A couple of years ago, a friend who is obsessed with golf spent a small fortune to play at Pebble Beach in California, which is rated by many as the best course in the US.
I asked him afterwards whether it was worth it. There was a long pause. “Aye,” he said, “I suppose it wasn’t bad, but then it wasn’t so good either. In fact, the best thing about it was that it reminded me of just how good the stuff we have here is.”
The same could be applied to our edible ‘stuff’, especially when the stuff in question is the seafood that comes from South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, where I recently spent a week on holiday. Apart from the regrettably intermittent appearance of the sun, which had been blazing for the previous ten weeks but which decided to play hide-and-seek as soon as I hoved into view, this was a week in foodie heaven.
On our first day we walked across acres of bog to find a secluded inlet that contained some of the biggest, fattest mussels to have ever graced a moules marinières. The next day I learnt how to find and eat the sweet meat of a raw cockle, and then practised with gusto. On another occasion, dinner consisted of feasting on a gigantic mound of langoustines that had been landed that morning and brought to our door by Callum, a local fisherman. An excursion out to the uninhabited island of Lingay, on whose pristine beach the skeleton of a 90ft Viking longboat was recently uncovered by the changing currents, saw the journey punctuated by catches of kelp-matured pollock and that most underrated of all fish, mackerel. Even our loch fishing bore fruit, yielding one breakfast-sized and suitably succulent brown trout; while our dinner that day was of hot-smoked local salmon. Finally, a week of culinary excess ended with a lobster feast in which we chose our meal from a huge creel of 80 of the creatures kept near Callum’s boat.
If there is a sad thing about this incredible bounty, it is that such a high proportion of it makes its way each week, via huge container lorries, to Barcelona, where it is rightly considered the best in Europe and attracts a huge premium. One of the many changes wrought by the current austerity on the continent, however, may be the fact that the Spanish can no longer afford to guzzle all our seafood, which would have the happy side-effect of leaving more for home-grown gluttons like me.
Not that everyone agrees: when Callum learnt that I was going out to the Polochar Inn for dinner, and was intent on eating yet more seafood, he just groaned, “Give me a steak any time.” That, though, wasn’t on my radar at this beautiful little 18th-century ferry inn, on the south-west tip of South Uist, where travellers once waited to board the boat to nearby Barra.
With a name taken from the Gaelic for ‘inlet of stone’ – there’s a neolithic standing stone right next to this waterfront pub – the Polochar Inn has established itself as the best place to eat on the island, although the whitewashed hostelry doesn’t attempt to match the haute cuisine of the much-lauded Langass Lodge, on North Uist. Still, we were impressed with the cosy dining room with its sea views, even if they were through small windows built into unfeasibly thick walls. More importantly, the place was full to overflowing – and to judge from the snatches of conversations in Gaelic, most fellow diners were locals.
The menu, which featured a high number of specials, looked homely and hearty, which was just what the Uist weather called for. As we expected, seafood was to the fore, although there was also enough steak and game to keep a squadron of Callums quiet for an evening. Still, I started off with the seafood chowder while Bea went for the smoked salmon terrine and Patrick and Bella opted for the dived scallop with pancetta and garlic. The best choices were undoubtedly the huge scallops, which were caught a short boat ride away and simply pan-fried. Bea’s tennis ball-sized local smoked salmon terrine passed muster too, with the mix of avocado and goat’s cheese that made up the interior proving far less heavy than she feared. My chowder was full of identifiable strands of scallops, cockles and pollock, all of which had been finely chopped and rather too recently put into a cream and vegetable broth so that the two elements had yet to truly mesh into one dish.
When it came to the main courses, I was once again the one who went off-shore when I chose the seafood linguine, and I was probably the least impressed with the results. Patrick’s chunky rack of lamb in a herb crust was superb, and undoubtedly the pick of the four, while Bella went for a Thai chicken curry and received slices of marinated chicken breast in a creamy lemon-grass sauce that was archetypal gastropub fare. So, too, was Bea’s Rob Roy, which consisted of large slices of chicken breast stuffed with haggis and coasted with a dark sauce that was as much whisky as cream but which seemed to hit the spot. The big scallop at the centre of my tomato-clad linguine lifted the dish, as did a langoustine, but the mussels were horribly overdone, and so put to one side.
If I was disappointed with my main course, I was equally surprised by a rich, velvety chocolate and Glayva mousse that was worthy of any city-centre restaurant and which came in such an enormous tumbler that even a sweet-toothed pudding hound like me struggled to finish it. Bella’s home-made sticky toffee pudding was good enough, but definitely second fiddle.
It’s not so long ago that eating out in South Uist wouldn’t have occurred to any but the hardiest of tourists, but this was good, solid unpretentious fare at extremely sensible prices (my seafood linguine cost just £11). The Polochar isn’t somewhere you would travel miles to visit, but the next time we’re back on the island it’s somewhere we will happily revisit.
Polochar Inn Polochar, Lochboisdale, South Uist, Western Isles (01878 700215, www.polocharinn.com) Bill please
Main courses £11-£15
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west