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.