Tuesday, October 11, 2016


To me Scotland was the Land of Whiskies. My knowledge of Scottish food was limited and I went with an open mind, even to embrace the Haggis, if I could. My travel partner assured me good scallops and excellent companionship and so I embarked on my maiden trip to Scotland, to the Northern Highlands to explore the North Coast 500.

The North Coast 500 is often called Scotland’s answer to America’s Route 66. It was launched in 2014 and was soon named as one of the top coastal drives in the world. It was conceived to lure the travellers to the north western corner of the United Kingdom, to enjoy its culture, cuisine and landscape. This route provides a great backdrop for the outdoor enthusiast and the discerning gourmand alike. Hill walkers briskly moving along with their walking poles, bikers whizzing along, a few big boys with their fast and shiny cars, young families and happy campers in their RVs, hillsides dotted with countless sheep and loch after loch is what we encountered on this road trip. Quaint little cafes serving fresh seafood, local small businesses selling smoked seafood, jams, chocolates and fudges, world-class restaurants in heritage properties and whiskey distilleries, kept us well fed and merry along the route.

We started our road trip in Inverness and covered the North Coast loop over five memorable days before ending back in Inverness. We headed west towards Applecross then north towards Durness, to the east to John o’ Groats and finally south back to Inverness. We spent the day hill walking and thoroughly enjoyed the seafood, bread, beef, wine, beer, gin and whiskey, needless to say. Provenance was key and dining establishments proudly named the local sources of the ingredients on their menus. Although I was looking forward to eating lots of Scottish Salmon, I happily discovered new favourites and enjoyed the abundance of what the sea and the land had to offer.

Thanks to a few TV shows, I never had a good opinion on Haggis. For breakfast on day#01, I had the opportunity to try Haggis and I did. With mixed feelings I tucked in my first mouthful of Haggis and I was in deed pleasantly surprised with its texture and flavour. I took an immediate liking to it and it was a regular feature on my plate for breakfast henceforth. I even managed to buy some Haggis at the M & S food hall at the Edinburgh airport to bring some back home for the family.
Langoustines with Lemon butter at the Lochleven Cafe
Fresh scallops and langoustines really stole the show on this trip. One of our first meals on the road was by the quaint and lovely Lochleven Café, not far from Glencoe. This was on a detour we took to see Glencoe before we started out on the NC500 route. The café was set by the shore of a loch and that was enough to know that the seafood was fresh and at its best. We ordered a smoked seafood platter, langoustines with lemon-parsley butter and scallops with a piri piri sauce. We were encouraged to use our hands and a few additional gadgets to get the most out of the seafood. The langoustines were served as whole and I mastered eating the heads and there will now be no looking back. The seafood was ever so lightly cooked and was packed with bags of subtle yet delicious flavours.
King scallops with rice and bacon at the Applecross Inn
Another memorable meal by the water was at the Applecross Inn on the NC 500. With brilliant weather that afternoon many of the customers sat around the tables outside the Inn and enjoyed their lunch followed by ice cream from the truck parked out front. Sandwiches were the most popular but we happily devoured a smoked duck salad with olives, light and fluffy fish pie loaded with salmon and haddock and hand-dived King scallops in garlic butter served with bacon and rice.

We noticed a couple of other exciting seafood cafes that came highly recommended by fellow travellers and locals but due to the lack of time and our itinerary choice, we did not get to dine here. Kishorn Seafood Bar between Loch Carron and Applecross pass and the Gille Bridhe Café in Lower Diabaig are not to be missed if you are ever in their vicinity. The drive from Torridon to Lower Diabaig is stunning and a must-do even though it is not included in the NC 500. There are a couple of blind dips and it does take the driver by surprise, despite the sign boards.
Venison Tortellini at The 1887 Restaurant
The 1887 restaurant at The Torridon Hotel run by Chef David Barnett with its multi-course seasonal menus and spectacular setting by the Torridon mountains needs to be on everyone’s itinerary on the NC 500. Free range highland cattle for beef, in-house pigs for ham and a spacious and well-planned kitchen garden compliment the culinary team in this three rosette restaurant. Venison Tortellini, John Dory with Samphire and the elaborate passion fruit pudding with the setting sun in the backdrop made for a truly memorable dinner. Another meal where the sunset completely stole the show was at the Inver Lodge’s Chez Roux restaurant. Generous and wholesome dishes satisfied our appetites but the sunset in Lochiner on that magnificent evening will be remain etched in our memories forever.
Local pork with Cabbage at the No.1 Bistro
A memorable dinner, with absolutely no help from the setting sun as it was very overcast that evening, was in the No.1 Bistro at the Mackay's Hotel in Wick. Simple ingredients, elegant presentation, clever flavour combinations along with outstanding hospitality are all the factors that went into making that dinner very special.

