Review: Ullinish Lodge -a hidden gem

Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to try a meal by chef Richard Massey at Ullinish Lodge on the West Coast of Skye.
Despite living here for a year it’s not a place I knew much about; I’d heard the name here and there but never thought to investigate. Skye is a surprisingly large island with a constantly evolving hospitality scene and it’s easy to miss places that aren’t always in the main guidebooks.

home-4

Ullinish Lodge on Loch Bracadale with the Cuillins in the distance

It took just over an hour to drive there from my house. The winter nights have drawn in so quickly;  one week the evenings are light, the next it’s like the switch has been flicked off.

I bounced along the single track road in the dark and the shady outlines of sheep and deer moving just outside the beam lent an eerie feel to the journey.

I arrive at 7:30 on the dot. It’s a blustery evening so I hurriedly crunch over the gravel to escape the chill wind.

As I rush through the doors I’m greeted with warmth twice over… Firstly with cosy relief from the cold then secondly with a kind welcome from Brian, one half of the husband and wife team who run the lodge.

Inside it’s old-fashioned.

This isn’t a criticism; when coming in from the cold to the fire and soft furnishings, it’s just right. It has the feeling of a large home.

Brian shows me to the lounge where guests are invited to have drinks and canapes before moving into the dining room. I was the only person there and I took advantage of it by greedily nabbing the best sofa spot in front of the hearth.

DSC_0513

A cosy seat by the fire (with a glass of Designated Driver’s Finest, unfortunately!)

Despite still being in high season the lodge was quiet. A number of guests hadn’t turned up, perhaps they’d got lost on Skye’s endlessly wiggling single track roads?

The dining room was similarly traditional in style but the dimmer lighting softened the smartly starched white tablecloths and made it feel relaxed.

It felt like a place where the food served would be rich and French-influenced. Gentleman’s club food; lots of red wine reductions, beef fillet and other expensive but heartily robust things.

But then the amuse bouche arrived and I realised that this wasn’t going to be an average country house hotel meal…

DSC_0523

Local oyster with cucumber noodles and verbena dry ice

The little appetiser consisted of a fat, frilly oyster perfectly perched on the wide rim of a raised glass plate. As I leaned in to inspect it I was joined by the owner, Brian, armed with a teapot from which he poured a little liquid into a hole at the centre of the plate.

Being served by the host himself is a nice introduction.

From the hole came an eruption of dry ice vapour scented with lemon verbena; it swirled round the oyster and cascaded over the rim of the plate. With the fronds of seaweed poking up through the clouds it was a perfect impression of sea foam flowing onto a Skye shore.

This was pure showmanship.

The oyster was intensely creamy and left almost bare save a small nest of dressed cucumber noodles. I have a lot of respect for a chef who is confident enough in his ingredients to let them speak for themself. It also hints that this is a kitchen that uses showmanship to enhance the dining experience rather than a smoke-and-mirrors tactic to distract us from less-skilled cooking.

True to this clue both the starter and main were artful, clever dishes.

DSC_0524.JPG

My starter: ‘Roast quail breast -confit leg -button mushroom -pickled onion -raisin’

My quail starter was the kind of dish that’s so full of flavour it can only exist in starter-size. Too intense to be supersized but perfect in miniature.

Each tiny element was considered, right down to the tiny raisins that were soaked to such a level of plumpness that they were like  exploding doll-sized sweets.

The choice for mains was pork or turbot. As I don’t eat fin fish the choice was made for me. Being extra difficult I usually also avoid pork but as most of the meat at Ullinish Lodge is locally-sourced from familiar Skye-based producers such as Orbost Farm I didn’t mind making an exception.

*The menu here is a two-choice one so if you’re a particularly fussy eater (like myself) it’s really worth letting the lodge know well in advance if there’s anything you don’t eat; it’ll make everything easier for both you and the kitchen!*

DSC_0516

The local sourcing detailed on the menu

Again with the main, the balance of flavours here was spot on.

