The Highlands of Scotland! I just got back from Applecross Bay up at the top west end of Scotland, right across from the Isle of Skye. Accessible only through the vertiginous Pass of the Cattle where you can drive through the clouds, Applecross is amazing for its incredible seafood, the spectacular sky above Skye, the undulating mountain walks over spongy marshes and sheer rock faces, the abundant sheep and wild-roaming deer and ridiculous-looking hairy cows like Jim Henson’s Muppets roaming outside your house and in front of your car.
Yup, that’s a highland cow. And that’s our house (or rather, country mansion) in the background. Coming up just at the end of the off-season, we got a great deal on the Bramble Lodge in the west wing of the Applecross Trust estate which, most importantly came with a massive kitchen complete with enormous farmhouse table and TWO stoves. Perfect for sitting and eating hot Oak Smoked salmon from nearby Torridon…
After flying from London to Inverness, we hopped a train towards Kyle of Lochalsh where I entertained myself greatly by watching sheep gallop galumphingly alongside us. Once picked up by friends Mark and Jacq in Strathcarron, we immediately made a beeline to the family butcher in Lochcarron to buy local smoked salmon, venison sausages, black pudding and square sausage. What is square sausage, you ask?
Bet you couldn’t figure that out. Proudly made by the Mrs. Butcher herself, sliced almost as thick as her bulging, cleaver-wielding, leg-of-lamb-sized arms, square sausage is designed for optimum eating when fried up with onions on top of a tattie scone and sandwiched into a morning roll.
Tattie scones (potato, for those of you uninitiated into the magic) are one of my favorite Scottish food discoveries. Soft and smooth like the best mashed potatoes on the inside, a little crisp and browned on the outside when slipped onto the old school always-on Rayburn stove as soon as you wander into the kitchen in the morning, bleary-eyed from a bit too much whiskey. Nothing like a double-carb and onion-fried meat bonanza to soothe your hangover.
As fun as it was cooking and hanging around the warm and whiskey-filled kitchen, we had to venture out to taste the as-fresh-as-it-gets seafood straight from the nearby bay. Our destination of choice most nights was the excellent Applecross Inn a short walk around the bay from the house, a gorgeously scenic walk during the day and at sunset, a mildly terrifying pitch-black Blair Witch-style horrorfest on the way back.
Applecross is justly famous for their Applecross bay prawns (like little hard-shelled langoustines) …
and their hot and cold smoked salmon…
…and most definitely the squat lobsters (just like regular lobsters, except about the size of the tip of your pinky finger and swimming in an I-want-to-paint-this-on-my-face-level-of-delicious garlic butter sauce). They also have a dangerously good whiskey selection and an even more lethal sticky toffee pudding drowning a happy death in a pitcher full of warm custard.
Our other amazing food stop was the Shieldaig Bar & Coastal Kitchen for ridiculously good fish & chips, smoked haddock omelettes, seafood chowder, and a cheesy toasty amazing fisherman’s pie.
Of course we had to try the haggis, neeps, and tatties, which I still really like despite a near-emotionally-scarring but eventually rewarding experience making haggis with foodrambler last year. Not as scary as you might think considering it contains the grossest of the innards of those happily galumphing sheep.
The clootie dumpling dessert, a heavy lump of fruit and suet and doughiness, was a bit disappointing compared to the sticky toffee pudding, so it’s not actually a highlight. But I find the name greatly amusing, so I included it anyway. A great meal nonethless. Happy times.
The real highlights of the jaunt to Shieldaig? First, we stopped off at the roadside stand in the mountains selling lovely bluish-green eggs and chunky hand-knitted hats, gloves, scarves, and kilt socks – essentially a serve-yourself filing cabinet with an honesty box just up the path from a farmhouse where you could just see a few chickens bopping about. Here’s our crew decked out in finery before we waltzed off with our dozen eggs and brand new hats.
As if things couldn’t get any more exciting, we then continue down the one-lane highway snaking around the peninsula, only to get beckoned off by a nice old lady who ‘just stopped to warn us that there’s a big herd of Highland cattle in the road.’ AWESOME.
If this cow could talk, it would be saying DUUUUUUDE.
We enjoyed our homegrown eggs softboiled in exciting little egg cups with focaccia soldiers and noshed on Scottish goat cheese drizzled in Struan heather honey.
Lest you think we spent the entire holiday stuffing our faces with prawns and pudding and lolling in front of the fire with a glass of Macallan, I’ll have you know we did a fair amount of tramping through fields and soaking our shoes in the marshes.
Definitely the best way to encounter future venison sausages. I mean, the local wildlife.
Actually, one of the great things about the area is the attention paid to sustainability and good food sourcing. The fishermen, farmers and gamekeepers know they’d be putting themselves out of business if they overfished the bay or decimated the local deer herd, so they use traditional methods of fishing like special traps called creels that keep only the appropriately large prawns and let the undersized and pregnant mum prawns go. They slaughter the deer that wouldn’t have made it through the winter anyway to keep the majority of the herds free to wander over the hills and through the Bramble Lodge backyard. Or so you hear from the gamekeeper when you run into him down at the pub.
Basically, it doesn’t get better than Applecross. I’m already planning a trip back, during which my main goals are:
1. Visit the Potting Shed and Applecross Walled Garden where Mark and Jacq got married. Check out the fantastic website – they grow their own fruit and veg, do their own fishing, tend their own happy piggies, and slaughter the deer from the estate on the premises. As they say, the food miles ‘could be better measured in yards.’ They open for the season today and I can’t wait to go back.
2. Eat the seafood pizza at the Coastal Kitchen.
And most importantly….
3. Hug a Highland Cow.
I certainly don’t think that’s too much to ask. Applecross, I’m coming back for you…