More than Haggis

Fluffy eggs whipped and frothed to perfection, a Lazy Susan covered in local preserves, and tray after tray of the smokiest, umami-est, salmon I’ve ever devoured: this was my breakfast for three straight mornings in Scotland and only a nibble of things to come.

Among the foodtopias of the world, Scotland remains forgotten. Its beauty is conjured through images of towering peaks, trains turning bends worthy of the Hogwarts Express, cold rain spitting down, and miles and miles of land to get lost in. I had forgotten the raw beauty of a fresh oyster, of local ingredients deemed low in a world of haute cuisine. After all, when was the last time you heard someone wax rhapsodic about haggis and neeps?

Arriving at Torridon Estate, a centuries-old home and grounds in the Wester Ross village of Torridon, my high school friends and I drove down a gravel path, rhododendron blooming violet on each side. Torridon sits between the River Abhainn Coire Mhicnobaill and Loch Torridon, an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean, and about an hour’s drive west from Inverness. Nearby, Beinn Alligin juts out of the earth to a dizzying 3,235 feet, containing two Munros, or Scottish mountains over 3000 feet high. As I looked out Torridon’s window to Beinn Alligin, its peaks seemed to glint invitingly; I couldn’t wait to climb them.

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Mountain, Sea, Sky

The next morning, I woke early, prowling the house as if I were both a Lady of Torridon and a servant downstairs. When breakfast began, I entered the dining room, complete with wide windows, and high, crown molded ceilings. But all of that escaped my notice at first glance. The smell of warm eggs, sausage hot off the griddle, and other things I couldn’t place beckoned. Walking over to the buffet, my eyes bulged, and I hoped my stomach was up to the challenge. I gathered cereal and fruit for my first breakfast. Breakfast two included typical Scottish breakfast sausage, eggs, creamy-soft cheese, and that salmon, quite truthfully, perfection in food form. Breakfast three included more salmon, obviously, and some toast with jam. As I sat nibbling my toast, the lady of the house, Sarah, entered, Scottish fiddle in hand. Her bow flew across the strings as she kept beat with her well-worn boot, and we clapped along in time. The smell of freshly caught Atlantic smoked salmon reached my nostrils and I realized I might know what Heaven is like.

That afternoon, we crossed over a footbridge to walk along Loch Torridon towards the Atlantic. We passed the estate’s old church, now a glass fronted modern cottage. Farther along we saw sheep, and a couple walking their cat, Putin. The ocean glimmered beyond, but we had to turn around when we saw a camper van with a family inside; it felt rude to pass a stirring family.

After our day tramping about, we spoke to Sarah, who owns the estate with her husband Felix. She asked us how long we were staying and when we told her we’d be there three nights, she replied, “That’s good. Most people stay one night and then fuck off.” We had chosen the exact perfect place to hole up in the Highlands.

Our first formal foray into Scottish cuisine began at 1887, the Torridon Hotel’s fine dining restaurant. My friends and I arrived and were guided to a parlor resplendent with 20s glamour. We took their “which whisky are you?” quiz and looked at a map of Scotland marked with whisky distilleries and their styles. More unsure of our choice, we each ordered a whisky. I ordered the Balvenie 12 Year, a distillery owned by William Grant & Sons, who also own neighboring Glenfiddich. I brought the Balvenie to my nose and was instantly transported to the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, which I associate with sugary, rich honey. I tipped the glass to my mouth and the sweet, languorous taste of honey flowed down my throat. Later, when my Dad asked if I brought home any whisky, I promised him only the best: Balvenie 12 year.

One bottle of wine, two whiskies, and seven courses later, we arrived back at Torridon Estate. Sarah’s husband, Felix was telling his visiting friends goodnight and asked if we wanted some wine. Never to turn away a free drink, we slumped down on the vermilion couch by the fire to tipple some more.

“That’s Donald Trump’s couch, you know.” My friends and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised in confusion. Quite apart from being taken dramatically out of our holiday mindset, we weren’t sure we’d heard correctly. Felix went on to explain that Trump, having got rid of a hotel in Scotland, needed to sell its furniture, and quickly. Felix proceeded to buy several chairs and couches, and 100 pendant lights for about 10% of their retail price. Pouring us each another glass of red, Felix gallantly responded to our questions about Brexit and Scottish independence; he avoided these topics by deftly switching to praise of Angela Merkel, Germany’s progressive chancellor. Some say politics and wine don’t mix, but with the right host, and the right couch, they just might.

