Looking for Braemar restaurants? Want to know where to eat in Ballater? Head on a foodie road trip through Royal Deeside, stopping off at roadside restaurants, Scottish villages and whisky distilleries.
The Fife Arms, Braemar
The dramatic restoration and reinvention of The Fife Arms has been causing ripples across the country. The visionary redesign of this Victorian hotel is the most exciting thing to happen here since Queen Victoria breezed in, searching for a Highland holiday home. She bagged Balmoral Castle and kickstarted tourism in the region. Proud locals added ‘Royal’ to Deeside as an early marketing ploy.
At the time, The Fife Arms was a small coaching inn, but it soon grew into a grand hotel catering to those tourists flocking to the region. Now owners Iwan and Manuela Wirth have given the grey granite building a new lease of life. The couple are behind Durslade Farmhouse and Roth Bar & Grill in Somerset, along with gallery Hauser & Wirth; contemporary art, as well as culinary creativity, is at the hotel’s heart. Works have been commissioned from artists including Zhang Enli and James Prosek.
Braemar, famous for its Highland Games, is close to the centre of the Cairngorms National Park, and each of the hotel’s 46 sleek bedrooms has been designed to reflect its Highland heritage, named after local characters (the crofter, the stalker, the mountaineer) or figures associated with the region, such as Robert Louis Stevenson (who penned Treasure Island in Braemar) and Lord Byron (whose poem Dark Lochnagar was inspired by his time there).
The Wirths have drafted in a talented team headed by Federica Bertolini, fresh from Olga Polizzi’s Cornish gem, Hotel Tresanton. Executive head chef Robert Cameron’s career has taken him from his native Glasgow (where he worked for Nick Nairn in the 90s) to the Dubai royal family’s yacht. Along the way he’s cooked for the Scottish Parliament and the Queen for her 80th birthday bash at Highgrove.
Now back on home turf, Robert is playing with fire – literally. The centrepiece of the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, The Clunie, is a wood-fired barbecue designed by Swedish chef and master of fire, Niklas Ekstedt. The menu showcases the fruits of the Caledonian forest, along with wild venison, grouse and hare from nearby estates, organic lamb (Hebridean) and grass-fed beef (Belted Galloway) from Wark Farm (warkfarm.co.uk) and rare-breed Berkshire pork from Balnault Farm.
Robert has also brought in Natasha Lloyd, a local forager and herbalist specialising in wild nutrition, as a botanical consultant, working with the kitchen to create a range of natural condiments, as well as bespoke balms for the spa (@plant_ideas).
At the hotel, Natasha produces a Little Red Riding Hood basket of bottles and a tub of nettle seed, sea salt and sesame seed gomasio (a Japanese-style dry condiment). She pours me a spoonful of rowan syrup. Its bold berry bitterness catches the back of my throat. A lime flower syrup has the fragrance of earl grey tea. “Perfect with poached prunes at breakfast,” says Robert. Yarrow syrup is aromatic and delicate – the flavour lingers. “It might work as a sorbet.
“We’re also going to try some ferments,” he explains, as Natasha opens a pungent pot. “The kimchi is for a vegetable platter in the bar.” Wild garlic seed oil is subtle, not overpowering, green leaves coming through; while chunky hawthorn ketchup packs a spiky punch.
The final bottle is the most precious: silver birch syrup, Royal Deeside’s culinary jewel in the crown. The area is famous for its silver birch trees and, while it takes 40 litres of maple sap to create one litre of maple syrup, for silver birch the ratio is 100 to one. It’s sweet and clear but earthily grounded. It reminds me of something: “Syrup of figs…”
The Fife Arms bar was once the heart of the village and has become so once again. On its menu you’ll find all the things that Robert believes should be on a Scottish pub menu, from game pie, homemade haggis, neeps and tatties to clootie dumpling (a fruity steamed pudding). The Highlands has been crying out for a hotel of this calibre – one whose culinary credentials might also include the best afternoon tea north of Hadrian’s Wall. An exaggerated claim? Not when you learn that Robert also managed to squeeze in a stint at Fortnum & Mason.
