CAN there be a more spec-tacular drive in Scotland than taking the long way round to Applecross, along the bank of Loch Duich, past Eilean Donan castle and under the shadow of the Five Sisters of Kintail before hitting the beautiful lochside village of Lochcarron, and then winding your way up and down the famously precipitous Bealach Na Ba road?
On the final stretch, as you head down into the village with shafts of sunlight piercing through the clouds and on to a slate grey sea, it’s easy to imagine yourself in Hydra or on the Dalmatian coast rather than on Scotland’s west coast.
Down the years, I’ve visited the Applecross Inn on several occasions, yet I’m always amazed by the beauty of its setting on the harbour of this stunning bay. That remote ruggedness is the single biggest factor in the inn’s success, although close behind is its proximity to Scotland’s natural larder, which comes in several forms – the seafood landed locally every day, the game from the surrounding hills, and the beef and lamb from the Applecross peninsula’s estate.
The whole combination produces a heady aesthetic and gastronomic mix. Sometimes the inn also puts on a barbecue outside, and in the past I’ve had split prawns, lobster and venison burgers straight off the coals at Judith Fish’s wonderful but commendably unpretentious west coast institution.
If the Applecross Inn has a drawback, it’s that it’s not exactly unknown. In fact it must be in virtually every guidebook that’s been written on Scotland in the past 25 years. With day-trippers prepared to come over from Inverness for lunch, and every tourist exploring the west coast descending upon the place, it can get a mite busy when the sun shines. In fact, the cheery local prawn fisherman who pulled our pints of Isle of Skye beer in the bar told us that by the time we arrived late on a Monday afternoon they’d already served almost 500 people that day, which led to many of the best specials being rubbed off the huge blackboard and waiting times that would have tried the patience of Job.
Still, it’s good to know that everything is cooked from scratch, and besides, there was plenty enough left on the bulging specials board to satisfy us. Bea started with a dish of pigeon breast laden with lardons, strips of pancetta and tossed salad, while in a nod to Applecross’s background as somewhere which made its name partly by serving flappingly fresh fish, I opted for the cod chowder.
Bea’s was probably the better of the two, her half-dozen nuggets of succulent butter-fried pigeon acting as the basis for an excellent dish. My bright yellow chowder, which had clearly been heavily seasoned with turmeric, was fine, although it had obviously spent so long cooking that the cod had completely disintegrated and was only to be found in small flakes amid the onion and potato.
Given that past forays to the Applecross Inn had always been marked by some sort of wonderful fish, I’d been disappointed to find that the seafood options that had taken my fancy had run out, but at least the boys got in on the act, Lochie and Ollie both choosing the beer-battered haddock with chips, and being rewarded with beautifully fresh fillets of fish in a nice crisp batter, served with chunky chips. Ailsa went for a breast of chicken in a cajun sauce with a grilled cherry tomato salad and chips, and loved it: the chicken was moist and tender, the sauce clearly homemade and not remotely overwhelming.
As we ate our starters, we had sat drooling in sadness as a succession of gargantuan seafood platters came out of the kitchen. The throng was exceptionally cosmopolitan (there’s a map of the world on the inn’s wall in which guests from far-flung countries can put a pin to mark their home, and there were pins from virtually every country in the world, including places such as Siberia, the Falkland Islands and French Polynesia), but it was no surprise that the one table of Spaniards consumed more shellfish than the rest of the pub put together. The Spaniards love our shellfish and happily pay twice as much for lobsters and langoustines as we will, which is why most west coast catches are loaded straight on to lorries headed for Barcelona and Madrid.
Still, even though neither of us fancied the remaining shellfish dishes of lobster or potted shrimp, there was still plenty of other local produce on offer, so I plumped for the heather-fed roast rump of lamb while Bea chose the duck. This came in half-a-dozen slices of crimson-tinted meat served with a remarkably subtle dressing of soy, wasabi and sesame seeds, plus crushed new potatoes and a Parmesan salad. If Bea was happy enough with the duck and surprised at the faintness of the dressing, she was not remotely pleased by the potatoes, which were clearly yesterday’s and had been crushed to try and disguise their age.
My lamb also came in slices atop a bed of similarly ancient spuds, this time in the form of bubble and squeak. The lamb was just about tender enough, but I’ve certainly had better, and there was a sad lack of the wine jus that was supposed to form part of the dish.
Bea and I rounded off with the raspberry cranachan, which was without a doubt the worst I’ve ever had, and whose only redeeming feature was half a dozen fresh raspberries and the faintest hint of booze. Otherwise, the ready-made meringue nest was topped with a mountain of sickly cream full of what looked like oatmeal but tasted like incinerated coconut flakes – it was difficult to tell because I took one mouthful and couldn’t eat any more. This was cheap and nasty, only it wasn’t particularly cheap. Still, Ailsa’s sticky toffee pudding was decent, while Ollie’s apple crumble, heavily spiced with cinnamon and served with piping hot custard, went down a storm.
The Applecross Inn’s situation remains as idyllic and as popular as ever, and even if the prices have gone up noticeably and the waiting times have expanded to the outer edges of acceptability, the staff never once faltered in their stoically cheery bonhomie. This is one gem that is no longer hidden.
Applecross Inn Applecross, Wester Ross (01520 744262, www.applecross.uk.com/inn)
Main courses £9.25-£25
Rating: 7 out of 10