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Issue 25 - In search of perfect seafood

Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006

 

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In search of perfect seafood

Mark Nicholls visits the world-famous Loch Fyne Oyster Bar and discovers the magic of Scotland's Seafood Trail

Crouched in the shelter of the head of Loch Fyne, and the start of a long and winding peninsular that leads all the way down to the Mull of Kintyre, is a location that has become synonymous with the finest seafood.

It has been brought to wider attention because of the ever-growing reputation of the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar.

Sitting at the solid wooden tables of the world-famous restaurant gazing through broad panes down the loch, a plate of shellfish and a refreshing glass of white wine in front of you goes down as one of life’s finer moments.

This is where the Loch Fyne story begins.

Along the shoreline, hidden at high tide, five million oysters are being farmed together with millions of mussels.

Further out and along the coast to the Western Isles you find langoustine, scallops and crab, prawns and lobster, haddock and mackerel.

In more recent times this extensive vista has been given a new – and perhaps long overdue – branding as The Seafood Trail.

Not so much a marketing tool dreamt up in the realms of public relations, this is more a meeting of mind and spirit between restaurateurs along the loch, the Kilbrannan Sound, all along the coast beyond Campbeltown and up to Oban to promote the locally-fished seafood they serve.

The Loch Fyne Oyster bar, nestling near Cairndow at the top of the loch and the opening of Glen Fyne beyond, looks like it has been there forever and is at the start of the trail.

The original Oyster Bar and shop, founded in 1978 by the late John Noble from the Ardkinglas Estate with fish farmer Andrew Lane, began life in the lay-by at the head of Loch Fyne – the longest and deepest sea loch in Scotland.

In 1985 it moved to the cow byre at Clachan Farm, where it stands today, somewhat extended, though still incorporating the original bar. Yet the ethos remains the same: serving the freshest local food in a simple manner and at affordable prices.

The site now includes a shop, too, and also a smokehouse at the rear where farmed salmon from Loch Duart is prepared, cured, smoked and served to local diners or shipped across the United Kingdom and the globe. The emphasis is on farmed rather than wild salmon, the latter being recognised as endangered by a sector that is as much about sustainability as fine dining.

Reputation has not seen the price of the freshest and finest seafood over-inflated, even though its customers are among the best-known names.

Regulars include Princess Anne, actors Clint Eastwood and Robbie Coltrane and actress Emma Thompson.

And it also became the centre of political intrigue one Sunday afternoon in early May 2004. Two of the Labour Party’s senior figures, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Chancellor Gordon Brown, discreetly paused in the car park to discuss the future political direction of Britain and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s leadership.

The Oyster Bar seats 100 with broad windows, discreet booths and solid tables, in an atmosphere that has evolved rather than been created.

It spawned a chain of 24 restaurants across the UK, operating as a sister company with a supply agreement, in locations such as the flagship on Covent Garden in London to Nottingham and Norwich.

And many do, from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling and beyond.

“People come to the restaurant because they have heard about us and although we have only been here for 20 years it has been in the Good Food Guide since the first year,” said Oyster Bar marketing manager Virginia Sumsion.

“We serve what is produced on our doorstep and also from other local producers. It is very unpretentious and that is why people keep coming back.

“There is a tradition of eating seafood in the region, we have got a good restaurant here but it is also a fantastic location. Loch Fyne is a sea loch but it is a long way from the sea and we have a combination of sea and Highland landscape.

“When people come here they never have the same experience twice, the landscape is always changing, the light is always different.”

With a smokehouse attached to the restaurant, people can see the salmon they are about to eat being prepared.

Despite its celebrity following, there is no special treatment and diners often have to wait for a table. In the past it has seen actors such as Dustin Hoffman in the queue.

The ambience is relaxed from a menu that allows the diner to choose the dish and pace in a restaurant open for breakfast, lunch, dinner or an afternoon snack.

You can enjoy six oysters for £6.40, Loch Duart Salmon poached with cucumber sauce at £9.95, a pair of Loch Fyne kippers at £5.95, a cold platter of langoustine for £14.95 or a full shellfish platter of crab, langoustine, oysters, mussels, queen scallops, crevettes, cockles and clams for £29.50.

Meat is also offered, suggesting an extension of the branding with Glen Fyne prime sirloin or venison fillet.

Yet around Loch Fyne, the aroma of the sea is never far away and the waft of oaken scent from the smokehouse seems to constantly drift across, a reminder that this is one of the natural homes of seafood and shellfish.