Tea is taken in an elegant drawing room overlooking the tumbling waters of Clunie Water, the walls clad in bespoke tartan designed by Araminta Campbell (who also created the hotel’s tartan), the ceiling transformed into a swirling work of art. It’s a very Scottish afternoon tea – the clotted cream isn’t from Devon but from the Borders. Brenda Leddy, of Stichill Jerseys near Kelso, is Scotland’s only clotted cream producer.
Other passionate producers that have caught Robert’s eye include Lost Loch Spirits, near Aboyne, where Peter Dignan and Richard Pierce create a clutch of quirky spirits including whisky-based Haroosh, infused with blackberries and local honey, and Murmichan, the first Scottish absinthe. Then there’s Piggery-Smokery, self-styled “baconeers”, Mark and Su Reynolds, smoke the bacon in their back garden. Their Pepperback Finn is smoked with peppercorns and juniper to give it a warm, homestead-fire style, while Dark Dubhloch’s flavour comes from treacle and ale.
Royal Lochnagar Distillery, Braemar
The bijou Royal Lochnagar Distillery, on the edge of the Balmoral Estate just a caber’s throw from Braemar was founded in 1826 by James Robertson. In the shadow of Lochnagar mountain, it is impossibly picturesque. The 12-year-old whisky has a green, grassy character, with apple pie and brown sugar on the nose. “Queen Victoria visited in 1848. She liked the whisky mixed with claret,” manager Claire Fraser smiles.
Esker Spirits, Aboyne
A scenic hour’s drive east from Braemar, the Kincardine Estate is home to the Esker gin distillery. Steven and Lynne Duthie first started experimenting with a one-litre copper still in their kitchen, then, in 2017, expanded into a steading on the estate. The couple wanted to create a classic gin, complemented by the tonic and garnish rather than defined by them. To do that they use more than a dozen botanicals, including rosehips, heather flowers and pink peppercorns, though the gin’s key botanical is silver birch sap from trees on the Kincardine Estate. “There’s a four-week window in the spring when the sap is rising and you can tap the trees.” Steven pours a splash into a glass and we nose the gin. First there’s the juniper hit, then citrus and spice, and, finally, the birch sap’s telltale sweetness. They suggest serving it with a twist of orange zest.
Platform 22, Torphins
In the village of Torphins is Platform 22, a quirky cafe run by artist and potter Emma Pattullo. The soup is sold out on my visit, so I plump for the homemade hummus and sweet, nutty dukkah platter with flatbreads. While I eat Emma tells me they hold an outdoor market every Wednesday and, on Thursdays, they host pizza nights with Lily’s Dough, cooking from a wood oven in an old horsebox parked in the yard. The café also stocks artisan loaves from the Highlanders Bakehouse; before leaving I buy one of its black breads, laden with caraway seeds, treacle and dark chocolate. Its deep, dark earthiness has such richness. If you want to buy direct, look for the outside stall and honesty box in nearby Crathie.
The Seed Box, Ballogie
Another inspiring local story belongs to one-time shepherdess, Belinda Rowlands. Five years ago she set up a social enterprise in the walled garden on Ballogie Estate to provide outdoor therapy and horticultural training for adults with additional needs. Back then, the garden was abandoned, untouched for years. Today, however, the beds at The Seed Box are brimming with vegetables. The organisation’s veg box scheme uses Platform 22 (see above) as a collection point for customers, and sells fruit, veg and eggs at local farmers’ markets. On my visit I discover a greenhouse full of apples. “We’re about to make juice to sell at the markets,” explains Belinda.
Roaring Stag, Ballater
In Ballater, an elegant Victorian resort with wide leafy streets lined with delis and cafés, you’ll find local coffee roaster Roaring Stag. I buy a bag of Dark Lochnagar – full-bodied beans with notes of red berries and chocolate.
Shorty’s Ice Cream Parlour, Ballater
Retro Shorty’s Ice Cream Parlour heaves both in summer and winter. In the colder months tocals queue for decadent ice cream sundaes, frothing with whipped cream and hot chocolate sauce. Owner Cheryl Littlewood’s many flavours include Ballater cream, raspberry cranachan and Irn-Bru sorbet, but don’t miss the Scottish tablet with its pure, creamy fudge flavour.
More information about Royal Deeside
Doubles at The Fife Arms start from £250, b&b. For more info: visitabdn.com
Words by Lucy Gillmore
April 2019 update: Robert Cameron is no longer at the Fife Arms