Sitwell stirs it up

Wil­liam Sitwell vis­its an eclec­tic Scot­tish ho­tel

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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.

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