The good neighbour
The village of Ballater, hit hard by floods in 2015, now has one of the Highlands’ best restaurants – thanks to a little help from an esteemed local resident. By Gavin Bell. Photographs by Sean Dooley
How Prince Charles’s foundation helped rescue a disaster-hit Highlands town
IT WAS ON the sixth day of Christmas in 2015 that hell and high water engulfed Ballater.
The pretty Victorian village on Royal Deeside was devastated by storm floods when incessant rain and snowmelt burst the banks of the River Dee. More than 300 homes and 60 businesses in the popular tourist destination were inundated by raging torrents, which destroyed roads and bridges, and sent caravans floating down the valley. It was, in a word, catastrophic.
An influential figure with holiday accommodation in nearby Balmoral promptly joined the relief efforts. The Prince of Wales paid a visit, asking how he could help, and a local butcher suggested that opening a branch of his Highgrove food and gift shop in the village would be a step on the road to recovery. The Prince evidently liked the idea, and for good measure his charitable foundation acquired a lease on a damaged former Co-op and transformed it into a restaurant alongside a Highgrove shop, which opened in late 2016.
It was originally planned as a temporary pop-up to create employment and attract visitors to Ballater, a hub of the Royal Deeside route from Aberdeen to Balmoral. However the Rothesay Rooms – a reference to the Prince’s Scottish title, the Duke of Rothesay – has become a popular permanent attraction after winning prestigious regional awards and an entry in the Michelin Guide. ‘It’s about giving back to the community,’ says head chef Ross Cochrane, who took over in August last year.
Ninety per cent of his ingredients come from suppliers within a 15-mile radius, a rare exception being the topnotch scallops – tender and sweet, of a quality that’s ‘second to none’, Cochrane says – sourced from the Isle of Mull. Even the gamekeeper at Balmoral is on his books, and helpfully calls when
The Rothesay Rooms is known affectionately by locals as ‘Charlie’s Shed’
fresh venison comes off the hills. This approach has been a boon to local producers of game, beef, poultry and vegetables, and is in keeping with the Prince’s passion for sustainable farming.
‘Just about everything we use is from Highland estates around here,’ Cochrane says. ‘The whole idea of this restaurant is to help the local community and everyone has been really positive towards what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.’
He runs a tight ship, saying nothing goes out of the kitchen without him seeing it, and nothing comes back. The result is that the Rothesay Rooms has become a destination restaurant, busy most nights of the week. ‘The hard work is paying off and we’ve not let standards drop. I think that’s something to be quite proud of.’
Aberdeen-born Cochrane came to the Rothesay Rooms (known affectionately by locals as ‘Charlie’s Shed’) in rather serendipitous circumstances; both chef and restaurant were industry-award winners in 2017, the former picking up gongs for chef of the year and seafood chef of the year for his work at an Aberdeen hotel, while the latter won restaurant of the year at the same event. ‘I’d heard very little about the Rothesay Rooms until that night,’ Cochrane says, but he applied for a vacancy there soon after. He is now in his element, championing unloved cuts of meat for his slow-cooked braises, rich stews and pies. He draws inspiration from stints working at Claridge’s under Gordon Ramsay, and at Tom Kerridge’s two-michelin-starred The Hand & Flowers in Marlow. ‘Tom’s cooking shows that you don’t need many elements to go on a plate to make a successful dish.’
In the cosy, candlelit restaurant, its royal green walls festooned with antlers and portraits of clan chieftains, the menu seems to have achieved its aim of drawing tourists to Ballater. Midweek in late October the place is full of visitors, mainly lured by the promise of