On the road: Royal Dee­side

Roy­alty may have put this cor­ner of Scot­land on the map, but any­one can eat like a king when homemade game pies, trea­cle loaves and gin laced with birch sap are on the menu


Roy­alty may have put this cor­ner of Scot­land on the map, but any­one can eat like a king when homemade game pies, trea­cle loaves and gin laced with birch sap are on the menu

Acar stops for a hitch­hiker on a lonely Scot­tish road. No, we’re not veer­ing into the realms of hor­ror flicks – this jour­ney has a happy end­ing. The driver is Robert Cameron, ex­ec­u­tive head chef of newly re­launched The Fife Arms (the­fifearms.com) in Brae­mar, and the hitch­hiker is Natasha Lloyd, a lo­cal for­ager and her­bal­ist spe­cial­is­ing in wild nu­tri­tion. The two chat. Ideas emerge. Now Natasha is the ho­tel’s for­ager and botan­i­cal con­sul­tant, work­ing with the kitchen to cre­ate a range of nat­u­ral condi­ments, as well as be­spoke balms for the spa (@plan­t_ideas).

Graz­ing our way around the vil­lage, the pocket of pret­ti­ness that is Brae­mar, Natasha plucks leaves and shoots from the hedgerows. “Net­tles are na­ture’s mul­ti­vi­ta­min but they also con­tain pro­tein,” she says. “You can make a kind of tofu from the leaves. Net­tle but­ter is de­li­cious with an oat­meal sour­dough.”

She hands me a sor­rel leaf. It has a mouth­puck­er­ing le­mony tang. “Sor­rel goes well with fish,” Robert tells me. The stalk of sticky wil­low, a tan­gled weed clam­ber­ing up an old wall, has a fresh, feisty fa­mil­iar­ity. “Sugar snap peas!”

Back at the ho­tel, Natasha pro­duces a Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood bas­ket of bot­tles and a tub of net­tle seed, sea salt and se­same seed go­ma­sio (a Ja­panese-style dry condi­ment). “It has a hint of sea­weed. We could sprin­kle it on eggs in the morn­ing,” Robert muses out loud.

Natasha pours me a spoon­ful of rowan syrup. Its bold berry bit­ter­ness catches the back of my throat. A lime flower syrup has the fra­grance of earl grey tea. “Per­fect with poached prunes at break­fast,” says Robert. Yar­row syrup is aro­matic and del­i­cate – the flavour lingers. “It might work as a sor­bet.

“We’re also go­ing to try some fer­ments,” he ex­plains, as Natasha opens a pun­gent pot. “The kim­chi is for a veg­etable plat­ter in the bar.” Wild gar­lic seed oil is sub­tle, not over­pow­er­ing, green leaves com­ing through; while chunky hawthorn ketchup packs a spiky punch.

The fi­nal bot­tle is the most pre­cious: sil­ver birch syrup, Royal Dee­side’s culi­nary jewel in the crown. The area is fa­mous for its sil­ver birch trees and, while it takes 40 litres of maple sap to cre­ate one litre of maple syrup, for sil­ver birch the ra­tio is 100 to one. It’s sweet and clear but earth­ily grounded. It re­minds me of some­thing: “Syrup of figs...” »

The dra­matic restora­tion and rein­ven­tion of The Fife Arms has been caus­ing rip­ples across the coun­try. The vi­sion­ary re­design of this tired Vic­to­rian ho­tel is the most ex­cit­ing thing to hap­pen here since Queen Vic­to­ria breezed in, search­ing for a High­land hol­i­day home. She bagged Bal­moral Cas­tle and kick­started tourism in the re­gion. Proud lo­cals added ‘Royal’ to Dee­side as an early mar­ket­ing ploy.

At the time, The Fife Arms was a small coach­ing inn, but it soon grew into a grand ho­tel cater­ing to those tourists flock­ing to the re­gion. Now own­ers Iwan and Manuela Wirth have given the grey gran­ite build­ing a new lease of life. The cou­ple are be­hind Durslade Farm­house (durslade­farm­house.co.uk) and Roth Bar & Grill (roth­barand­grill.co.uk) in Som­er­set, along with gallery Hauser & Wirth; con­tem­po­rary art, as well as culi­nary cre­ativ­ity, is at the ho­tel’s heart. Works have been com­mis­sioned from artists in­clud­ing Zhang Enli and James Prosek.

