GRANDDAMEOFLOCHABER The Mystery Diner is impressed by the chef at Arisaig House
Arisaig House was once in the doldrums but it has been revived and now has a Hebridean chef who knows his art and craft, says the Mystery Diner
Back in the day, when it was the proud possessor of a Michelin star for its food, Arisaig House – not to be confused with the nearby Arisaig Hotel – was one of the swankiest country house hotels not just in Scotland but in the whole of the British Isles.
There were a whole raft of reasons for its status as a Grand Dame of Scottish tourism, and all were pretty compelling. There’s the setting, of course: the house stands up on the Lochaber coastline with uninterrupted views across the sea to Moidart and the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
Then there’s the house itself, an elegant Arts and Crafts-style structure with wonderful gardens that has always been run with almost all the emphasis on the ‘house’ part rather than its hotel function.
This is also a part of the world rich in history, and the house has more than its fair share. Although it wasn’t built until 1864, when it was designed as a hunting lodge, 118 years earlier on 20 September 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie left Scotland for France from Borrodale Beach, just below the house. The cave in which he took refuge on his last night in Scotland is a stone’s throw from the house. Arisaig was also the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive, and the place from where its agents were trained before being dropped into enemy-occupied Europe. The evidence of this is still to be found if you look hard enough: there is, for example, a collection of bullet holes in one of the stone fireplaces in the basement which used to be next to the pistol range.
Once you get there it’s easy to see why this house on the country’s western fringe, just ten miles from Mallaig, has been so celebrated because the whole building has the kind of easy, lived-in comfort that defies the wild environment in which it is set.
Since its use as a training ground for the frankly terrifying collection of unhinged/heroic men and women who volunteered to be dropped into Hitler’s hornets nest, Arisaig has undergone several incarnations. The latest started in 2010 when Emma Weir bought the house and her sister, professional caterer Sarah Winnington-Ingram from Edinburgh, started running the place with her family.
The turnaround since then has been gradual but unmistakeable. The family have been helped by their deep roots in the area, and they have made a determined effort to employ people from the area to better inform guests of the local history and sights.
That ethos has been maintained when it comes to the food, with local game and seafood to the fore. Winnington-Ingram has even resurrected the walled garden, which is now a major source of herbs and vegetables.
Until earlier this year, she was running the kitchen virtually singlehandedly, but all of that changed with the arrival of head chef Colin Nicholson, allowing Winnington-Ingram to take a back seat and concentrate on running the hotel. A native of North Uist, Nicholson trained at the island’s famous Langass Lodge before spending four years in Australia and New Zealand honing his craft before returning to Scotland this spring. The results have been spectacular, with a recent AA inspection yielding four stars and two rosettes.
So our mission was to see whether it was merited. The first thing we noticed was that the dining room has had an overhaul, with some of the dark wood painted with light pastel colours and vibrant art from local artists of the Resipole Gallery peppering the walls.
The next thing we noticed was that the menu had been given a shake-up, with just three starters (seafood, meat, vegetarian) and four main courses (two game, fish and vegetarian). We started with the hand-dived scallops, roe powder, Jerusalem artichoke, squid ink and tuile, a novel combination given light and shade by the roe powder and squid ink, a combination met with purrs of approval. If anything, the foraged mushrooms and confit duck, which was on a big disk of sage gnocchi and topped with a bright orange duck egg, was even better. It was immediately apparent that Nicholson is a seriously accomplished chef.
The first half of our main courses consisted of Isle of Muck partridge with pancetta, butternut squash, garlic, seeds and nuts. With perfectly cooked partridge and a gorgeously judged sauce, this was a superb rendition of this dish.
It was, however, comfortably eclipsed by the beautifully tender saddle of venison with pickled brambles, foraged chanterelles, porcini creme and a dark chocolate sauce of the type that was in vogue 15 years ago but is rarely seen these days. More’s the pity because the mix of the porcini creme and the bitterness of the chocolate worked majestically.
We rounded off with a deconstructed salted caramel and steamed date pudding with Madeira dates and vanilla cream, which was surprisingly light but a little bland. The same could not be said of Nicholson’s Cranachan, which included a huge dollop of oatmeal ice cream, which was as engaging as it was innovative.
Indeed the whole meal was excellent, especially when you look at the price of £26 for two courses and £34 for three. This was seriously polished fare from a young chef who knows his onions. Bravo!