A lone Shetland scallop sits on a plate, a single pod of peas by its side. A sprig of herbs and a bit of a mustard sauce finish the picture – a bold statement of confidence that says, “This is Scottish cuisine.”
When it comes to preparing gourmet meals, Chef Ross Stovoldon, on the Isle of Eriska, says his ingredients are the star of the show. “If I have an exceptional scallop, all I have to do is cook it properly. To start messing around with it – turn it into a scallop mousse and serve it with a Thai broth – doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The scallop was, in fact, superb – one of eleven courses of the tasting menu designed to showcase the best food that Scotland’s Highlands have to offer. We had begun our culinary tour of Scotland as guests on the Isle of Eriska, a Relais & Chateaux property, and we were already impressed.
The Isle of Eriska – Hotel, Spa, and Island
The clientele who stay at the resort, a private island at the mouth of Loch Creran on the west coast of Scotland, come to enjoy quiet luxury in a pastoral setting. It took us about four hours to drive from Edinburgh, where our flight from the U.S. had landed that morning, but we could already feel the tension dissolving as we approached the main house – a stately home that sits amid lush greenery, beautiful flowers, and a variety of well-kept trees at the end of a gravel path just wide enough for one car.
In addition to the rooms in the main house, the resort features spacious two-room suites, each complete with its own hot tub in a secluded back yard.
The island offers walking paths — up the hill and through the woods for a better view, for example, or around the golf courses and along the beach, where the otters come to play in the high tide. There are also a big pool, tennis courts, a golf course, and a spa.
Hospitality – A Family Affair
The estate has been in the same family for 42 years. Today, it is owned and managed by Beppo Buchanan-Smith, whose parents bought the island in 1973, when it was in disrepair. The key to bringing it to its current state of luxury, he says, was to capitalize on the inherent strengths of the beautiful property.
“We decided to make the most of what we have,” explained Buchanan-Smith, “and what we have in infinite supply are tranquility and Scottish hospitality.” And now, with the addition of Chef Stovoldon, Eriska can provide an exciting array of locally-sourced, high-quality food.
Stovoldon says building relationships with vendors is the key to maintaining the standards guests of this high-end hide-away have come to expect.
“I invite them to have dinner, so they can see what I am going to be doing with their product,” the chef explains. “I want the best ingredient possible, because I am not going to mess around with it.”
For some ingredients, such as wild garlic, hazelnuts, and kelp, Stovoldon doesn’t need a supplier. They are harvested right there on the island.
As a 17-year-old sous-chef working for Stovoldon, Fraser Cooper learns not only useful kitchen skills, like filleting a halibut, but also how to forage for edibles around the island. Whether he is picking greens from the hot house on the grounds, harvesting seaweed off the pier, or collecting moss in the woods to flavor a dish, Cooper is becoming familiar with the richness of Scotland’s natural pantry.
Making the Bounty Last All Year
Of course, in Scotland, fresh ingredients are seasonal, which means they are not available for much of the year. Chef Stovoldon’s solution is to plan menus roughly a year in advance, stocking up when the ingredients are available, and using old-fashioned (tried and true) techniques for preserving the quality of each piece of the culinary puzzle.
As the season for root vegetables ends, for example, Stovoldon will buy for the future, then bury the goods in boxes of sand. This method, which he calls “clamping,” preserves the freshness of the vegetables by stopping their aging process.
To keep meat as fresh as the day it was delivered, Stovoldon encases each piece in a shell of beef fat. Lathered on and allowed to harden, the fat provides an environment in which the meat can continue to age, but won’t disappoint. The piece he showed us was being kept fresh for that night’s steak tartare, which was delicious.
The tasting menu provided us with one exquisite treat after another – lamb from Argyll, haddock from the Isle of Gigha, mussels from Glen Coe. Our epicurean tour of the highlands had just begun, but with his creativity and talent, Stovoldon had already made it clear that Scottish food has evolved beyond haggis, tates, and neeps.