Oysters: that sharp shuck exposing glistening flesh, a squirt of lemon, then salty softness – I love them. But, after a spectacular case of food poisoning, oysters no longer love me. So it’s with a masochistic sigh that I approach The Oyster Shed, on Skye’s Minginish Peninsula.
Fisherman Kenny Bain set up Skye’s only oyster farm in tidal Loch Harport in 1981, passing it on to his son-in-law Paul McGlynn. A virus wiped out half the stock in 2011 and almost closed them down until Paul had the idea of setting up the shed and seafood van. Now, freshly-plucked oysters are served in little polystyrene trays with slices of lemon. It’s a no-nonsense, spit ‘n’ sawdust place (there are no toilets – nip down the lane for a dram at Talisker Distillery and you can use theirs) where walkers in woolly hats tuck into lobster and chips, whisky-smoked salmon and crab claws. This is fast food Skye-style: have a cup of fragrant, steaming fish bisque before spearing sweet, pan-fried scallops with a cocktail stick.
The largest of the Inner Hebridean islands, 48 miles long by 25 miles at its widest point, Skye exerts an almost magnetic attraction, its raw grandeur drawing mountain bikers, munro-baggers and filmmakers. The unforgiving Cuillins are the Holy Grail for climbers, while director Justin Kurzel shot much of his recent, moody, adaptation of Macbeth on the island’s storm-lashed Trotternish Peninsula.
It’s perfect road trip territory for gourmet travellers, the single-track lanes snaking over heather-sprung moorland and clifftops peppered with cosy cafés, artisan bakeries and destination restaurants, the most famous of them being The Three Chimneys.
Shirley and Eddie Spears washed up on Skye in 1985, and transformed a clutch of whitewashed houses at Calbost, a pebble’s throw from gloomy Dunvegan Castle, into a much-lauded restaurant. This summer, following the departure of chef-director Michael Smith, The Three Chimneys welcomed Masterchef 2013 finalist Scott Davies as its new head chef, and he’s making his mark. His flavoured butters with wisps of smoked heather or dulse and sea salt, slicked on sourdough, are a great innovation.
The Skye showcase tasting menu focuses on ingredients from the surrounding crofts. Skye’s rugged landscapes might not suggest bounty, but the local farmers, foragers and fishermen supply impressive produce, from Bracadale brown crab and Loch Dunvegan lobster to twice-dived scallops from Sconser. The standout dish – flaked smoked haddock with yogurt, horseradish, brown bread and honey – has a delicate freshness that leaves just the right amount of space for a hot marmalade soufflé with Drambuie syrup.
After dinner, we stumble next door to sleep at the House-over-By with its wooden floors, calm duck egg blue paintwork and sheepskin rugs, before waking for breakfast – crunchy homemade granola, fresh fruit and porridge – eaten gazing at seals.
Next stop is new B&B, Mint Croft, where Shaz and Ali Morton spent three years renovating what were derelict buildings. Now a working croft again, it has a herb garden, free-range chickens and, soon, will have Hebridean sheep. The food is organic, with bacon and sausages from Orbost Farm’s pigs, homemade marmalade, granola, tattie scones and mint tea from the garden. During the winter, Shaz offers dinners of local venison, juniper, onion compote and buttered rainbow kale.
Continuing along the coast, we make for the Single Track Café at Kilmaluag. The strikingly contemporary wooden house and artist’s studio, turned tiny espresso bar and gallery, does a great line in homemade cakes and hot chocolate.
Make sure you leave space for pie – a few miles further on, The Glenview restaurant with rooms has been snapping at the heels of the Three Chimneys with its funky retro décor and skillful cooking from Australian chef Simon Wallwork. This year, however, it’s taken a new direction with the opening of an art, craft and artisan food store and the restaurant has become the Skye Pie Café.
Simon makes the pies’ pastry and fillings by hand (from west coast crab to venison and juniper). Walkers can opt for a takeaway, but it’s a shame not to pull up a chair, surrounded by baskets of knitting and pompoms made by the café’s customers, to tuck into a game pie: hearty chunks of venison, rabbit and pigeon served with local leaves and flowers.
While the Glenview has gone from restaurant to pop-up (a supper club also runs on the last Saturday of every month), Scorrybreac, in Portree, has swung the other way, with chef Calum Munro winning a following for his deft cooking. In Portree, hikers should also make a bee line for the South African-run Isle of Skye Baking Co, to stock up on its signature lunch breads (try the chilli venison chorizo with butternut squash baked into the bread).
The island’s ability to attract far-flung culinary talent extends to Kinloch Lodge. Here, on the shore of the island’s gentler, greener, Sleat Peninsula, there’s a log fire in the drawing room, family photos in the bar, and a library of cookbooks paying tribute to owner Lady Claire Macdonald’s position as the grand dame of Scottish cookery. But thanks to the Michelin-starred restaurant’s head chef, Brazilian-born Marcello Tully, the menus are anything but traditional.
Perched at the kitchen table – a bench by a window overlooking the kitchen – I sample a faultless tasting menu; even a modestly named dish of sweet and salt corn turned out to be a creamy foam.
The next morning I’m back in the kitchen for a cookery course with a difference, joining a working hotel kitchen in preparing dishes for the day, picking up Michelin-level cooking tips along the way.
Afterwards, I pull on my waterproofs and amble down to the riverbank for a fish-and-cook experience with Skye Ghillie, fly-fishing for brown trout before cooking my catch on the shore with Marcello: straight from river to plate in a matter of minutes.
Written by Lucy Gillmore
First published January 2016
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