Jan Greenberg - July/August 2014
A new generation of chefs is taking the stodge out of Scottish cuisine, while paying proper respect to tradition.
Although Scotland’s Turnberry Resort is known more for its championship golf courses than its food, it’s still a surprise to see a simple “My Porridge” headlining the menu of the chef’s table at its restaurant, 1906. As it turns out, though, the pinhead oats are just the foundation of what turns out to be a revelatory dish. Freshly picked girolles, Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Joselito Gran Reserva, truffles, chestnuts, and Brussels sprouts leaves flavored with honey, Sherry vinegar, and cream build and blend together to form a complex but surprisingly satisfying and accessible dish.
This variation on skirlie, a side dish or stuffing made with oats fried with onions, “is about capturing the essence of traditional comfort food,” says executive chef Justin Galea, who recently departed for the kitchens of Dubai’s Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa.
My Porridge will, “of course, absolutely” be available, according to Galea’s replacement and longtime colleague, Munur Kara. Kara is not only expanding the network of nearby producers who supply the kitchen, but foraging the land surrounding the resort for wild herbs and edible foliage as well. A current favorite is hay-smoked lamb, sourced from Dornoch in the Northern Highlands. “We place the cooked lamb into a pot filled with hay,” says Kara, “and remove the lid when the dish is presented at table. The smokiness from the burnt hay flavors and permeates the meat.”
Kara and Turnberry represent a Scotland that takes seriously the government’s “Eat Fresh, Eat Seasonal” initiative. It’s a Scotland where traditional dishes—or refined interpretations of them—such as haggis (spiced sheep’s offal cooked with oats and onions in a casing of stomach), rumble thumbs (a mix of potato, cabbage, and onions) and crappit heid (the fish version of haggis, a cod’s head stuffed with oats, suet, onions, and the liver) now appear on menus of fine dining establishments as well as local takeouts. The miles of rugged coastline, mountains, moors, lakes, and fertile valleys create a natural larder for a group of innovative chefs, many barely into their thirties, who are putting Scotland on the world culinary map.
Greywalls is a former private house, now a 23 room country hotel located just outside the city of Edinburgh. The 1901 Gertrude Jekyll–designed gardens still provide fresh herbs and produce for its restaurant Chez Roux, one of the restaurants operated by Albert Roux, who with his brother Michel and their sons, are among the most influential culinary presences in the United Kingdom. Among their protégés is Greywalls’ executive chef, 29 year old Derek Johnstone, whose culinary career began over a Burger King griddle. In 2008, he won the BBC television show Master Chef: The Professionals and was invited by judge Michel Roux Jr. to work at the family restaurant, the Michelin two-starred Le Gavroche in London. Two years later, he returned to Scotland to work at Greywalls.
The menu, although reflecting the French classical tradition of the Roux brothers, is, at its core, Scottish. There is a free-range Robinsons Farm pig’s head tartine served with a Hardiesmill Farm ox tongue. Mutton and barley broth preface an entrée of smoked haddock from the nearby fishing village of Eyemouth. The bar menu, available throughout the elegant but homey drawing rooms with views of the garden and adjoining Muirfield golf course, features haggis beignets (lightly fried rounds of sheep’s offal, pinhead oats, and spice) served with Isle of Arran mustard and whisky mayonnaise.
At the foot of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, stands Inverlochy Castle. Jane Watson, recipient of the title Dame of Hospitality 2011 bestowed by the Scottish Hotel Awards association (“Queen of the Castle or the Wicked Witch of the West!” she said upon receiving the news) is the manager. Under her direction, despite its storybook castle appearance, Inverlochy retains the feel of a family residence, albeit a most affluent one, which it was until 1969.
At the helm of its Michelin-starred restaurant, the only hotel restaurant in Scotland to hold a star consecutively since 1982, is executive chef Philip Carnegie. Carnegie grew up on a farm near the still-rural village of Alford. He left school at age 17 to work as an apprentice chef at an Aberdeen steakhouse, moving a few years later to the Waterwheel Inn, where he prepared basket suppers, basically fish and chips. It was when he went to the Lairhillock Inn, a family owned, historic coaching inn with a well-before-its-time policy of using fresh local ingredients, that Carnegie’s culinary vision widened. It further developed five years later when he did stages throughout kitchens in Europe.
During a late morning tour, the Inverlochy kitchen is surprisingly bare, with the exception of two sides of beef hanging in a cool locker. Salmon, pigeon, and other poultry are smoked in-house. Venison and game come from the Highland village Muir of Ord, and a nearby pig farm supplies pork and sausage. Only after Carnegie knows what fish and produce will arrive at the kitchen does he plan the day’s menu, often in consultation with the guests.
Dinner in the jacket-and-tie dining room may begin with a game pithivier of grouse or partridge or a tian of crab, fresh from the Isle of Barra. Watercress and caviar flavor an entrée of braised halibut, and just-picked Little Gem lettuces from the Inverlochy gardens accompany a gin-poached loin of venison served with celeriac and red wine–poached pears.
For what could be a case study of Scotland’s culinary evolution, one need look no further than Boath House, located up north in the fishing village of Nairn. Once described as the most beautiful Regency house in Scotland, it was on Historic Scotland’s “endangered list” when Don and Wendy Matheson purchased the derelict building 20 years ago. Now restored and refurbished, with eight bedrooms and an eclectic collection of works by local artists, it’s best known for its restaurant. Self-effacing chef Charlie Lockley is a local boy who began his career washing dishes at the nearby Clifton Hotel. He now oversees a kitchen that holds a Michelin star and was named 2010 Scottish Chef of the Year.
