Room with a view
Port Appin is a small village on Scotland’s craggy west coast, and it’s home to a hotel and restaurant which has been keeping guests well fed for many a year Cheshire Life: December 2018 Cheshire Life: December 2018
We’ve arranged a rainbow for you’, says general manager Robert Templeton-mckay, showing us to a window seat in the restaurant at The Airds Hotel.
Sure enough, as we gaze across Loch Linnhe, to the island of Lismore and, beyond that, to the hills rising sharply from the far shore of the loch, a vivid rainbow arcs through the scene.
What a pretty picture to enjoy over a breakfast of porridge with ‘a wee dram, perhaps’, a full Scottish, or Mallaig smoked kippers.
This being Scotland - a land carved by ice and made green by rain - that scene changes by the minute, that mountainous far shore of the loch bathed in sun, then obscured by clouds.
In the porch of The Airds Hotel and Restaurant, a selection of large umbrellas are provided for guests, along with a long line of wellies of every size. Epic landscapes have a habit of delivering epic weather.
We set out on the short walk around Port Appin’s headland in the teeth of one of the first autumn storms. The little ferry from Port Appin to Lismore bobs like a cork at its anchor, the grey, churning sea too fierce for the boat to make the five-minute crossing. At the more exposed sections of the coastal path, the wind whips so strong that we are almost blown off our feet.
When Scotland conjures its full elemental beauty, sometimes all you can do is retreat indoors, get comfy and watch it blow. Airds Hotel has been a place of refuge for centuries - a coaching inn for travellers en route to Lismore at least as far back as 1723. Today, with 42 years in the Good Food Guide behind it, Airds juggles the comfort and homeliness of a small country house hotel with the 21st century ambition of a modern AA 3-rosettes restaurant. The young and inventive chef, Chris Stanley, goes by the modern British mantra - ‘let the ingredients speak for themselves’ - but inevitably he gives them a good deal of help to do so.
On our first night, we choose the £78-per head tasting menu, each course described only by its constituent parts. So, haggis tomato and aubergine turns out to be an intriguing mix of soft textures and fruity dabs. Pumpkin sage and chocolate features a pumpkin purée and seeds, liquid chocolate and a kind of granola. Lobster, oyster, brioche and chervil sets the lobster atop toasted bread with a lush green chervil purée. Next comes one of the finest beef dishes I’ve ever had: a rare slice of fillet with a crusty bon bon of braised beef, a little mound of spinach, onion caramelised to the point of exuding sweetness and burning, and pommes Anna, cooked dark and very salty.
Two desserts follow: a chocolate and coffee confection with mascarpone, and a feather-light passion fruit soufflée.
Next night, we try the £58-perhead dinner menu. Shellfish consommé is a dark, complex broth with lobster tortellini. Pan-roasted monkfish comes with tartare sauce, a pile of pommes galettes like poker chips and fine dining’s answer to mushy peas. A main of lemon and basil-crusted brill is a delicious hunk of fish in a creamy, lemony, herb-infused sauce. Desserts of banoffee soufflé and lemon meringue tart are both pleasant, but even more impressive is the pre-dessert of lemon posset and berries.
It’s a long way to Port Appin - 25 miles up the west coast beyond Oban. But after the motorway slog to Glasgow, the journey north becomes pure pleasure, skirting the enormity of Loch Lomond, taking the A82 through the majestic Glencoe, then heading south, hugging the coast, trying to keep your eyes on the road while the beauty of Loch Linnhe threatens at every turn to tear them away.
Across the water from Port Appin stands Castle Stalker, a 14th century fortified home on a tiny island which has a bloodthirsty history, and a claim to fame as the setting for the final scene of the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Then, that short ferry ride away, is Lismore - 10 miles long and a mile wide - with a rich history of Celtic Christianity, intriguing ruins and a rare tranquillity.
When the sun’s shining, or the heavens are opening, this remains one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.
‘Airds’ young, inventive chef, Chris Stanley, lets the ingredients speak for themselves’ eatcheshire