I love a road trip, so when Cheeky and I were invited to Port Appin in the Scottish Highlands we jumped at the chance. Road trips only require a few things; good company, good snacks, good tunes, good scenery and of course a good destination of which we had all of them in spades. After passing Glasgow we wound our way north along Loch Lomond and climbed our way up into the Highlands of Scotland. These are some of the most scenic roads that one can find in Britain, with landscapes that wake the spirit and remind one of what really matters in life. We made our way through the very austere Glencoe, with its peaks hidden in brooding clouds above; and then eventually we made our way along the banks of Loch Leven which led us onto the expanse of Loch Linnhe. Eventually we turned off the main road for the signs to Port Appin.
A quiet winding road, with stunning views across to Castle Stalker, led us to the Airds Hotel. An unassuming hotel from the outside, the historic building was once a ferry inn and it seems to exude an air of stillness and composure as it has been doing throughout its history as a place for weary travellers. We parked our vehicle, silenced the engine and made our way to the entrance of the luxury boutique hotel. The air was fresh and clean, whilst a light wind blew in off the loch; the silence was absolutely golden, only the type that one can find in the wilds. We made our way through the small conservatory to be welcomed by Graham the Hotel Manager, who led us through to the very snug lounge where he served us champagne, the perfect elixir for fatigued travellers. As our posteriors sunk into the expansive sofa and the logs crackled in the fireplace one could feel the serotonins gently trickling around the body… or was that the champagne? Same difference I suppose.
Graham lead us to our expansive suite with beautiful views over the Loch. It was a cosy affair on the first floor of the building, with a small Lounge and a large double sink bathroom. There were lovely little touches, like the Whisky Mac- ginger wine with whisky and Angus the highland cow door stop who would stand guard outside our room to let others know we were not to be disturbed. Once settled into our suite, and after a few Whisky Macs we prepared ourselves for dinner. As we made our way through the hotel we took the time to study the beautiful art collection hanging throughout the hotel, much of which were watercolour landscapes painted by the owner’s father. Cheeky and I found ourselves relaxing in front of the fire once again with champagne and nibbles, what a difficult life.
We found our way to the restaurant, a clean and light space with wall to wall windows and views across the Loch to the mountains in the far distance. Once settled, Agnes our waitress bought fresh sparkling water with a choice of lemon, lime and ice. We were to experience the ‘Airds’ Tasting Menu by head chef Chris Stanley. We started with an amuse-bouche of cauliflower panna cotta with parmesan crisp, with a smooth texture and a creamy cheese taste, what a fabulous way to start proceedings. Next on the menu was glazed asparagus with truffled poached egg, radish salad and smoked gnocchi. This was like springtime in a bowl with the all the colours and tastes associated with spring, whilst the smoked gnocchi added hints from the previous winter. This was washed down with a perfectly selected 2012 Riesling from Alsace, fresh like spring.
Andrew, the restaurant manager introduced himself and arrived bearing gifts, in the shape of belly and loin of pork from Kimmel farm with stuffed cabbage. The pork was tender and juicy whilst the fat was like nothing that I had experienced before; somehow Chris had morphed the pork fat into something that resembled truffled foie gras. Cheeky, not usually a fan of pork fat thought this was ‘best on the plate’. Chris has also transformed the crackling into a thin crisp. The delightful dish was served with French Rosé, Tavel Vielles Vignes from 2014. Next, was a beautiful dish of home cured Wester Ross salmon with garden beetroot and Golden cross cheese. The salmon has been prepared in three ways with pickled salmon, Inverawe smoked salmon and beetroot cured salmon, whilst the beetroot was sweet and subtle and the goats cheese was pungently tasty. A South African Vondeling Babiana wine helped cut through the fish with a cream clean crisp flavour and aroma.
We had now arrived at main course; fillet of Scotch beef with spinach, oyster, horseradish and Pomme Boulangere. The beef was a choice cut which had been cooked to perfection, it melted in one’s mouth whilst the French potatoes were delightfully flavoured with Garlic and the spinach tasted as if the flavour had been concentrated. We drank a Australian red wine- Sangiovese, mature and civilised with tastes of chocolate and berries, a fine accompaniment. Just as Cheeky claimed this to be one of her top 10 food experiences, possibly her favourite course arrived in the shape of cheese! Most cheese platters are traditionally populated by French cheeses for good reason, but on this occasion, Chris had selected six amazing cheese; five from the UK and only one from Northern France. The Tunworth from Hampshire and the Strathdon Blue from Tain were both delightful, but the one cheese that really won us both over was the Welsh cider rind washed Celtic Promise, quite a phenomenon.
For dessert, we had the Rhubarb souffle with Ginger parfait washed down with a 2009 Tokaji from Hungary. The Souffle was heavenly and the ginger parfait had a lovely warm victorian quality to it. With Souffles, one can not hide with such simple ingredients, and Chris had whipped these ingredients into something quite beautiful. This really was a meal to remember, Chris seems to be some sort of culinary Gandalf of the Kitchen, taking local produce and creating dishes that are totally sublime; I particularly love how at times there were flavours and textures that I can not even begin to wonder how he created them, there is true wizardry at work here.
The following day, Cheeky and I got to explore the local area. In fact we discovered that Airds is perfectly positioned to explore the highlands, so much so that we just kept driving and exploring and made our way to Eilean Donan Castle, possibly one of Scotland’s most famous castles and then we hopped over to the Isle of Skye, just to say that we did! However, driving around this area is an experience in itself, especially the road from Invergarry to Eilean Donan. There is so much do in the area, from day long road trips to local experiences like catching the boat to port Stanley and cycling around the island of Lismore. This is an area that one could come back to again and again, exploring by car, foot or bike, or even by belly! That evening we were about to experience eating at the Airds restaurant once again, and neither of us could wait to see what Chris had in store for us.
The second night we sat down to another legendary meal. With such dishes as beetroot risotto, crab with lobster bisque, monkfish with pearled carrot and sea vegetables, and breast of duck with hazelnut purée, spring cabbage and beetroot, and once more a divine dessert in the shape of sticky toffee soufflé served with clotted cream ice cream and pickled apple; all that was left on our lips was “ Can I have another one please?” Each evening was a delightful experience dining in the Airds restaurant, I can not sing enough praises for what Chris has accomplished in this little corner of Scotland. Many think that one must head to the big cities to find the finest food, but this is just a classic example, demonstrating that this is no longer the case. Chris’s quiet passion for cuisine comes through in his food and the dining experience that is Airds. As for the Hotel, there is a gentle quietness and a slower pace of life that Airds seems to foster; one can not resist changing one’s pace to match this more gentle way of living, which can only be a good thing for one’s health and one’s being.
The Airds Hotel & Restaurant
Airds Hotel & Restaurant in Port Appin on the Scotland’s glorious west coast is offering a three-night mid-week summer break throughout July August and September. The priced, from £449 pp for a luxury double room is based on two sharing on a half-board basis. For reservations: www.airds-hotel.com or call 01631 730 236.
If you want to wow friends with your culinary prowess: combine a visit Airds with chef, Chris Stanley’s Come Cook with Me Masterclass. The price is £275 pp and, designed for one or two couples – novice or expert – it includes fresh ingredients, a morning of tuition, tasting and discussion and in the evening, be inspired by Chris’ mouthwatering presentation of your personal menu. The Masterclass can be combined with any package of 2 nights or more.