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Highland Games, Scotland

The next day promised a hike as the weather looked comfortable (meaning gray and 60s). Our directions from Sarah went along the lines of “stay on this side of the river and follow the path as far as it goes.” Her instructions were easy to follow; I proved less successful in convincing my friends to turn left for a climb up the mountain. Instead, we followed the straight and narrow through a valley, two imposing Munros on either side. About an hour and a half into the hike, we met two women in their 60s walking with their dogs, two charmingly bread loaf sized terriers that I’m sure would have outstripped us all. We stopped shortly for lunch, my best friend soaking her butt in a small puddle on the rock where she had chosen to roost. Although we had shed layer after layer on our slow, steady climb, the wind proved too strong for us once seated. So back we went, butt-wet and tummy-full.

As I looked at the mountains surrounding us, I had to remember to watch my step so I wouldn’t break an ankle. Moss covered every rock, slick from recent rain or the passing river. The sky changed from a faint white to raincloud gray, to palest blue, and when we could see it, the loch shimmered as the sun sparkled above. The mountains rose straight up from the sea on either side of us, looking like sleeping trolls cursed to stone forevermore.

After a few hours of “hiking”, my friends and I needed more nourishment. We drove ten minutes down the coastal road to Sheldaig Bar & Coastal Kitchen, another recommendation from Sarah. Upon entering, we noticed a Viszla dozing on the floor while a terrier sat on its owner’s lap, waiting for a stray crumb. The dogs and owners alike seemed content, talking with the bartender, and eating fries and fresh seafood. After a quick pet, we sat and perused the menu. I asked for oysters, fresh beer, and a dish of grilled goat cheese with pine nuts. Looking out at the loch beyond, feeling the cold hard pattern of the oyster shell, smelling the salt as I brought it to my nose, it was pure joy to sip it down. What more could a girl want? Another pint, of course.

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Bliss (in the form of fresh Atlantic oysters)

Our last evening at Torridon, we relaxed and dreamed about our next stop on this Gaelic culinary tour. Sitting opposite the hearth on that Trump-red couch, we talked about a doctoral dissertation, court trials, and baroque gowns, things worth working towards, in other words. Sarah, Torridon’s owner extraordinaire and femme insouciante, told of the many types of people that were coming to the area: moneyed drivers of Maseratis, a Big Pharma executive and his wife who turned the estate’s kirk into a floor-to-ceiling glass-walled marvel. It left me wondering where I fit in, with dreams of an itinerant life waylaid by the realities of bills and debt, at least temporarily. Sarah’s brash words and joyful music gave an aura of hope; if she could cast aside other demands for a life full of travellers, music, and sweet smoked salmon, why not me?

After the unexpected musings and epicurean wonders of Torridon, we headed east to Speyside- whisky country, for the uninitiated. Rather than sleeping inside old Auchinroath House, we tested the elements as we glamped. True to the name, the tents included heaters and full-size beds. Drifting off to the changing rhythm of dripping rain, comforter pulled tight around my chin, I slept for hours. I woke around four am to dawn’s dim light and a melody of birds, so I decided to explore. Walking uphill behind our tents, I came to the top of a small knoll which looked out at the rolling land all around. I could see sheep and cattle grazing for miles up and down the countless hills. Back down and around the polytunnel greenhouse, I passed four or five calves in spotted fawn to reddish-brown. They stopped and we stared at each other for a time, until I walked away announcing to their mothers, “Just taking a walk! Enjoy the grass.”

For dinner that night, we went to The Highlander Inn, a hotel, pub and restaurant local to Craigellachie- pronounced Craig-AL-icky in the local brogue. They had whisky flights, which I naively assumed would be small pours. I’m partial to whisky that tastes like it swam in a peat bog, but I wanted a whisky tasting with a bit more diversity. So, I chose the Alternative Highland Flight, and substituted one of the Scotch whiskies for a Japanese whisky. The bottle was pretty and that’s the best I can say. Six whiskies and a dinner later, we found ourselves tipsy, warm, and ready for bed. We wound our way back to our glamping tents, sure to sleep soundly under the cloud-covered stars.

