Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 21 - Simply seeking the best

Scotland Magazine Issue 21
July 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Simply seeking the best

The best of Scottish cuisine matches anything found across the world – but you have to search for it. Vivien Devlin reports

For a few uninitiated visitors to Scotland, food and drink is represented by the ubiquitous haggis, shortbread, porridge and whisky.

But there is far more to experience from the traditional Scottish larder. The experienced traveller may certainly be aware of Aberdeen Angus beef and Scottish salmon.

Visit the Art Deco Relais Plaza restaurant in Paris where the executive chef is the internationally renowned Alain Ducasse. On the menu you will find salmon from Scotland. Even more impressive is to read that the salmon served at Le Café de la Paix at Le Grand Hotel, Paris is flown in from the Shetland Isles.

This simple fact speaks volumes and illustrates the manner in which leading chefs, world wide, demand the finest produce and ingredients whether from a local or international source.

Stating that the provenance of the salmon is from Scotland reflects a confidence of choice and implies excellence in taste and quality.

Today, in a world of pre-packed, mass-produced food there is a growing demand for fresh produce and better information about where it comes from and how it is produced. We despair over tasteless chickens and eggs, endless lists of E numbers, an overdose of sugar and salt in processed foods and the lack of nutrition in school meals.

When did food get so confusing and complicated? Recent health scares surrounding beef and factory farming has created a backlash against fast food, GM produce and the supermarket culture.

A serious groundswell of people are seeking natural, free-range, organic and local produce in shops and farmers markets which regularly take place around many Scottish towns and cities. And no wonder the following of the Slow Food Movement is growing like Topsy.

To experience some of the finest Scottish cuisine, I have taken a journey around Scotland to sample a diverse range of menus around Connoisseur Scotland hotels. My aim was to meet a few of the chefs and question how important it is to appreciate the provenance of food.

Gleneagles Hotel and Golf Resort offers the ultimate in fine dining at its Michelin starred restaurant, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles.

Andrew Fairlie became the first recipient of the Roux scholarship, training under French chef Michel Guerard. Making his way to the top, he worked at Hotel de Crillon, Paris, the Ritz, London and One Devonshire Gardens, Glasgow where he was gained his first Michelin star.

At his eponomous restaurant at Gleneagles, a precise and distinctive menu blends the very best of classic Scottish and French cuisine.

Whether you select the five course ‘menu degustation’ or a la carte, the emphasis is on seafood – Skye scallops, line caught seabass, red mullet, roast halibut, John Dory, and home-smoked lobster, Fairlie’s famous signature dish.

The empty lobster shells are smoked over Auchentoshan whisky barrels for 12 hours, which are then filled with the sliced lobster meat and roasted in a hot oven for about five minutes with melted butter and lime juice. The result is a sensational melt-in-the-mouth, delicate creation with a soft smoky aftertaste.

From fish to beef, poultry and cheese, Andrew Fairlie believes it is vital to know where all the ingredients come from and as much as possible is local or Scottish.

“Our lamb comes from my brother who is the shepherd on Glenearn Estate about 14 miles away,” he proudly explains, “and we get our beef from Ardintinny Farm which is certainly local – the farm is visible from the hotel.” Fairlie likes to send his front of house staff to visit the suppliers so that they learn about the exacting quality demanded by the restaurant and who are then informative about the food being served. He has built up a loyal band of small suppliers who totally understand his standards.

“They are as passionate about what they produce as we are about what we create in the kitchen”.

Travelling from Perthshire over towards the east coast, we reach Castleton House, near Glamis, in Angus. This small country house hotel is owned and managed by David and Verity Webster with head chef Andrew Wilkie in charge of the kitchen.

The hotel restaurant was awarded 3 AArosettes for excellence in September 2004. This is a high accolade and places Castleton among the top 10 per cent of restaurants in the United Kingdom.

Wilkie grew up nearby in Carnoustie and appreciates only too well the superb farmland around Angus.

“Scotland has clean air, rich seas and beautiful grazing ground laced with the best spring water,” he comments. “Any restaurant caring about quality should source from here. Angus has it all.” He agrees that it is very important to know where the food he cooks comes from .

“We choose our suppliers carefully, especially our butchers and fish suppliers. I visit the butcher to specify the cuts we want.

“It’s all about service between customer and supplier and we are a fussy customer.“ One very distinctive aspect about Castleton House is the fact that they rear their own Tamworth pigs. The rare breed takes its name from the village of Tamworth in Staffordshire.

Long, lean, and athletic with strong feet and impressive snout are the genetic characteristics.

Their ginger, soft fur coat makes the pigs adaptable to a variety of climates and protects them from the risk of sunburn.

Castleton obtained two young piglets in Spring 2005 who live outdoors with a shelter in the meadow. They forage for their own food but are also fed a special diet of raw vegetables and fruit once a day.

