from the bedroom affords stunning views, with Ben Vorlich just in view far beyond the jetty outside. A relaxed ambience is encouraged by a couple of informal, quirky living rooms; while the artwork and artefacts from the owner’s global travels give the hotel a pleasantly unfussy and interesting feel. We’re here though for the food and there’s little doubt that new chef Peter Woods takes his seriously, sourcing locally, and providing salmon from his own smokehouse, which he set up in his home at Comrie. Any visit should include a taste of his special whisky and lemon-cured Shetland salmon. The view from the Meall Reamhar restaurant, over the Loch, adds a slightly ethereal feeling to proceedings as a four-course meal is presented in leisurely, friendly but informed style, complimented by a very reasonable wine menu. Keen to bring only the best seasonal produce to the plate, menus are changed quarterly, with signature dishes of Gateau of Aberdeen Angus Limousin Beef Fillet and hand-dived Scrabster King Scallops remaining a fixture throughout the year. A night cap in the bar and early night prepare us for a pleasant lochside walk the next morning, fuelled by a breakfast of Peter’s finely smoked salmon and fluffy scrambled eggs. As a side note, those food lovers with dogs can take advantage of the hotel’s pet concierge service, while water babies can, and should, take full advantage of the nearby watersports centre at Lochearnhead farther along the A85.
St Fillans to Mull
The drive from St Fillans to catch the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry is a pleasant one, with Benmore and Ben Lui to gaze up at en route. If you’re on an early crossing, give yourself time to get there early and pick up a snack at the Kitchen Garden delicatessen or indulge in a crab sandwich, with filling fresh off the boat that morning, from the shack on the pier at the ferry port. Once on Mull, prepare to embrace a world of single track roads and culinary pit-stops. A drive from Craignure ferry port to Tobermory, affords you a view of Loch Linnhe and Fishnish Bay, both home to some of the produce likely to land on your plate in meals to come. Tobermory itself is a treasure trove of finds, from Tobermory chocolate and Tobermory fish to the distillery, and all are well worth a visit. We’re staying on the hilltop, recently renovated Western Isles Hotel overlooking Tobermory’s colourful bay, facing out to Calve Island and the Sound of Mull. While the set dinner in the hotel’s restaurant proves undoubtedly tasty and worth a visit if you’re looking for a more formal sit-down experience, the Conservatory Bar proves to be the real find, with its incredibly good views and great value for money. A deliciously rich tomato based Fish Soup, boasting huge prawns, mussels and haddock, is just £5, while the cheese board, including local champion Mull Cheddar is big enough to share and doesn’t disappoint as an afternoon snack. For lunch, down on the front, Café Fish, perched above the old ferry waiting room on the pier overlooking the bay, is unmissable for fish fans, with owners cooking up shellfish from the restaurant’s own boat along with other fish produce from in and around Mull.
On our second day, a meander to the island’s white sands at Calgary Bay, finds us just a stone’s throw over the water from the Isle of Ulva. Rumour has it that The Boathouse is very good for lunch, so we grab the diminutive ferry – a tiny boat manned by the weathered fisherman responsible (yes, really) for what we find on our plates minutes later. A huge plate of seafood – langoustines, mackerel pate, crab and oysters is laid before us with slabs of homemade bread for a princely £16 – but it’s worth every bite and big enough to share. After washing that down with some cold ginger beer, inspired by the Scottish sunshine, we take off to adventure round the surrounding woodland walks. A nice spot for wildlife lovers, visitors have been known to spot otters, seals, red deer and have recorded more than 100 bird species.
A few hours later, our return to Mull finds us meandering through a small unmarked village to get ‘home’. Outside one farmhouse, a simple, colourful chalk board reads ‘Strawberries £2’. I jump out and drop my money into an honesty tray overflowing with notes and coins, and pick up a bulbous brown bag of goodies. They are delicious – and the island is brimming with just such finds. The next day in Tobermory we indulge in the more obvious ones, namely the fabulous Mull Cheddar farm (again it runs on an honesty box), we sample some Tobermory chocolate and indulge in an afternoon dram, courtesy of the Tobermory distillery. Having snacked all day on some of the island’s finest exports, we round things off with a poke of fish and chips from the cabin on the pier (there year-round and well worth a trip if you want to enjoy some local fish without breaking the bank). We wash it down with a pint of the local ale at the popular Mishnish pub. As we’re here during the Mendelssohn on Mull festival we indulge on some of their extraordinary concerts, while checking out some of the island’s other famous landmarks, including Duart and Glenmore castles.