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99 barrels of Scotch on the wall….

The next day, after lunch at Glenfiddich, we drove to Johnston’s of Elgin, a two-hundred-year-old wool mill with a warrant as manufacturers of estate tweed from Prince Charles. I had left the US dreaming of a soft wool blanket, a green and blue tartan to match my family’s heritage. At Johnston’s, my friend found a deeply discounted wool blanket that raised my hopes immoderately. As I sifted through utility wool blankets that scratched a bit too much, and softest cashmere that cost hundreds, I felt my hopes sink. In the next room, I passed my hand over blanket after blanket, quickly turning over price tags to find my diamond in the rough Scottish wool. I finally felt something soft but not so delicate that a spill wouldn’t ruin. I looked at the price tag and exhaled a sigh of relief. The wool was a seafoam chevron, with two patches of color-blocked light blue and creamy moss- colors of the Scottish beach.

Not long after our purchases were wrapped up with a bow, we drove to the village of Cullen. The town is famous in Scotland and beyond for its Cullen Skink, a dish made not from the slippery salamander-like reptile, but cold-smoked haddock in a rich potato-filled chowder. It was a typical Scottish day, cesious sky with rain always imminent. The drizzle came down softly, but the cold stayed in my bones as the wind from the ocean blew through me. Cullen sits on a cliff above Cullen Bay, white waves crashing into rocks that have endured its onslaught for centuries. It made for a romantic picture, but not one we wanted to experience outdoors. We headed for the nearest pub, finding one that looked like my grandmother’s living room in the 90s, framed applique included. When I went to use the bathroom, I noticed a picture of Tony the Tiger on the wood-panelled wall. I smiled at the thought of someone’s grandma sewing him onto a throw pillow.

After a pint, we had worked up an appetite, so we decided to stay in Cullen for dinner. At the Royal Oak Hotel, we ordered Cullen Skink. It came, hot in its cream ceramic bowl, ready to be indulged. Putting spoon to mouth, I sipped, then bit into some haddock and potato. The chowder tasted of ocean and bacon, the rich broth mixing it all together magically; Cullen Skink did not disappoint.

We rounded out our tour of the Highlands with a visit to the city- Glasgow, where students and hipsters mingle with dog lovers and joggers. I had read somewhere that the best haggis in Scotland could be found at The Ubiquitous Chip (so named for Scotland’s supposed chip on its shoulder). Walking from our hideaway in West Glasgow, we trotted down leafy paths with urban gardens. As we turned into the alleyway to our destination, a mingling of whitewashed buildings awaited. The restaurant itself is part greenhouse, part 1920s Paris salon, with huge skylights bathing all its plants in sun and warmth. As advised, we ordered the haggis, a Scottish dish usually made from a sheep’s internal organs, mixed with oats, seasoning, and traditionally cooked in the animal’s stomach (if that doesn’t make your mouth water, then you are completely normal). On a platter with traditional neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), the spiced venison haggis tasted slightly of anise and rich game. We returned the plate, sparkling white, in a matter of minutes.

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Pigeon, far right

We noticed another, weirder item alongside the haggis starter: pigeon salad. Never one to refuse an unorthodox meal, I asked the waitress about it. “It’s my favorite thing on the menu. I’d order it every time if I could.” I wished my stomach were emptier, so I had room for pigeon. Unable to resist, we returned the next day for late lunch and a pigeon. Dark like duck, fatty like goose, the small strips of pigeon nestled among the greens, melted on the tongue. Pigeon, rat of the air, is indeed fine dining.

Rarely do trips turn out as I expect. From fine pigeon to missed hikes, the unexpected frames how I live while away. But I also travel to escape my expectations, or at least let them drift behind while I soak in the present. An easy romp and rainy sky are perfect reasons to cozy up next to a fire, whisky in hand and slàinte mhath on my lips.

Returning home, I sat at my desk and tapped out responses in Outlook, dreaming of Scottish peaks and wild salmon. On a whim, I checked prices to Inverness for a long weekend and saw a sale on tickets from the West Coast. I set a tracker for September, hoping against hope, that sale would get me back to Torridon, where Beinn Alligin’s two Munros waited and watched, ready for me to test my luck.

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