Loch Fyne Oysters quality manager Kevin Farrell explained that the salmon comes from farms where there are the highest examples of good husbandry, emphasising the deliberate policy not to use wild salmon.

“Oak shavings for smoking are from whisky or sherry casks, which provides a beautiful aroma around the smokehouse,” he said.

The process is a blend of automation, experience and tradition, combined with the highest levels of food hygiene creating the popular flavours of Gravadlax, Bradan Rost (kiln-smoked salmon) or Bradan Orach (strongly smoked salmon).

The restaurant and business, employing 120 people, also supports the broader local economy, working with meat, fish, cheese, wine and beer producers.

The location of Loch Fyne and the Oyster Bar is crucial to the flavours and the quality of the seafood, particularly the farmed oysters and mussels.

The distance from the sea – 79 miles – means the salinity levels in the seawater are lower producing ideal conditions for shellfish.

But there are other attractions nearby.

Within the vicinity of Loch Fyne there are delightful gardens, warmed by the Gulf Stream, such as those of the Ardkinglas Estate, walks, historic sites and coastal towns of Inverary and Tarbert with Oban not too far away as a gateway to the Western Isles.

Inverary is a few miles along the loch from the Oyster Bar with accommodation in a picturesque setting and the intriguing sites of Inverary Jail, the former courthouse and prison for Argyll. Inverary Castle is the ancestral home of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, and which is open from April to October.

But if you follow the coast around, you can call at locations incorporated in the Seafood Trail, a project hatched by Carole Fitzgerald, owner of The Anchor Hotel in Tarbert and launched last year.

Amazed at the number of fantastic places to eat, all serving great seafood, the plan was devised to link them.

Carole said: “Part of the reason for drawing up the trail was to get people to come to the area for longer and go down the peninsular to Campbeltown, so from Inverary or Tarbert they would keep on exploring.”

Because the food is so spectacular and fresh, the restaurants find it easy to recommend one another.

There are clear criteria for restaurants to be included on the trail: they have to be committed to seafood and shellfish; have a close relationship with their supplier; be on the water’s edge; and have to be knowledgeable about their produce.

There are 11 restaurants on The Seafood Trail from the Oyster Bar at Cairndow, round to Ee’usk in Oban and Tayvallich Inn.

Carole said: “There is also such diversity. You can go to the Royal Hotel at Tighnabruaich and have five-star treatment while at the Seafood Cabin at Skipness have crab in a bun.

“With shellfish there is this great ‘wow’ factor. It is so theatrical and it is all about the whole experience. Shellfish is fantastic whether it is in a five-star hotel or sitting outside with duck eggs and a crab roll.

“The food is always beautifully presented though we do very little to it and that is the whole ethos of every single menu, let the food speak for itself.

“As well as the food, to get here people have to go through the most outstanding scenery.

“You have the Hunting Lodge Hotel on the Atlantic Coast with huge waves crashing ashore and Dunvalanree at Carrdale which sits on a cliff in a cove.”

Another challenge is to create a local market for the fishermen of the west coast and a close relationship with the fishing industry and the sea is flourishing from catching and preparing to serving the seafood.

On the harbour front at Tarbert, husband and wife team Tanya and Brogan Smith work for Flying Fish, preparing crab, langoustine, lobster and scallops a process called shucking – opening with a sharp knife, washing, cleaning and then chilled.

“These are the most fantastic waters in the world for shell fish, warmed by the Gulf Stream,” explained Brogan, who is a firm believer in the quality of the local seafood.

From the head of Loch Fyne at Cairndow, the Seafood Trail takes in some of the most breathtaking coastal scenery in Scotland.

Yet as you drive along, you can be guaranteed that wherever you stop for seafood, there’s a first class dining experience awaiting you.

INFORMATION

Loch Fyne Oyster Bar and restaurants:
tel: +44 (0)1499 600 264
or visit www.lochfyne.com

The Seafood Trail:
www.theseafoodtrail.com

Argyll tourism:
www.visitscottishheartlands.com

Getting there:
Virgin Trains operates regular direct services from London Euston to Glasgow Central aboard its fleet of 125mph Pendolino tilting electric trains, with journey times of under four-and-a-half hours. For ticket sales and reservations tel: +44 (0)8457 222 333 or visit virgin.com/trains

For car hire from Glasgow: Arnold Clark reservations tel: +44 (0)845 607 4500 or visit www.arnoldclarkrental.com