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

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

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!

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