For me the ham hock croquette outshone the fillet; the little breaded parcel was intensely piggy with a satisfying saltiness that worked nicely with the milder neep pieces.

I enjoyed the playful ideas such as the apple sauce ‘apple’ (using spherification to remodel the gel back into a fruit shape).

It’s those kind of touches that show that the chef is enjoying flexing his creativity.

If I’m going to be picky about this dish I could say that perhaps it didn’t need as many elements. I could have enjoyed this dish just as much without the fillet or the pork pie, although the latter adds another fun part to some serious cooking skills.

DSC_0526.JPG

My main: ‘Lochaber pork fillet – ham hock croquette – pork pie – crackling – neeps -apple sauce’

When it comes to puddings I’m not usually that fussed.

If I’ve spied a cheese trolley meandering round a dining room I’ll usually eschew the sweet course altogether and sit in anticipation for that exciting moment when the wheels stop next to your chair and you get to peruse the tray like Augustus Gloop at a pick n’ mix counter.

Perhaps this disinterest is because I often feel like chefs play safe with puddings. Those tried and tested flavours, all delicious, but rarely as interesting and exciting as the preceding savoury courses.

DSC_0528.JPG

The cheese taster plate. For a cheese lover the selection wasn’t particularly groundbreaking but the frozen grapes were fun and the oatcakes were delicious (I’d have happily taken a box of them home!

At Ullinish you get both cheese and a pud -the best of both worlds for us indecisive gluttons.

First came a small cheese taster plate (basic but good) followed by a choice of two desserts; either a rhubarb crumble souffle or ‘dark chocolate, sour cherry, apple’.

I opted for the latter and couldn’t have been more pleased… It was a STUNNING dessert.

The not-too-sweet, cherry mousse-filled chocolate sphere that sat guarded by gently boozy cherries and zippy variations of apple is carved into my memory as one of those plates that when you think of it you smack your lips and murmur “ooh, I could eat that again right now…”

In fact, the apple components were so vibrant that the smell of fresh green juice rose off the plate even once it was gone (perhaps I just ate it so quickly that the smell didn’t even have time to dissipate!)

DSC_0529.JPG

Pudding: ‘Dark chocolate – sour cherry -apple’ (even just looking at this photo is making my mouth water…)

As I said, I’m not a pudding fan so I don’t say that lightly.

I’m lucky enough to have eaten at a lot of top restaurants…

*please excuse shameless name-dropping here*

Aikens, Ramsay, Kitchin, Kerridge, Roux… I’ve enjoyed loads of incredible meals.

But which puddings do I remember from any of those visits?

Not one.

I took my coffee and petit fours back in the sitting room.

From the modernist world of dry ice and sodium alginate I find myself once again amidst lace tablecloths and doilies.

The petit fours are the sole little reminder of the cooking that’s just gone. One was a chocolate truffle with a black-hole intensity so strong that I could barely take more than a nibble. The other was a Laphroaig marshmallow in a freeze-dried raspberry coating that was so airy it felt like it was made with the ‘angels share’. It was such a tiny part of the meal but, again, it is one that sticks in the memory.

DSC_0536

Coffee & petit fours

In fact, all of the small intermediate dishes were done well.

To stop myself from rambling (more than I already have) I’ve only focused on the main dishes. Yet the canapes, the warm breads, the palate cleanser and, of course, the petit fours were all well-executed.

I’ve got to admit that I came away from Ullinish Lodge pretty surprised.

I like to think I know a lot about the foodie scene on Skye, how did I miss this?

DSC_0517

The menu

I’d seen a couple of photos with handpicked veg and herbs from the kitchen garden on Twitter but that was about all I knew about this restaurant…

(FYI, the little microgreens on each plate weren’t always necessary. Though in the case of that pudding they gave a barely-perceptible note of pepperiness.

