I sat inside a cozy lounge just off the main hall of the Cluny Bank Hotel and gazed at an array of Benromach whisky. The early nineteenth-century hotel, with its distinctive salmon-colored scrollwork framing the underside of the eaves, loomed over a beautiful street on the southern outskirts of Forres, Scotland. I was wearing my “foodie kilt” and eager to serve my stomach respite from the continuous assault of deep-fried fish and chips. I’ll refrain from discussing the copious platters of chips with curry sauce I’d previously gorged on.
I wouldn’t typically call myself a foodie. Dining on artful delicacies and pausing mid-chew to make faces of such satiety they border on lewdness is definitely in my portfolio, but I’m too strapped for cash to make it a habit. Being the glorious winner of the Best Holiday in the World from MoraySpeyside Tourism, however, provided the perfect opportunity for me to work out those face muscles over a series of magnificent meals. I’m on an unofficial mission to prove Scotland’s cuisine isn’t a fried, boiled, veggie-less ball of suck.
After a few nibbles and the start of a pint, Julia Kenny, co-owner of the Cluny Bank, led me into the spacious dining room of Franklin’s Restaurant. A large bay window lit up the amuse-bouche Lloyd Kenny, master chef and recipient of a Medaille d’Or, placed in front of me. A crisp bite of Parmesan cheese and rocket (arugula) drizzled with miso sauce, it sparked my palate with a salty tang that had me craving the first course. Lloyd personally brought out each dish and chatted with the diners. It gave him a chance to exercise his rustic charm and gregarious personality, which I found to be akin to the character of Lister from the TV series Red Dwarf.
I had chosen the orange and tomato soup as my first course back in the lounge. Both flavors were balanced well, but I craved something more substantial after the amuse-bouche. My fault. Then out came the Angus beef topped with foie gras. You know that semi-lewd face I mentioned? I’m pretty sure that was on display the entire time I enjoyed this tender and rich dish. It was my first experience with foie gras, and I found its rich savoriness to marry well with the flavor and texture of the beef. It was a dish to remember.
After a tastefully small lemon granita, Lloyd brought out the marmalade pudding with creme Anglaise. The sweetness was nicely moderated, and the dessert proved to be a satisfying end to the meal. Lloyd showed himself to be both a showman and a master of texture and flavor in his dishes. Hark, foodies! Here be hope!
The following day I drove south to Speyside for dinner at The Mash Tun in Aberlour. I’d had drinks here on previous visits to Scotland, and I was eager to give their menu a test drive. The Mash Tun is a pretty, round-faced building along the River Spey renown for its whisky selection. Food-wise, they fill a mostly empty niche in Scottish cuisine: gastropub.
Dinner kicked off with lemongrass-marinated king prawn skewers over a bed of fresh greens. The mustard-infused marinade overpowered the prawns, and, while tasty, the dish didn’t knock my foodie kilt askew. The main course, however, absolutely delivered. A salad of smoked salmon, black pudding, new potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and micro greens hit on all cylinders. The cool smokiness of the fish paired perfectly with the rich and peppery black pudding. The fresh veggies, incredibly hard to find in common Scottish fare, brightened up the dish while the potatoes added substance. A light vinaigrette brought in some pleasant sourness as well. I would order this again. And again.
After a restful night in The Mash Tun’s inviting rooms, I returned to the Forres area for a light lunch at the Knockomie Hotel. Gavin Ellis has been running the show here for 18 years, and his cool early nineteenth-century hotel looks like it’s received a lot of love in that time. He welcomed me warmly and ushered me into the bar area where we chatted about life changes and Chris Guillebeau (yeah, a bit weird).
First course came on a narrow platter with three distinct elements: cold potted rabbit, crisp croutons, and a gooseberry chutney. A layer of gelatinous fat covered the shredded rabbit beneath, which was pleasantly chewy and gamey. Mixed with the crunchy croutons and tart chutney, the flavor of the rabbit really came to the fore. This dish was winning.
Finally, the last dish in my foodie marathon through Moray: a couple of voluptuous salmon and crab fish cakes with lemon and dill mayonnaise. Though fried on the outside, these golden-brown nuggets of seafood loveliness weren’t heavy. The sweetness of the crab and salmon appeared when touched with the mayo.
It might take a little extra legwork to find places like the Cluny Bank Hotel, The Mash Tun, and the Knockomie Hotel around Scotland, but they’re there. It’s not all fish and chips. Let the foodies of the world cast their eyes on Scotland and rejoice.