Having navigated the single-track roads of Mull for a few days, there’s something pleasing about getting off the boat at Oban and heading towards Barcaldine House. Pitching itself as something of a home-away-from-home feel, this country house, 20 minutes outside Oban, is just that – assuming your house is beautifully furnished and immaculate, that is. Having been greeted at the door, we are taken into a wide hall, there is no reception as such, all adding to the homeliness it intends to instil. Recently renovated and with ex-Michelin Star chef Oskars Kalinins at the helm, this culinary find at the heart of the Argyll countryside is a good shout if you’re looking for total R&R. Walking, climbing and boat trips are available nearby, as well as the obligatory slew of castles and gardens, but guests are encouraged to simply enjoy the food at hand, and use the house as their own. The food certainly doesn’t disappoint, with highlights including pan-fried Loch Linnhe langoustines and a roasted loin of red deer with pomme fondant and venison jus; the whole thing is rounded off beautifully with peppered strawberries and lemon, and various textures of chocolate. Those looking for a little in-house entertainment can enjoy the vast billiards room upstairs. Breakfast focuses equally on local produce with the full Scottish breakfast proving to be the star of the show. Replenished, we head to our next stop.
Oban to Balquhidder
Reaching Mhor is like entering another world. Their motto is ‘Be Mhor, Live Mhor’, and they’re not wrong. While so many of Scotland’s foodies harp on about local produce with big community spirit, Tom Lewis and his family do it with bells on. Tom’s methods are simple: be slow with food, be seasonal and Scottish, be involved with the community and be green and clean. Those who have seen him on the TV will know him as larger than life. And his food certainly packs a punch too. Having taken over the business from his father, Tom has taken boutique hotelling to a whole new level. Set in the heart of the Trossachs National Park, visitors must wind along a four-mile road just outside the village of Balquhidder (home of their sister operation The Library Tearoom). Set on the banks of Loch Voil, everything is hands-on here: organic vegetables come straight from the garden, bread comes fresh from their bakery, eggs come courtesy of their hens, while any of the cattle on their 2000 acre farm could end up on your plate. Run by brothers and sister Tom, Dick and Melanie Lewis – with Tom’s wife Lisa holding fort at the tearoom, this is a family affair. Open days are held throughout the year to encourage locals and visitors to get involved with the food; inside, the rooms are done to an incredible standard, Tom’s eye for detail and design evident in each of the uniquely inspired spaces. Highlights of a typical evening menu include Kyle of Tongue Oyster, Isle of Mull scallop and the aforementioned de Winter fly-caught trout; Balquhidder mushrooms and garden beetroot add flourish to the dishes. The latest addition to their accommodation for those interested in the latest glamping craze, is Lovestruck at Mhor, an old horse lorry charmingly converted into a romantic lochside hideaway. It’s kitted out should you fancy self-catering, with stunning views of Loch Voil from the raised double bed within. Whether you choose to stay the night or not, those not looking for dinner can simply pop in of an afternoon for some home-baked scones and sandwiches.
The final lap of our foodie-off finds us in Fortingall Hotel, with a beautiful run along Loch Tay to get there. The picturesque spot is perhaps best known for its neighbouring Glen Lyon and the historic Yew tree – believed to be the oldest living creature in Europe at a whopping 5000 years old, it ensures a regular stream of visitors to the hotel. The ten en-suite rooms are designed with care – and the wee dram left as a welcome is a nice touch. Beyond the pretty surrounds and easy access to seven munros, this is a good spot for whisky lovers, situated as it is within easy reach of Dewar’s World of Whisky and Edradour distillery. While the chef is due to change in the coming months, all evidence indicates it will do little to sacrifice the quality on show here. Guests can eat in the bar or Yew restaurant space, the latter of which offers a very reasonable set menu. Plates come to the table beautifully attired, with local, seasonal produce very much the message of the day. A succulent pink perfect sirloin steak eventually beats us but only after we’ve washed down the lion’s share with a glass or two of delicious Shiraz; before warm chocolate and pistachio is presented to round off the meal. The following morning, a leisurely walk concludes that our foodie jaunt was just the tip of the iceberg. Roll on the next road trip.
Mull and Oban
From delis to distilleries there’s much to indulge the taste-buds, without breaking the bank
Kitchen Garden Delicatessen
This bustling enterprise is heaving with the best of Scottish produce. The small but overstuffed entrance reveals a bounty of rustic breads, cheeses, fresh ground coffee and shelves groaning with hundreds of whisky brands. There’s more browsing space in the back shop boasting vinegars, jams and chutneys plus modern Scots delicacies such as Inverawe trout caviar and bloody mary salsa. A mezzanine level hosts a sprightly coffee shop, which makes the most of in-house produce such as Mull cheddar or local smoked fish.