Once fully grown later in the year, they will be taken to the slaughterhouse. Regular diners have already requested a phone call when this special pork is on the menu.

Tamworth pork is renowned for a far superior taste and texture than the standard hybrid pig, partly because they have been bred for taste but also because they take longer to mature.

Andrew Wilkie is also keen to promote Scottish game which he feels is undervalued compared to beef and fish.

“We have a wonderful supplier of game, John Mitchell, who sources the local estates up the glens for partridge, venison and wood pigeon. Scotland produces fantastic game.” When you read the menu at Castleton House you can instantly tell how the chef and the Websters believe it is important to inform diners about what they are about to eat. Taste woodpigeon from Glen Isla, new season lamb from Cortachy and thick cut cod from Scrabster.

At Castleton there’s a kitchen garden for home grown vegetables, fruit and herbs where guests are welcome to explore and pick their own. The pig field is beside the orchard and the pigs love a juicy apple straight from the tree!

The Marcliffe at Pitfodels is a charming, whitewashed Victorian mansion surrounded by wooded gardens. This intimate, homely five star hotel is popular with leisure and business guests, conferences and weddings – sometimes catering for two weddings on the same day which must take some organisation. The kitchen brigade of 15 chefs is led by Michael Stoddart, who was awarded Scottish Function Chef of the Year at the Scottish Hotels of the Year awards, 2005.

The Conservatory Restaurant captures the sunlight all year round, with a patio terrace for summer dining. The chefs are fortunate in having fine Grampian produce available right on their doorstep – beef, poultry and game with the freshest fish and seafood from local rivers and ports.

As a member of the Scotch Beef Club, the restaurant specialises in organic beef, Highland cattle beef and Aberdeen Angus. Fillet, sirloin and rib eye steaks are obtained from McIntosh Donald of Portlethen.

Alternatively you could sample haddock from the Faroe Islands, Grampian chicken, Gressingham duck and Deeside venison.

At the end of the menu there is a long list of local Aberdeenshire suppliers for everything from bread, fruit and fish to ice cream.

Time to move on for another fine dinner and meet another award winning chef, travelling due west towards Nairn.

Boath House is a magnificent Georgian Mansion – built in the 1820s – rather Classical English in architectural style with its Palladian pillared entrance, lawns, walled garden, woodland and swan lake.

Don and Wendy Matheson bought the house around 10 years ago and have (probably) spent a small fortune in a complete renovation and refurbishment. This is a fabulous, artistically decorated country house, featuring just six luxury bedrooms (and equally sumptuous bathrooms with claw foot tubs) with a private cottage suite in the garden.

Guests return time and time again not just for the homely comforts and glamorous style the venue offers but to experience and indulge in exemplary,innovative cooking.

Head chef Charlie Lockley has a cluster of 3 AA rosette plates and other awards decorating the hall.

Boath House has also been named as one of the top 200 hotels in the UK. This is a place for foodies yet it’s not over the top.

It’s all about freshly cooked dishes, composed and presented with true passion and flair.

Wendy Matheson is leader of the Slow Food Movement in the Highlands and Morayshire convivium. At Boath House knowing the source of food is not just important but essential.

The daily changing, five course, table d’hote dinner menu describes the provenance of many dishes – for example you may sample organic lamb from Shetland, West Coast scallops and organic cod, venison from Moray and the cheese board is precisely labelled, Strathdon Blue, Orkney Grimbister and cheddar from the Isle of Mull.

The kitchen is always keen to source new suppliers, especially locally, and chefs visit personally to check on quality.

As Charlie explains: “It is important for us to establish a relationship with the supplier whereby they know and appreciate the standards we set and make sure they respect this.” He is a demanding customer and complains if lamb or other meat is not hung for long enough – in his book, for 21 days .

The word ‘organic’ peppers the menu. But what does organic really mean? Does it always mean ‘free from chemicals’ and how can you be sure it is truly authentic? Wendy agrees that the term is often misleading.

“To be honest this is virtually impossible and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There are too many certifying bodies and people are not always honest. Knowing your supplier and his produce is the best way to stay on track.” The only way to ensure the finest food is to grow your own: at Boath House a large Victorian-style kitchen garden provides an abundant supply of vegetables and herbs. Agreenhouse is being built to extend home-grown produce through the winter.

For Wendy self- sufficiency is their pivotal aspiration: “The absolute freshness of home picked vegetables is unrivalled by even the best which you can buy.” This is all part of the philosophy of the Slow Food Movement – preserving traditional production and cooking fresh food. If you take a walk around the far side of the trout lake you will see a row of colourful wooden beehives.

Apart from co-managing the hotel (serving at table, carrying luggage and parking guests’ cars), Don also finds time to look after the care of the bees and the production of pure honey.