But, the idea made me smile -a little example of a chef who takes joy in growing his own produce)

Not only that, the entire meal is priced at £55 before drinks and service. For this level of cooking that’s fantastic value.

*For transparency’s sake I must state that I was treated to this meal by the folks at the lodge. However, you mustn’t take that as a sign that my praise has been bought. If it was a crap meal I’d say so. Or at least, I’d just give a very brief, factual description of the food and leave you to realise the rest!*

DSC_0538

Looking from the lounge into the reception

If you were to ask me to sum up Ullinish in brief I would say that it’s like a embodiment of Skye itself, a condensed example of this island as a whole…

On the face it’s traditional, homely, perhaps even slightly old-fashioned… BUT if you look properly then you’ll notice there’s something exciting happening at the same time, something creative and skilled and very interesting indeed.

I really liked it here, this hidden gem, this won’t be my only visit.

Mackerel!

Mackerel stripes

How do you spot someone who really loves their food?
Well, they’re the ones who manage to write an almost 1000-word blog post about a single ingredient…

***

So, recently I’ve felt like I haven’t done a lot in the way of proper hands-on marine conservation. There are things in the pipeline… beach cleans, a few training courses, Art For Oceans stuff… but they’re still a few weeks off yet.

To make up for this I’ve been trying to do a little ‘mini beach clean’ every time I go for a walk along the shore.
It doesn’t take any effort to bundle an extra bin bag into a coat pocket just in case. Plus it’s no hardship to pick a few bits up here and there.

On a recent visit to Camus More, a local beach in the North of Skye, I did just that. I’d been in the studio for days on end and needed some fresh air so threw on my wellies and went to find a sea breeze.

A quickly-filled bag

A quickly-filled bag

It never takes long to fill a bag. Soon I was lugging around a big bundle of old rope, crumpled milk bottles and plastic strapping.
Once full to the top I flung it over my shoulder like a really rubbish Father Christmas and picked my way back up the rocks to the car.

To road to Camus More leads onto a pier and at the top I came across a couple of fishermen gutting and filleting a box of fish. I’d seen them take their little boat out only an hour or so before. It had obviously been a successful trip.

We chatted for a while and they ended up giving me two beautiful mackerel. Firm and iridescent, they were probably the freshest fish I’ve ever had in my hands (well, apart from live ones).
They joked about my fish-matching trousers as I left.

Unintentional co-ordination

Unintentional co-ordination

I cleaned a beach and was rewarded with a gift. That’s some pretty instant ocean karma right there!

Now, as a rule I generally don’t eat fin fish.

Most people involved in marine conservation wont touch seafood.
This isn’t because of some mermaid-like affinity with fish; it’s because they’re aware of the pressures of the fishing industry on marine habitat. The realities of commercial fishing can be really shocking, especially when it comes to bycatch and catch-size.

Scientists estimate that for every pound of shrimp that's caught, up to 10 pounds of other marine life is discarded. That's things like turtles, birds, dolphins, sharks and other important and precious marine wildlife.

Scientists estimate that for every pound of shrimp that’s caught, up to 10 pounds of other marine life is discarded. That’s things like turtles, birds, dolphins, sharks and other important and precious marine wildlife.

But a couple of fisherman landing a few mackerel isn’t commercial fishing.
I watched them catch the fish with lines and hooks; no bycatch or dodgy fishing methods involved here.
Bar not trying to catch anything at all, this is the most sustainable way to fish that there is (in fact, fishing like this is something that I’ve wanted to try myself on Skye but it’s just another thing I’ve yet to get around to doing).

I also think that, if we do have to eat fish at all, it should be a one-off treat sourced from individuals and small businesses rather than the huge trawler ships that supply our supermarkets. Sustainability should also consider livelihoods; to be pro-conservation isn’t necessarily being anti-fishermen.