14 George Street, Oban, 01631 566332, kitchengardenoban.co.uk
Oban Chocolate Company
Established in 2003, this once small business has grown to become an award-winning enterprise, making sweet treats entirely by hand on their premises in Oban. The shop and café are open plan, and viewing windows allow you to watch the chocolatiers at work in the factory, with interpretive panels to explain the process. They produce two types of chocolate: truffles and moulded chocolates, and all recipes are developed in-house with no artificial additives.
34 Corran Esplanade, Oban, 01631 566099, www.obanchocolate.co.uk
Established in 1991 in a derelict stone workshop, Tobermory Chocolate has been producing handmade chocolates for nearly 20 years. Now operating from larger premises, they have room for a gift shop and café where you can choose from an array of cakes, pastries and luxury hot chocolate.
56/57 Main Street, Tobermory, 01688 302 526, www.tobchoc.co.uk
This quaint old distillery, the only one on the island of Mull, reopened in 1990 and continues to produce two whiskies – a malt and blend, namely the Tobermory and Ledaig. A £3.50 tour proves thoroughly enjoyable with a free dram offered at the end for good measure.
Tobermory, Isle of Mull, 01688 302645, tobermory.co.uk
Don’t miss the array of farmhouse and deli spaces sourcing local produce
House of Menzies
The House of Menzies is a unique example of what can happen when Scottish farmers decide to diversify. The doocot and barn at this working farm have been converted into a bright, contemporary space, housing a bustling café, an up-market gift shop and an award-winning New World Wine specialist. The wines here are clearly selected with knowledge and passion, and include some of the greats of Australia and New Zealand in particular.
Castle Menzies Farm, Aberfeldy, 01887 829666, houseofmenzies.com
A charming little food shop that looks like it belongs to times past. On the outside it looks like a traditional old greengrocer’s; inside it lives up to its appearance. It stocks all the larder basics, such as oatcakes, preserves and cooking sauces. But you can also stock up the drinks cabinet with their extensive range of Scotch malt whiskies, Scottish wines and ales.
26 West High Street, Crieff, 01764 653011, scottishproduce.co.uk
McNee’s of Crieff
A culinary labyrinth of locally sourced produce (home-made preserves, dry-cured bacon) and far-flung ingredients (Italian Vincotto, Spanish Brotes de Ajo), McNee’s is a lively delicatessen and tempting chocolatier: the truffle range is a particular favourite. A lot of McNee’s stock is created at home or on the premises – quiches, pies, cakes, jams etc – but nearby businesses are also well-represented: Dalchonzie Fruit Farm vinegars, for example, and Summer Harvest’s cold-pressed rapeseed oil and dressings.
23 High Street, Crieff, 01764 654582, www.mcneesofcrieff.co.uk
Aberfeldy’s former flour mill is still associated with food: while the building is, in the main, an inspiring bookshop and art gallery, the small ground floor café serves soup, quiche and sandwiches as well as good coffee.
Mill Street, Aberfeldy, 01887 822896, www.aberfeldywatermill.com
Where to stay
Whether it’s a converted truck, a country home or a loch-side hotel, there are culinary feasts to be found
The Four Seasons Hotel
St Fillans, Perthshire, PH6 2NF, 01764 685 333, thefoursesasons.co.uk.
Bed and breakfast rates from £61 per person. Four course dinner £38.
The Western Isles Hotel
Tobermory, Isle of Mull,PA76 6PR, 01688 302012, westernisles.co.uk
Bed and breakfast rate from xx per person. Dinner from xx; bar meals from £7.
Barcaldine. Oban, Argyll, PA37 1SG, 01631 720219, www.barcaldine.co.uk
Bed and breakfast rate from £90 per person. Six course dinner £49.95.
Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, FK19 8PQ, 01877 384622, www.mhor.net
Bed and breakfast rate from £xx per person in Mhor hotel; rates per night for Lovestruck £300 for 2 nights. Five course dinner £49.95; afternoon scones and tea from £5.95
Also see sister operations:
Mhor Bread, 8 Main Street, Callender, Perthshire, FK17 8BB, 01877 339518
The Library, Balquhidder village
Mhor Fish, 75–77 Main Street, Callander, Perthshire, FK17 8DX, 01877 330 213
Aberfeldy, PH14 2NQ, 01887 830367, www.fortingall.com
B&B rates from £100 per person. 2 course dinner £29.95; 3 course dinner £37.95. Bar food from £6.