Breakfast, quite rightly, is treated with the same respect as the superb dinner the night before. This is a feast for royalty – expect creamy porridge (the fat oats are from Golspie) with a drizzle of cream and honey, then devilled mushrooms (picked from the garden), or scrambled free-range eggs (collected from their own hens) served with smoked salmon from Achiltibuie.

Have I whetted your appetite? Eating and drinking at Boath House is a gastronomic joy and an inspiration.

From the Highlands to the Lowlands of Scotland and a visit to Greywalls, Gullane, East Lothian, the utterly charming, sandstone Edwardian country house designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Owned by the Weaver family for several generations the family home became a small luxury hotel in the late 1940s. For golfers this is paradise with a location overlooking the Muirfield championship course.

The delightful garden, or series of gardens attributed to Gertrude Jekyll, is designed in neat geometrical sections divided by avenues of trees, stone walls, box hedging, lawns, herbaceous borders and paved patios.

This year brought a change to the Greywalls dining room with the arrival of a new head chef.

David Williams has recently arrived direct from Chapter One in London, the exceptionally fine Michelin starred restaurant. Williams’ apprenticeship under some of the leading chefs in the country (including Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons with Raymond Blanc) will surely bring a refreshing, self-assured, new approach to the style and concept of the cuisine.

He is a determined young man and delighted to be returning to his native Scotland. Trained to Michelin star standards, he understands quality and perfection. Sitting on the edge of his chair, he describes his aims for the Greywalls kitchen with serious concern as well as an energetic eagerness to get on with the job.

Williams is keen to develop the kitchen garden and is now working with the gardeners to prepare the ground to grow more fresh produce – soft fruits, selected vegetables, salad leaves and herbs.

He has reviewed all current suppliers to ensure the best produce and is pleased to have found a good asparagus grower just four miles away.

Cheese is purchased exclusively from traditional Artisan cheesemongers.

Every type of produce, vegetables, meat, fish and grocery have their individual supplier, which means four butchers, two fishmongers and six grocers. He is very precise about the freshest ingredients and only the best quality will suffice.

If this means going further afield, so be it.

“Rhubarb is purchased in England,” he reveals, “wild ceps are delivered from France where they are cheaper than Scotland, and the finest baby carrots and turnips come from a grocer in Paris.” A former chef de partie has supplied Williams with ‘wild taste’ luxury items for seven years.

The most fascinating aspect about David Williams is that he is also the in-house butcher – and this means he can ensure that he is in complete control of the food production process, ‘tailoring’ the best cuts of meat himself.

His speciality is all kinds of Scottish game birds.

He is also fortunate that Ballencrieff Farm at nearby Longniddry rears pedigree pigs. The business under Elma and Peter McLaren is now third generation, dating from around 1860, with a fine reputation for their rare breed pork.

His menu is described as “promoting Scottish cooking without the tartan overkill”. There’s sheer poetry in the descriptions of the dishes: “Slow roasted Ballencrieff pork, caramelised apple puree, pommes fondant, pancetta and sage jus”; “Roast diver scallop, fishcake, asparagus and a curried scallop veloute”; “Corn fed chicken ‘en creppinette’, pommes puree, fricassee of wild mushrooms and baby leeks”. Each one is colourfully created as a culinary work of art.

The most romantic and stylish way to travel around Scotland is by train, on board luxurious The Royal Scotsman.

Anew head chef has been selected for the 2005 season, Frankie Quinn, who has an equally prestigious CV having spent the last three years working with Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles.

With an international collection of passengers, it is vital to show off the finest Scottish produce – Aberdeen Angus beef, smoked salmon from Inverawe and salad leaves exclusively grown on the Isle of Skye.

The best quality olive oil and truffles are sourced from Umbria, Italy. As much as possible is home made from bread and croissants for breakfast to scones, shortbread and Quinn’s own special carrot cake for afternoon tea.

Depending on the itinerary, fresh fish and other Scottish specialities can be purchased on route.

“If we are going to Kyle of Lochalsh and touring the west coast so it would be very silly not to bring on board langoustines and scallops and also monkfish from Mallaig,” says Quinn.

“The fish is delivered to the platform around 9pm while the guests are finishing dinner.

“This provides the evening entertainment as they watch me manhandle the langoustines – perhaps waiting to see if their claws grab me!

To give you a flavour of dining on board the Royal Scotsman, lunch may be breast of corn fed chicken, with scallions and pomme puree followed by traditional Scottish cranachan.

Dinner might consist of fried fresh langoustines served with crab risotto, followed by Roast rump of Perthshire Lamb with a casserole of white beans and a garlic and tomato jus.

Working with two other chefs, Frankie Quinn admits to a working day from around 6am – 12.30am.

It’s a prestigious position and for a young, aspiring chef it’s regarded as the best training the world.

In summary, my visits proved that a number of Scottish chefs are passionate and pedantic about real food; their knowledge and respect of food, ensuring the best quality, should encourage more of us to seek such quality out.