*Right, end of marine conservation talk (unless you’re genuinely interested, in which case please see me after class)*

Anyway, I was thrilled with this gift and I my conscience was happy to take them too.
Despite a few unsuccessful attempts to catch my own salmon (turns out I suck at fly-fishing) this was the first time I’d get to eat fish in over a year.

All the gear and no idea; my first attempt at fly fishing for salmon

All the gear and no idea (my first attempt at fly fishing for salmon on Lewis)

At home I made my first attempt at gutting them.
I was pleasantly surprised to find it so easy. Those who complain about gutting fish have obviously never had to tackle something like a goose.

It’s impossible to ignore how beautiful these fish are; their holographic skin and tiger stripes shone bright under the running tap water.
Strange how something so pretty has been relegated to just another everyday ingredient in a British shopping trolley…

Holographic creatures

Holographic skin

It hadn’t even been an hour since they’d left the ocean.
Mackerel is always best eaten on the same day it’s caught but it’s rare to find some this fresh. I’d make the most of it and eat the first one raw.

Before I gave up fish my #1 favourite food was sashimi; there’s a subtlety and cleanliness to it that I find delicious. I’ve missed it.

A foodie’s anticipation in returning to their most desired dish cannot be underestimated; greed is a force to be reckoned with.
My ham-fisted attempts at filleting had no effect on the taste; it was perfect.

Simple sashimi

Simple sashimi

I sipped my wine and pondered course two.
Ceviche.
Lime, chilli, coriander, spices. Eaten before I could contemplate taking a photo.

Course three…
How far can you stretch just two mackerel?
I’d made some bread dough earlier so I stretched out a disc and floured it. In a smoking pan it became a flatbtread accompaniment to go alongside the second fish, simply grilled with a simple squeeze of lemon and a dollop of aioli.

Grilled with homemade flatbreads

Grilled with homemade flatbreads

Could I eke out a fourth course?

It would have been trickier if I hadn’t made such a rubbish attempt at filleting the first one. My beginners attempts left me with enough offcuts to fry up and mash with some lemon, butter and pepper.
Spread onto pieces of toasted flatbread these made tasty little pate canapes.
Short of making a stock with the bones, I’d used up every little bit of mackerel that I could.

There’s a lot of talk in foodie circles of ‘doing an animal justice’ and using (and respecting) every part. I think it’s safe to say that my mackerel were appreciated as much as they possibly could be.

Because of my interests in conservation and animal welfare I’ve always had a complicated relationship to meat/animal products.
Since moving to Skye my food choices have shifted more rapidly. Although I’m happy to eat eggs now I can see the chickens, seeing the bond between the cows and their calves on the croft makes it difficult for me to justify eating dairy. My diet is mostly vegan now.

But I still think that ‘wild’ food is wonderful when there’s enough of it to eat once in a while as a treat.
Maybe next year things might have changed but for now I’m looking forward to the next time I bump into some generous fishermen. I’ve got the wasabi ready.

11950821_570887097743_1262220921_n

The Failed Forager


I’m quite a keen ‘foodie’ and the ethics of food production play a big part in my life. Over the last few years I’ve been on quite a journey in learning about where our animal products come from and my diet is constantly evolving to reflect that.

If I explain my eating habits here I’d be writing you an essay. Maybe I’ll write about it another time.
(For example, I don’t eat fin fish because of my views on industrial fishing and fish farming but I will eat it if I ever manage to catch one. I’ll eat a creel-caught prawn but not a dredged one. I’ll eat mussels to encourage bivalve farming. Etc, etc, yawn, yawn…)

I loved Greenpeace's overfishing-themed field at Glastonbury this year

I loved Greenpeace’s overfishing-themed field at Glastonbury this year

Ultimately, my main food/life goal is to only eat animal products that I’ve reared/caught/grown myself or that I’ve seen reared/caught/grown. (I’m actually almost there but since I don’t have any animals it’s more that I’m just defaulting to being a vegetarian or vegan!)
With this in mind, coming to a place like Skye which is so rich in wild natural produce was incredibly exciting. I could finally start to forage for more than just blackberries and wild garlic.