Brae­mar, fa­mous for its High­land Games, is close to the cen­tre of the Cairn­gorms Na­tional Park, and each of the ho­tel’s 46 sleek bed­rooms has been de­signed to re­flect its High­land her­itage, named af­ter lo­cal char­ac­ters (the crofter, the stalker, the moun­taineer) or fig­ures as­so­ci­ated with the re­gion, such as Robert Louis Steven­son (who penned Trea­sure Is­land in Brae­mar) and Lord By­ron (whose poem Dark Lochna­gar was in­spired by his time there).

The Wirths have drafted in a tal­ented team headed by Fed­er­ica Ber­tolini, fresh from Olga Polizzi’s Cor­nish gem, Ho­tel Tre­san­ton. Robert’s ca­reer has taken him from his na­tive Glas­gow (where he worked for Nick Nairn in the 90s) to the Dubai royal fam­ily’s yacht. Along the way he’s cooked for the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment and the Queen for her 80th birth­day bash at High­grove.

Now back on home turf, Robert is play­ing with fire – lit­er­ally. The cen­tre­piece of the ho­tel’s fine din­ing restau­rant, The Clu­nie, is a wood-fired bar­be­cue de­signed by Swedish chef and master of fire, Nik­las Ek­st­edt (ek­st­edt.nu). The menu show­cases the fruits of the Cale­do­nian for­est, along with wild veni­son, grouse and hare from nearby es­tates, or­ganic lamb (He­bridean) and grass-fed beef (Belted Gal­loway) from Wark Farm (wark­farm.co.uk) and rare-breed Berk­shire pork from Bal­nault Farm (@bal­nault­farm).

The Fife Arms bar was once the heart of the vil­lage and has be­come so once again. On its menu you’ll find all the things that Robert be­lieves should be on a Scot­tish pub menu, from game pie, homemade hag­gis, neeps and tat­ties to clootie dumpling (a fruity steamed pud­ding).

The High­lands has been cry­ing out for a ho­tel of this cal­i­bre – one whose culi­nary cre­den­tials might also in­clude the best af­ter­noon tea north of Hadrian’s Wall. An ex­ag­ger­ated claim? Not when you learn that Robert also man­aged to squeeze in a stint at Fort­num & Ma­son.

Tea is taken in an el­e­gant draw­ing room over­look­ing the tum­bling wa­ters of Clu­nie Wa­ter, the walls clad in be­spoke tar­tan de­signed by Aram­inta Camp­bell (who also cre­ated the ho­tel’s tar­tan), the ceil­ing trans­formed into a swirling work of art. It’s a very Scot­tish af­ter­noon tea – the clot­ted cream isn’t from Devon but from the Bor­ders. Brenda Leddy, of Stichill Jer­seys near Kelso, is Scot­land’s only clot­ted cream pro­ducer.

Other pas­sion­ate pro­duc­ers that have caught Robert’s eye in­clude Lost Loch Spir­its, near Aboyne, where Pe­ter Dig­nan and Richard Pierce cre­ate a clutch of quirky spir­its in­clud­ing whisky-based Ha­roosh in­fused with black­ber­ries and lo­cal honey; and Mur­michan, the first Scot­tish ab­sinthe (lost­lochspir­its.com). “Some of the by-prod­ucts – oat­meal, berries, lo­cal honey, fen­nel seed and aniseed – are great for cur­ing fish,” Robert tells me. Then there’s Pig­gery-Smok­ery, self-styled “ba­coneers”, Mark and Su Reynolds, smoke the ba­con in their back gar­den (pig­gery-smok­ery.co.uk). Their Pep­per­back Finn is smoked with pep­per­corns and ju­niper to give it a warm, home­stead-fire style, while Dark Dubhloch’s flavour comes from trea­cle and ale. »