No trip is complete for me without culinary souvenirs from my travels. And there are plenty of opportunities on NC 500 to collect along the way to take back home. Applecross smokehouse in the Applecross Peninsula and Caithness Smokehouse, not far from John o’ Groats run by friendly folks are great stops to pick up smoked salmon, smoked trout, smoked mussels, smoked cheese and smoked butter. A pack of oat crackers along with some smoked seafood and cheese on top of one of the scenic hills is an easy yet fantastic picnic option. We discovered the Cocoa mountain store in Durness by chance but it sure was a great find. Hot chocolate mix, chocolate bars and barks and gourmet chocolate in this store are excellent picks to take back home.
Smoked seafood at the Applecross Smokehouse
Although not on the NC 500, if you are driving from Edinburgh to get on the NC 500, there are a couple of interesting pit stops for culinary souvenirs. The Lochleven seafood café near Glencoe, has a small store attached it from where one can pick up interesting sauces and rubs for seafood and also crab claw crackers and seafood picks. The Taste Perthshire outlet just off the A9 not far from Perth has an extensive selection of jams, crackers, shortbreads, honeys, cured and smoked meats and seafood, fudges, whiskies, gins and flavoured liquers.

Every day, the experience and scenery on the NC 500 was different. Day after day, it felt more rewarding, just when I felt it cannot get any more beautiful, it did. We were very lucky with the weather, lot more sun than we had expected, we brought back our rain gear unused. The food was uncomplicated and non-fussy yet treated with respect and truly flavoursome.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Chef's Table on Netflix

With Netflix newly launched in India movie-lovers have a lot to cheer for. As a foodie, I am excited to be able to watch movies that revolve around food, for instance - No Reservations, at my own convenience. Another exciting element of Netflix is it's original documentaries. I stumbled upon the "Chef's Table" over last weekend and could not help but watch the first season with six episodes, back to back. I was completely mesmerised with the documentary and I felt enriched and inspired at the end of the TV marathon.  

Each of the six episodes revolve around a world-renowned chef - Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Italy; Dan Barber of Stone Hill at Stonebarns and Stone Hill Restaurant in USA; Francis Mallmann of El Restaurante Patagonia Sur in Argentina; Niki Nakayama of N:Naka in USA; Ben Shewry of Attica in Australia and finally Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken in Sweden. Osteria Francescana, Stone Hill at Stonebarns, Attica and Fäviken featured in the San Pellegrino's Top 50 restaurants of the world in 2015.

Every chef in this documentary is nothing short of an artist, their masterpieces on the plate speak volumes of their creativity and talent in the world of food. They all have their individual styles and they wear their experience and and passion on their sleeves while working in their kitchens.  

Almost all of them come from very humble beginnings and have worked and trained very hard to be where they are right now, the pinnacle of their culinary journeys. Every one of them shared their fear of failure and how they almost gave up cooking before they were discovered by the food critics and the gourmands.  

The episodes flow as narratives by the chef’s themselves supported by a food critic from their part of the world. Another common factor that connects all these chefs is the desire to break away from the rules of traditional cooking and dream of something bigger but close to their hearts. Especially, Italian and Japanese cuisines have such rich heritage and tradition that is almost looked down upon when a chef tries to push the boundaries and expand the palate and imagination. 

Massimo Bottura’s story is very charming and romantic as it draws a parallel between his love life and professional life. The day he opened his current restaurant is the same day he proposed to his wife, Lara. His respect for the Italian Nonnas (grandmothers) is very evident in his cooking practices. 

Dan Barber is a chef who takes the concept ‘Farm to Table’ very seriously. He often works with biologists, farmers and chefs in order to serve local, seasonal and flavourful cuisine to his customers. His duty as a chef does not end with putting beautifully plated dishes on his restaurant’s tables. He wants to support and practice sustainable farming in order to do what is best for the community and the world. 

Niki Nakayama is a brilliant chef who innovates constantly and would never repeat a dish to a returning customer in her restaurant. Petite and calm, she is making a mark for herself in a very male-dominated profession. Niki prefers to work behind a screen so that people do not judge her food because of her gender. Niki's Kaiseki plates have a Zen-like calm and serenity about them. 

Francis Mallmann left home at a very young age to pursue a career in the culinary world. He places a lot of emphasis on the ambiance and also the memories created by food. His cooking style has evolved over the years, rustic and almost charred food is what describes his food now. The landscape and remoteness of Patagonia, where he grew up and now spends a lot of time in, also has a strong influence on his personality and cooking style.  

Some of us remember Ben Shewry from Masterchef Australia when he visited the Masterchef kitchen to set a challenge for the contestants. Matt Preston, who lives around the corner from Attica - Ben's restaurant, is a regular diner on experimental Tuesdays. Ben considers the landscape where he grew up and his family to be strong influences in his life and cooking style.  

Magnus Nilsson, after graduating from cooking school in Sweden, cooked in the restaurant kitchens of Paris and Stockholm. He now runs a three-Michelin starred restaurant which is a destination in itself in Lapland, the far northern reaches of Sweden. His dinners include over 30 courses and are executed with immaculate precision and creative imagination. 

The Chef’s Table is a must watch for anyone who enjoys and appreciates food. Images of those artfully crafted plates still linger in my mind. It has got my creative juices flowing and I look forward to experimenting with our local and seasonal produce in my kitchen very soon.