The wild food world is now my hand-dived non-native oyster.

Some of my favourite foraging books

Some of my favourite foraging books

Despite reading all the books and doing the research I’ve actually spent very little time foraging. For no reason other than that I’ve just not really gotten round to it.

However, when I did actually take my first steps into the foraging foray it didn’t go quite to plan…

***

I was down at Flodigarry looking for fossils at low tide when I noticed how many big, fat winkles there were all over the rocks. For anyone who doesn’t know, winkles are little dark brown gastropods commonly found on rocks at the seashore. They’re actually a distant relative of the regular garden snail.

(There’s an advert in the West Highland Free Press that’s simply a phone number with the words ‘LARGE WINKLES WANTED’ above. It says something about my maturity level that this still amuses me)

Fossil and mineral hunting at Flodigarry (I think this beautifully-coloured stone is a form of ammolite)

Fossil and mineral hunting at Flodigarry (I think this beautifully-coloured stone is a form of ammolite)

Anyway, I spotted these winkles as a perfect introduction to my new foraging hobby. The great thing about these being that they’re easy to identify, they’re relatively safe whatever the water quality and, importantly for me, they’re not exactly difficult to catch!

So I picked the healthiest-looking ones off of the rocks and plonked them into my saltwater-filled water canister.
Once home I collected a bowl of seawater from the bay to purge them in (this is the process of putting them in clean, clear water for a couple of hours to let their digestive tracts clear of grit and sand. Delightful)

Whilst I was down there I picked a few handfuls of bright green, stringy gutweed. I was yet to try it but it’s apparently one of the best seaweeds to use raw in an Asian-style salad.

Back in the kitchen I plopped the winkles into the clean water and set it aside whilst I got on with other things.
I got out the pans, made some garlic butter, put some white wine in the fridge, turned the oven on to warm some bread.
I checked on the winkles. Little black antenna were beginning to emerge from the dark grey shells.

The winkles in their bowl with a few stray pieces of gutweed

The winkles in their bowl with a few stray pieces of gutweed

I decided to a bit of washing up.

As I put a mug on the drying rack it bumped the winkle bowl. The little snails, now fully emerged from their shells, flinched.
I caught the movement in the corner of my eye and peered into the bowl.
I gently tapped the rim.
They flinched again, their tiny little antenna drawing back in nervously then slowly peeping back out to make sure the coast was clear.

I couldn’t do it.

Within a couple of minutes I was in the car on the way to the bay with the bowl of winkles splish sploshing on the seat next to me (I have no idea why I decided to drive, it’s literally just a few minutes walk to the water. But that’s nothing to do with the story…)
Hugging the bowl to my chest I picked my way over the rocks to the shoreline, splashing myself as I slipped on the seaweed.
At the water I took 5 at a time and placed them carefully into different crevices and pools… Free Winkle!

Back in the house I put the pans away, threw out the garlic butter and made myself a cheese sandwich.

Kilmaluag Bay

Kilmaluag Bay

I’ve had winkles before but I just don’t like them enough to kill about 30 in one go just for the fun of learning to forage. I doubt I’ll ever have them again actually, it’s not really worth it.
It’s funny, I’ve shot a deer on a stalk and was fine with it but I couldn’t do this. It’s not that enjoying eating venison is worth killing for and garlic butter winkles aren’t, I think all species deserve to be treated equally (and actually, I’m beginning to think that nothing’s worth sacrificing just for a plate of food now). Maybe it’s that the hind was in too poor condition to last the winter and was going to be culled anyway, the winkles weren’t of course…
I don’t know, it’s something I need to work out myself and it’s definitely a post for another time.

What I do know, however, is that there are about 30 slimy little incomers to Kilmaluag Bay who have a strange story to tell about a Big Day Out.