When word got out that The Grapevine, a sleek Scandi-style paper launched last year in the north of Scotland by young entrepreneur Alex MacLeod, was hooking up with New Nordic-inspired Hebridean chef Murdo Alex Macritchie, a twitter storm whipped up across the Cairngorms.
They were to hold their first supper club at the National Trust’s state-of-the-art Battle of Culloden site at the beginning of April, and there was a race to bag a seat at the communal table – the three-night event sold out within days, highlighting the hunger in the Highlands for the kind of inventive cuisine that often seems to have stalled halfway up the A9.
The last-minute change of venue, from striking, modern architectural backdrop to rough and rural Bogbain Farm outside Inverness, felt like a less comfortable fit – until, that is, we were ushered into the old byre.
The narrow barn had been transformed into a theatrical stage set, the rafters strung with foraged foliage, the long trestle tables and church pews lit by flickering candles. The room rustled with anticipation as the first dish of the 15-course tasting menu appeared – Macritchie’s reinvention of Ceann Cropaig, a traditional Hebridean meal of fish liver and oatmeal cooked in a cod’s head.
Born on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Macritchie launched Haar, a series of pop up dining experiences, to pioneer New Hebridean cuisine at the end of last year. His aim: to shake the dustsheets off forgotten Gaelic dishes and give them a contemporary makeover.
His version of Ceann Cropaig starts as pinhead oatmeal porridge made with cod’s head fish stock, liver, brown crabmeat and cream. The thinly spread mixture is then dehydrated to form crackers, which are topped with white crab and smoked scallop roe – a clever, crab-laden crispbread.
Marag Dhubh, meanwhile, was a slither of Stornoway black pudding on a soft warm potato scone with a sweet dollop of last summer’s gooseberry and elderflower jam cutting through the earthiness. Langoustine on a cocktail stick, chicken satay-style, had been roasted in chicken dripping with chicken skin ‘crumble’ (those bits you scrape off the bottom of your roasting tray) with a pungent prune and elderberry purée: a surf ‘n’turf-style moreish morsel.
A gamey mini scotch pie on a piece of Harris Tweed was topped with a sheep’s curd, pickled onion and dried moor berries, while rabbit haggis hopped off a bed of pine, the fiery deep-fried mouthful (this is Scotland) calmed by an intensely creamy leek emulsion.
A break for bread and butter: malted barley and dulse bread with a slab of seaweed butter, served in Harris Tweed and hessian basket was a reminder of how good ‘simple’ can be.
The standout dish, though, was salt mackerel with frozen buttermilk, celery jam and fermented rhubarb a palate-pricking explosion of fresh flavours each hitting your tastebuds separately like machine-gun fire. And a stark contrast to the next course, the lifted lid of a mini casserole dish releasing a puff of peat smoke and revealing a mound of soft potato and crisped skin – like a warm hug designed to evoke the memory of potatoes cooked over a smoldering peat fire.
The courses careered on, the marathon meal meandering around the islands and crofting communities highlighting the produce of land and sea. Hebridean hogget with a soft scoop of crowdie cheese, beetroot and barley porridge and a sprinkling of dried rosehip hailed from a croft on the isle of Berneray.
Dessert – salted whey caramel, sheep’s yogurt, compressed apple, mint and Isle of Harris gin was another highlight. A complex layering of flavours from the pool of salty caramel to the tangy yogurt mousse and meringue, tart cubes of apple and a mint, gin and tonic granita – like a minty G&T slush puppy: plate-scraping in stereo.
“Where else do you pop up?” one guest asked the chef at work. Macritchie’s day job is cooking for Claudia Schiffer but he hopes to pop up in Edinburgh in the summer and on the Isle of Mull this autumn. You heard it on the Grapevine, which also plans another supper club soon…
Grapevine & Haar Supper Club cost £95 per person
Written by Lucy Gillmore, April 2016
Images by Murdo Alex Macritchie
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