The story behind the food hailing from the Cairngorms estates
Cairngorms National Park holds more than natural beauty - it's also home to food-producing estates
The Cairngorms National Park includes some of Europe’s most isolated miles of dramatic, natural beauty, but it is also a place of large estates with histories of food production going back centuries. John Cooke surveys the landscape’s larder
There are around 60 estates covering nearly 75 per cent of the Cairngorms National Park today, and it is often possible to buy, catch or taste the fruits of their hills, fields, rivers and glens on or close to the estates themselves.
Of course, venison features strongly throughout the area, culled or farmed, both red deer and roe. It’s a meat that is slowly shedding its elitist image and becoming more mainstream. There’s plenty of beef too, from the postcard-perfect, shaggy Highland cattle to Shorthorn pedigrees. Lamb is probably the majority meat raised in the Park, though it is often sent farther south for fattening before market. Soft fruit, honey, small game and local fish also crop up on menus throughout the Cairngorms.
Just outside Aviemore, on the road to the ski slopes, the Rothiemurchus Estate has been producing, serving and selling local foods for decades now. In fact, their venison was going to Simpson’s in the Strand back in the 1930s. These days, a visit to their farm shop reveals cuts from the deer that thrive in among the ancient forest that gives the estate its unique character.
After silent stalking, supervised by head stalker Peter Ferguson, so as not to stress the animal and affect the meat quality, it is shot, then properly handled off the hill. The estate butchers then hang the carcasses, usually for five days.
In another part of the estate, the popular fishery is a chance for visitors to catch their own food, whether rainbow trout from stocked lochs, salmon and
sea trout out of the Spey, or boat-fished brown trout and pike. The estate farm shop stocks their excellent rainbow trout, whole, filleted or smoked using wood from old whisky barrels.
For those keen on catching their own food, the field sports offered by many of the estates are a rare opportunity to walk the hills with knowledgeable guides and come back with your dinner. From shooting small game such as grouse, pheasant and partridge – much of which finds its way via gamekeepers and dealers to restaurants across the Park – to stalking a stag, the ultimate prize of Highland sports.
Conditions for bees have been difficult recently, but still around 40 hives a year are brought to Rothiemurchus Estate to take advantage of the early-season blossoms, as well as the wonderful flavours imbued by the Bell and Purple Heathers that come into their own in July and August respectively. The resultant honey is sold on and off the comb.
You can also sample something sweet grown on the Alvie Estate, near the village of Kincraig in Badenoch. The estate’s Alvie Gardens is known for its strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, supplied to local shops and restaurants. A herd of slow-maturing Shorthorn cattle is also raised at Alvie, as well as lamb, and the ubiquitous venison, available to buy from the estate.
Hire a cottage on the Glen Tanar Estate and you can enjoy a real taste of local foods. Liz Peck, a local cook, provides both fresh produce and ready-made meals for visitors, and knows the best ingredients are on her doorstep: ‘I butcher our own venison and grouse, and we have had very good pork from Balmoral. We also use our fruit and vegetables as much as possible in jams and chutneys, which are sold to visitors.’
Colin McClean, wildlife manager at Glen Tanar, explains that the venison for the meals comes from the 120 or so Roe deer culled every year, with butchery done on site. ‘Until fairly recently our venison went direct to game dealers, but now we also sell straight to visitors and guests, make burgers for our events, and Liz makes a mean lasagne.’
A good way to get hold of estate produce, often from tenant farmers, is to visit the farmers’ markets held regularly in Aviemore and Grantown-on-Spey While many estates in the Cairngorms are not geared up to sell their produce direct to the public, it’s always worth asking – you never know what local delights you may discover.