My next stop is a strik­ingly scenic hour’s drive east through beau­ti­ful Bal­later and Aboyne to the Kin­car­dine Es­tate, home to the Esker gin dis­tillery (es­ker­spir­its.com). Steven and Lynne Duthie first started ex­per­i­ment­ing with a one-litre cop­per still in their kitchen, then, in 2017, ex­panded into a steading on the es­tate. The cou­ple wanted to cre­ate a clas­sic gin, com­ple­mented by the tonic and gar­nish rather than de­fined by them. To do that they use more than a dozen botan­i­cals, in­clud­ing rose­hips, heather flow­ers and pink pep­per­corns, though the gin’s USP, the key botan­i­cal, is sil­ver birch sap from trees on the Kin­car­dine Es­tate. “There’s a four-week win­dow in the spring when the sap is ris­ing and you can tap the trees.” Steven pours a splash into a glass and we nose the gin. First there’s the ju­niper hit, then citrus and spice, and, fi­nally, the birch sap’s tell­tale sweet­ness. They sug­gest serv­ing it with a twist of or­ange zest.

From here I’m cut­ting across coun­try to the vil­lage of Tor­phins for lunch at Plat­form 22. Artist and pot­ter Emma Pat­tullo’s quirky café is buzzing and the soup’s sold out, so I plump for the homemade hum­mus and sweet, nutty dukkah plat­ter with flat­breads. While I eat she tells me they hold an out­door mar­ket ev­ery Wed­nes­day and, on Thurs­days, they host pizza nights with Lily’s Dough, cook­ing from a wood oven in an old horse­box parked in the yard (lilys­dough.com). The café also stocks ar­ti­san baker Shona Jamieson’s loaves (the­high­lander­s­bake­house.co.uk). Be­fore leav­ing I buy one of Shona’s black breads, laden with car­away seeds, trea­cle and dark choco­late. Its deep, dark earth­i­ness has such rich­ness. Shona’s base is in nearby Crathie – if you want to buy di­rect, look for the out­side stall and hon­esty box.

An­other in­spir­ing lo­cal story be­longs to one-time shep­herdess, Belinda Row­lands. Five years ago she set up a so­cial en­ter­prise in the walled gar­den on Bal­lo­gie Es­tate to pro­vide out­door ther­apy and hor­ti­cul­tural train­ing for adults with ad­di­tional needs. Back then, the gar­den was aban­doned, un­touched for years. I bump down the pot­holed track to The Seed Box to­day, how­ever, and find beds brim­ming with veg­eta­bles. The or­gan­i­sa­tion’s veg box scheme uses Plat­form 22 as a col­lec­tion point for cus­tomers, and sells fruit, veg and eggs at lo­cal farm­ers’ mar­kets (the­seed­box.org.uk). On my visit I dis­cover a green­house full of ap­ples. “We’re about to make juice to sell at the mar­ket,” ex­plains Belinda, smil­ing at the bumper crop.

There’s no short­age of ar­ti­san pro­duc­ers here. On my way home I stop off in Bal­later, an el­e­gant Vic­to­rian re­sort with wide leafy streets lined with delis and cafés. At lo­cal cof­fee roaster Roar­ing Stag (roar­ingstag­cof­fee.com), I buy a bag of Dark Lochna­gar – full-bod­ied beans with notes of red berries and choco­late.

It might be win­ter, but retro Shorty’s Ice Cream Par­lour (short­ysice­cream­par­lour.co.uk) is heav­ing. Lo­cals queue for deca­dent ice cream sun­daes, froth­ing with whipped cream and hot choco­late sauce. Owner Ch­eryl Lit­tle­wood’s many flavours in­clude Bal­later cream, rasp­berry cranachan and Irn-Bru sor­bet, but I’m swayed by the Scot­tish tablet with its pure, creamy fudge flavour.

My fi­nal stop is the bi­jou Royal Lochna­gar Dis­tillery on the edge of the Bal­moral Es­tate, just a caber’s throw from Brae­mar. Founded in 1826 by James Robert­son, in the shadow of Lochna­gar moun­tain, it is im­pos­si­bly pic­turesque. The 12-year-old whisky has a green, grassy char­ac­ter, with ap­ple pie and brown sugar on the nose. “Queen Vic­to­ria vis­ited in 1848. She liked the whisky mixed with claret,” man­ager Claire Fraser smiles. “I tried it. It’s ac­tu­ally quite good.” Maybe, but some­how I don’t think that will make it on to The Fife Arms’ cock­tail list.


Dou­bles at The Fife Arms start from £250, b&b (the­fifearms.com). For more info: vis­itabdn.com. Fol­low Lucy on In­sta­gram and Twit­ter @lucy­gill­more.


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