SIGNS have recently sprung up all over the Cowal peninsula welcoming visitors to “Scotland’s secret coast” and they are entirely justified. Given that this glorious little corner of Argyll is less than an hour from central Glasgow, it’s surprising how quiet and serene the whole peninsula is.
Once you’ve crossed the Firth of Clyde by car ferry from Hunters Quay just outside Gourock and left the port burgh of Dunoon, you quickly realise you’re in an altogether different world from lowland Scotland. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, because although the Cowal peninsula is south of Perth, it is flanked to the north by the Arrochar Alps and actually lies above the Highland Boundary Fault, giving the place a distinctively west coast feel.
This rugged, densely green yet sparsely populated chunk of land doesn’t just feel topographically different, it also has a notably Teuchterish ambience. Celtic by history – this was traditionally one of the main gateways through which the Gaels moved between Ireland and Scotland – whether it’s in the stubborn remnants of Gaelic, the heartlands of the Catholic Lamonts or the prevalence of shinty, this is a land that was remote from Lowland Scotland. It is, in many ways, a fantastic place to visit, not least because it is now so accessible yet feels so remote and unspoilt. And while my kids found on a recent weekend of motor-homing around the peninsula that some of the trappings of everyday urban life only work spasmodically, there are also definite signs that modern civilisation has reached Cowal.
Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the number of decent places to eat. These include my all-time favourite rural restaurant, the inestimable Inver Cottage on the other side of the bay from the Old Castle Lachlan, but this charming little Strachur eatery is one among a slew of good restaurants in the area.
In short, there are no excuses for failing to locate a decent meal in this semi-wilderness. Yet for all that, the one place I really wanted to check out on our return to this old stamping ground was the Oystercatcher at Otter Ferry. Reached via a ten-mile trip along the most precipitous of single-track roads across moors and through dense woodland until you finally find yourself looking out over miles of Loch Fyne and the Mull of Kintyre, this is an old ferry inn in an unfeasibly beautiful and remote lochside position next to the old stone jetty where for centuries people would shuttle between Cowal and Kintyre.
The last time I visited, almost ten years ago, it was run by a couple who did their best to alienate their customers with a Royston Vasey-esque approach to customer relations.
I’d often thought that this inn represented a great opportunity for someone to make a name for themselves and looked forward to seeing what new owner Tony Baker had made of the place in his four years at the helm. The first thing that struck me was just how little the fabric of the building had changed under the Leicestershireman; sure, the exterior and pretty spartan interior had seen a lick of paint, but that was about the extent of the changes, other than a relentless cheeriness from the waiting staff, and a commendably laid-back attitude to the families who traipsed in and out, trailing their dogs behind them.
The other big change, however, was apparent in the menu. On our last visit, the food had been interesting, with offerings including not only French classics but dishes built around the local seas, with the monster bowls of langoustines a particular draw.
This time, things were considerably more prosaic. Instead of the bounty of the sea, this was the sort of run-of-the-mill pub grub you would expect to find in Cumbernauld, Kirkcaldy or East Kilbride. That’s not to denigrate any of those places, but given that we were in a rural paradise next to some of the best seafood in the world, and overlooked by hills crawling with Highland cattle and heather-fed Blackface sheep and stags, I was surprised that there was no obvious nod to all of the above on the menu. Ditto the beer: when on Loch Fyne, surely some beers from the nearby and excellent Loch Fyne Brewery wouldn’t go amiss, but instead we had Belhaven IPA leading the usual suspects.
Sadly, the meal failed to rise above our newly lowered expectations. Lochie’s starter of garlic prawns with sweet chilli dip was the best of the bunch, but his and Bea’s “homemade Isle of Bute steak burgers” were overcooked and lukewarm. My starter consisted of a ring of black pudding, which had been fried until suitably toughened and then topped with a ring of cooked apple (described on the menu as an “apple compote”) and supplemented with a dab of shop-bought mango coulis. Bea’s starter of a smoked haddock and spring onion and cheddar fishcake was marginally better, and contained a good deal of fish, but was once again overcooked, while my main course of salmon and prawn tagliatelle was horribly watery. The puddings were a mixed bunch: Bea had a supposedly home-made blackcurrant cheesecake whose topping was anything but; Lochie’s chocolate fudge brownie with ice-cream was dense, moist and filling; my homemade bread and butter pudding was solid pub grub, but nothing more.
On the plus side, the prices were surprisingly reasonable, the staff were as pleasant and efficient as in any restaurant in the country, and the setting remains second to none.
Oystercatcher, Otter Ferry, Tighnabruaich PA21 2DH (01700 821 229, www.theoystercatcher.co.uk)