Sitwell stirs it up
William Sitwell visits an eclectic Scottish hotel
William visits The Flying Stag in Braemar
The Fife Arms is a diatribe against minimalism. It is a coruscating tome of invective against those who like to pare back, to show the bare brick, to expose the air-conditioning units, the breeze blocks and copper pipes. It is a place so lush and deep in fabric, paintings and furnishings that it becomes a mesmerising dream of deep, enveloping and hypnotic comfort.
The establishment is in Braemar, in Aberdeenshire, a town surrounded by mountains, forest, burns and rivers. It is a place that makes sense of the cold, a warm and welcoming environment where it feels off if you don’t walk in, rub your hands together and mutter something about how nippy it is outside. I had to imagine this on my recent visit because it was about 30 degrees. But that was freak weather and I learnt to my relief that, a mere 10 days later, the dawn temperature was reset at freezing.
The Fife Arms has undergone a transformation recently. Having been bought by Ivan and Manuela Wirth – titans of the art world – it opened at the start of this year, revealing its fabulousness to the locals (among the many wonderful artworks is a Picasso). These include the Prince of Wales, whose holiday home, Birkhall, is just up the road, as indeed is Balmoral.
I explored the place one lunchtime quite astonished as I crept from room to room: every corner of wall space had a painting, or antlers – hundreds of them – and a full-blown stag even leaps from the main bar. There are cabinets filled with other stuffed animals culled from the rivers and hills of the Cairngorms. There’s even a stuffed Queen Victoria in one panelled library, which is quite alarming if you’re not expecting her.
While there is a large dining room adjoining an annexe off the kitchen, which has an impressive wood-fired grill, we sat in a smaller room off the main bar, The Flying Stag, which has its own menu. The wallpaper was thick as an eiderdown and hung with sporrans. We sat in huge armchairs, so the tabletop was about level with my neck. Would lunch be as rich and exquisite as the décor?
The waiter mentioned something about the food being proudly sourced locally. So I questioned him about the first item on the menu: Castellucciolentil and sorrel soup. He went off to find out. But Google helped to confirm suspicions that it was, at least in part, Umbrian. No harm done, and I ordered the Highland-beef and bone-marrow burger. ‘Can I have it medium-rare?’ I asked. Apparently not. As the waiter explained, that would be ‘against the law’.
Criminalising personal taste – and in The Fife Arms, of all places – struck me as being a particularly unusual Scottish diktat. But he explained further that because the burgers were made off-site, they had to be cooked well-done.
Off-site? Patties made off-site in a hotel where the owners probably spend more money on a single light fitting than you might on carpeting your ground floor? ‘Hmm,’ I hmmed. But it was thoroughly decent to eat, albeit law-abidingly overcooked. The brown chips seemed a bit ‘bought in’ also. The best thing was a starter of house-cured salmon. Lovely thick strips scattered with gorgeous and crunchy deep-fried capers. Chicken-liver mousse was so whipped and light it was in danger of losing its rich and naughty flavour. My pal declared of his fish and chips: ‘Good fish but greasy batter.’
Properly bad, I’m afraid, was the brownie. All dusty bitter cocoa and no smooth chocolate joy, made worse by the thin and acrid elderflower ice cream.
Yet we were loving the experience, even as we stretched up from our chairs like little kids to reach the table. Make no mistake, The Fife Arms is an astonishing achievement. But the food in the bar needs to cadge a little of the love and stardust that’s been devoted to the interior design.