MULL in late February: the lights are off and no-one is at home. The rain gods have always had a special place in their hearts for this beautiful island, which is also the wettest place in God’s country, but this year the downpour has been of biblical proportions.
It’s rained virtually every day since October, turning the whole place an unlovely sludgy brown.
Even the locals have had enough and the whole place is closed. There are a few arts and crafts shops open along the front in Tobermory but, with the exception of the town curry house, the restaurants are closed down. The island capital’s two shiniest gems, the upscale Highland Cottage and the rightly popular Cafe Fish, are both closed, as is the Ninth Wave seafood restaurant in Fionnphort. The sole survivor is the island’s oldest pub, the Bellachroy Hotel, a drovers inn which is more than 400 years old and situated on the west of the island, just past the golden sands of Calgary Bay and looking out over the sea to Coll, Tiree and the Atlantic.
There are two other groups in the couthy whitewashed pub as we enter, which is pretty brisk trade at this time of year. But then it’s probably not surprising that the Bellachroy is open given that it changed hands in the autumn in a life-change that counts as bizarre even on Mull, where a good portion of the island’s 2,500 population is made up of incomers seeking to reorientate their existence.
Even then Anthony Ratcliff and his wife Christine Weaver’s decision was a radical one. This time last year Ratcliff was running the enormous restaurant at the Abu Dhabi grand prix track and overseeing the group’s Middle Eastern operation, which meant being in charge of 750 employees. In his fifties and feeling the pressure of a relentless workload, he was surfing the net one day when he came across the Bellachroy. Within a week he’d flown over and put in an offer. Three months ago the inn opened under Ratcliff’s management with Weaver working in the kitchen alongside the head chef, Glaswegian Marc Honeyman.
It’s had something of an overhaul in an effort to update the place and make it a clean-cut but homely pub with food. Traditional flagstone floors and whitewashed walls are complemented by ancient black and white photos of the local area in the 1800s, while there’s the obligatory mismatched furniture, including a church pew as a bench. The whole effect, however, works well.
Given the pub’s position and the prominence given to seafood options on its website, we had presumed that the place would major on seafood, yet the menu contained just two seafood dishes of the day – battered haddock all day and then scallops at lunchtime or baked halibut in the evening. And while we later found an exhaustive list of local suppliers on the hotel website, the apparently huge efforts to source ingredients locally weren’t reflected on the menu apart from in the mention of saddle of Mull venison.
Still, we started by sharing an Isle of Mull rarebit, so-called because it was topped with grilled Isle of Mull cheddar. What could have been a pretty mundane start to the meal was anything but, with the blend of cheese, mustard, chives, red onion and beer making for a surprisingly impressive starter.
Sadly, few of the evening main course options – saddle of venison, roast leg of pork, baked halibut and braised lamb shank – were available at lunchtime, while the kitchen had also run out of scallops (although as they are a business that makes much of their green credentials yet unaccountably uses dredged scallops when hand-dived ones are available locally, we probably wouldn’t have ordered them anyway).
One dish that was available all day was the roast supreme of chicken with herb dumplings and pearl barley broth, so I opted for that, while Bea decided to go for the haddock in cider batter with chips, and Ollie opted for the Bellachroy house burger. My chicken was moist, perfectly cooked and served with a decent helping of pearl barley broth and herb dumplings that were more like flavoured gnocchi, adding a twist to a dish that was good but otherwise in danger of being a tad bland. Bea had no misgivings about her decent-sized haddock fillet, which was flappingly fresh, while the cider batter was crisp, light and devoid of grease, and was served with homemade tartare sauce, a nice touch. Ollie was equally impressed with his dense 8oz burger, which came with homemade relish, and was topped with Mull cheddar, a thick disc of black pudding and a slice of bacon, and served with thick hand-cut chips. Both delivered an enthusiastic thumbs-up verdict on their pub grub.
We rounded off with an annoyingly lukewarm but otherwise thoroughly decent rhubarb crumble with custard, plus a thick slab of sticky toffee pudding which was dismissed as “average” by the boy with a PhD in pudding sampling.
All in all, if you ever find yourself in Mull it’s definitely worth seeking out the Bellachroy Hotel, even if Ratcliff’s prices are right at the top end of what’s okay for a remote rural inn. It would also be nice to see a smile or two from the staff, plus a few more fishy options.
The Bellachroy Hotel
Dervaig, Isle of Mull PA75 6QW (01688 400225, www.thebellachroy.co.uk)
Starters £3.95-£7.50 Main courses £9.50-£19.50 Puddings £5.50 (cheese board £6.95)