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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

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

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