“When I was hired here,” he says, “the mandate was ‘we’d love to get a Michelin star.’ I looked at the menu, and it was all French products, preparation, and technique. But three years into it, I said, ‘Let’s forget this and use what we have here.’”
The “using what we have” means that whatever produce doesn’t come from the Boath House gardens comes from Wester Hardmuir Fruit Farm two miles away; pork from nearby Portmahomack; organic free-range hen’s eggs from Gordon Whiteford’s Highland Eggs Farm Shop in Ardersier; and briny oysters from Kyle of Tongue along the northern coast. In season, Lockley and his chefs forage the nearby hills, forests, and meadows. “There’s nothing better than putting a salad together for someone, blowing them away with the flavor, and then telling them it’s all picked from the woods.”
A more traditional old school ambience prevails at The Marcliffe Hotel and Spa, just outside the city of Aberdeen, with its formal, elegantly appointed lobby and public spaces. One can imagine leisurely afternoon teas or whiskies and cigars in one of the many easy chairs. So it comes as a surprise that the menu in its Conservatory Restaurant follows the thoroughly modern style of listing the provenance of ingredients and adhering to a strict policy of serving what is local, sustainable, and seasonal.
Very hands-on owner Stewart Spence began his career at the age of 15 working as a trainee chef at Aberdeen’s Station Hotel. After purchasing his first hotel in 1972, he went on to own and operate seven hotels and restaurants. But he credits his years as an avid fisherman with developing his culinary consciousness and still finds time to fish in Iceland and Russia every year. Totally devoted to sustainability, he supports and raises money for the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, which works to replenish wild salmon stocks in the North Atlantic by purchasing commercial salmon fishing rights, essentially paying fishermen not to fish.
Since its 1993 opening, the Conservatory Restaurant, an airy flower-filled space, has been fully booked each weekend. In the kitchen is executive chef Michael Stoddart, who has worked with Spence for over 18 years. Ross, Spence’s youngest son, who mounted a stepladder at the age of 10 to cook alongside his father, is the presence behind the scene, sourcing, purchasing, and developing the seasonal menus.
“This used to be a real country hotel,” says Ross. “And when we took it over, the dining room was decorated with pictures of blood sports—dead rabbits, horses hunting stags. It didn’t go so well with the kind of food we were presenting.”
The menu reads like a local food guide. There are crab cakes with crab from nearby Cruden Bay and monkfish from the North Sea, roasted and accompanied by kedgeree risotto and braised leeks. A rich pistachio black pudding adds texture to diver scallops from the Shetland Islands. The beef is certified Scottish beef, and all the game is from local estates.
Though it could rest on its laurels as one of the world’s most renowned golf resorts, with its own bespoke golf balls, The Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire also takes its food very seriously. A team of 70 chefs work under the direction of executive chef Alan Gibb, whose life, he says, has been “revolutionized” by sous-vide. “If you’re going to do in excess of 300 covers within an hour, which we often must do, we need to remove the element of risk wherever possible,” he explains. “We started doing sous-vide about five years ago, and I must admit, the first two were a pain! Getting the equipment, training staff, and refining technique took time and effort. But now, not only is there much less waste, which saves on food costs, there’s consistency of product.”
The 232 room resort’s signature restaurant is The Strathearn. Under head chef Paul Devonshire, the formerly Continental menu is as Scottish as can be. There is cock-a-leekie soup, sautéed pigeon with Comrie shiitake mushrooms and thyme jelly, grilled Hebridean salmon, North Sea monkfish served on the bone, and nearby farm-raised lamb loin and shoulder with haggis and whisky jelly. Special seasonal menus spotlight game in October, featuring grouse shot in the nearby Angus Glens, roasted breast of pheasant with sage/nettle gnocchi, rabbit with wild mushroom ragoût, and venison from Sutherland in the far north. Silk, one of the resort’s gun dogs, who has the gift of finding buried truffles, leads the truffle hunt.
History resonates throughout Prestonfield, located at the edge of the city of Edinburgh. Built in 1687, it was boldly and extravagantly restored by Scotland’s best-known hotelier/restaurateur James Thomson in 2003. Quite simply: it’s over the top, all brocades, velvet and rococo decorations of a different era. However, its restaurant, Rhubarb (so named because it was at Prestonfield that rhubarb was first introduced to Scotland in the 18th century) is very much grounded in the present.
Under executive chef John McMahon, the menu features scallops hand-picked by Guy Grieve, a former marketing executive and now owner of The Ethical Shellfish Company. There is roe deer from the Strathspey up north in the Highlands served with venison liver stuffing and white carrot puree. For dessert, naturally, rhubarb, harvested from the Prestonfield gardens and presented as rhubarb sorbet baked Alaska.
Few people have such ready access to both the quality and variety of truly local ingredients as do the Scots. Nor do most have the good fortune to live in a relatively temperate climate, ensuring almost year-round availability. Scotland offers abundant resources to the growing group of innovative young chefs who give real meaning to the words fresh, local, and seasonal as they lead their nation’s culinary resurgence.