So you fancy a trip to the middle of nowhere, where all there is to do is sit, read, and be mesmerised by the view, but you still want the luxury of central heating, good food, and a booze list it’ll take you a year to go through (if you’re not bankrupted in the attempt). Where do you go? New Zealand is certainly up there but, let’s face it, it’s not convenient and the flights will cost you more than the rest of the escape.
The answer, of course, is to visit the Highlands. It’s a part of Britain like no other. The people, the scenery and the light are like nothing else in Britain. While sparsely populated, it is dotted with hotel gems that are not to be ignored. And if you’re a driver, it has some of the best scenic roads in the UK.
There are two principal entrances into this sparse mountainous landscape: Glasgow and Inverness. The former is a perfect gateway to the Isle of Skye and the west coast isles. If your visiting the area, then you can’t do better than to eat at The Gannet in Glasgow and stay at Airds Hotel at Port Appin en route to Skye and the MacDonald family’s hotel, Kinloch Lodge, a former 17th century hunting lodge, complete with yellow peat water and Michelin starred restaurant. It’s also about a forty minute drive from the Michelin rated The Three Chimneys, a long time destination restaurant.
The reason I write this, though, is to extol the worth of a visit to Loch Torridon and The Torridon, the nearest entrance point for which is Inverness.
I recently found myself in this desolate part of the British Isles celebrating the milestone birthday of a friend at his family’s new “getaway” home on the shores of the loch. It is a stunning location with scenery reminiscent of New Zealand and Patagonia, and it’s in the middle of nowhere. But there is somewhere that you can head to, to share in this majestic scenery: The Torridon, a hotel on the loch’s edge that was once the ancestral home of the Laird Lovelace. It is a country house hotel that has all that you’d expect of it – eighteen luxury bedrooms and drawing rooms replete with soft sofas and roaring log fires. Most importantly, it has a bar and restaurant that can’t be rivalled for… well for a day’s drive or so (distances are hard to calculate when you in the Highlands – straight lines and direct routes are a thing only of mathematical theory).
The Highlands really do play host to some of the most surprising restaurants in the UK, not due to what they cook, but the quality. The dishes aren’t the most original in concept but modern and on trend. Despite this, the quality of the produce and the cooking is superb (I’m writing this on my phone as the house party goes on around me, having just returned from The Torridon), but something we do tend to forget, despite the fact Scotland is home to some of the best produce in Britain.
First the bar at The Torridon. As you’d expect, it has a good selection of Scotch, but it also has a fine gin selection. Scotland produces more gin than anywhere else in the UK. At last count, there was a combined total of 365 to choose from. Not too shabby; and for a ridiculously good price, you can arrange a whisky tasting lesson. It’s a fine bar, just off the comfy sitting room. While the seating may remind you of an 80s Soho strip club, the walls are lined with all the bottles on offer, and the staff can recommend you something based on your preferences with no problem. Try the Percie gin – rich in rosemary, it’s like a gintastic, alcohol laced focaccia that can be drunk.
The restaurant. Holding three AA Rosettes, it is clearly after that star. Having eaten at similar establishments that do hold stars, I can see no reason why it and head chef David Barnett (formerly head chef at the aforementioned Airds Hotel which also holds three AA Rosettes) should not suffer that award. The restaurant offers a choice of four, five, and seve-course tasting menus to choose from. Our party dined in the library, at the most beautiful room-length oak table, rather than the dining room, and from a set menu. But this should not detract. If a restaurant can pull off a set menu to this level, it is proof of a highly competent kitchen and staff.
The three amuse-bouche were superb. Pomme puff, cep dust and purée, and truffle, an exquisite mouthful, disappointed only by the fact that it left us all crying out for more. This was followed by confit lamb belly, pumpkin espuma, chive oil, pumpkin seeds and rice puffs. A lovely ramekin, but it could have done with more lamb and more depth to the pumpkin. The final amuse-bouche, a ceviche of halibut with mango, was as fresh as you’d hope, though unfortunately lacking the depth and complexity of the earlier two mouthfuls. If anyone tells you that the seemingly relatively simple dish of ceviche isn’t one that holds deep complexity and levels of flavours, they are just wrong and don’t understand that the dish is far more than marinated raw fish.(In fact, they shouldn’t be allowed to eat it, let alone prepare it!)
On a side note, if a non-starred restaurant is serving you three amuse-bouches, then it’s gunning for that promotion. The oyster starter was not, to our surprise, raw oysters, but four cooked oysters with slightly fermented cabbage, yoghurt source and pressed cucumber. This surprise was only surpassed by the surprise at their freshness and the ocean notes coming from them. Somehow the accompaniments didn’t detract but enhanced this, making it one of the most accomplished cooked oyster dishes I’ve had. The game tortellini starter was also unexpected with what looked to be a thick cream sauce but was deep, silky and rich with the flavour of chicken liver parfait.
The main of home-reared pork (they also have their own herd of cattle in the field next to the driveway) with pear, red cabbage, celeriac and potato fondant, may not be the most original of dishes, but it was certainly one of the best versions of it I’ve eaten. The pork was all that many restaurants fail to provide and that many non-pork lovers complain about. It was beautifully fatted. Strips of perfectly tender pink pork, with large salted sections of fat in the middle and end, were served up to us. They were wolfed down with the same joy and delight shown by swine at feeding time. And with good reason; the fat was rendered to perfection, adding flavour and a change in texture without being fatty or greasy, a fine achievement when cooking pork pink rather than well done.
Finishing with cheese was a nice way to end the meal. The kitchen team had thoughtfully taken the time to lay out the six cheeses in order of maturity and eating. Unfortunately, while a selection of some quality, they were relatively generic in choice and had been sitting on the board in the fridge for no short period (the problem with trying to serve the cheese on cold slates when combined with pre-plating and a food that really must be served at between 15°C and room temperature). The worst problem was the pepper from the Black Crowdie sitting in your mouth for the next four cheeses and thus detracting from them. It may be that I (and all of us at the table) ate them in the wrong order – left to right rather than right to left – but I’m convinced we ate them in the order told. A nice touch, though, was that each cheese on the board had its name written next to it and there was a menu placed on the table so we could read more about them. Touches like this are important.
Despite the issue with the cheese, the meal really was spot on, with cheerful attentive service that was better than that I’ve had at starred restaurants at other country house hotels. The Torridon is worth a visit to dine and stay. But, when it comes to, if the views, escapism, drink and food aren’t enough reasons to head there for a weekend getaway then, the fact that each room comes with a cuddly toy highland cow as a hot water bottle cover, must be the final clincher to make you want to go.
The Torridon By Achnasheen Wester Ross Scotland IV22 2EY +44(0)1445 791242 https://www.thetorridon.com/