STANDING on the banks of the trout ponds at Inverawe Smokery, it was hard not to be in awe of Robert Campbell- Preston.
The way the quietly spoken owner of the estate wielded his fishing rod, casting the line in the air using a mixture of what appeared to be skill and magic, left a beginner like me feeling that it was time to head to the chip shop in search of fish instead.
Yet Robert was infinitely patient, even when I proved to be what can only politely be described as struggling. Some of Robert’s wisdom eventually rubbed off on me and, although I returned empty-handed from the ponds, I definitely enjoyed my first morning’s fishing. And it turns out that my fish-loving wife not only enjoys eating Scotland’s water dwellers, she has a hidden talent for catching them too.
Robert and his wife, Rosie, took over the running of Inverawe estate in 1980 and set up one of Scotland’s best-known smokehouses. As we followed Robert on a tour around the smokery’s visitors’ centre, he explained the differences between his oak-smoked fish and others found on supermarket shelves.
“Our fish is deliberately smoky,” Robert said. “You could compare it to Islay whisky being more heavily peated than other regions. Some people smoke their fish for just six hours, whereas we smoke them for up to three days.”
The difference was clear when we tasted the smoked salmon and trout in the cafe and gift shop, where a selection of delicious soups, toasted sandwiches and cakes were also on sale.
As well as the smokehouse and fishery, Robert and Rosie have diversified into self-catering cottages, turning the butler’s cottage and garden cottage next to their “big house” into holiday accommodation and converting the smaller Balure cottage on the shores of Loch Etive into a snug getaway. The garden cottage sleeps six, while the butler’s cottage takes four and Balure is comfortable for a couple.
“When guests stay in the cottages, they get to be ‘honorary locals’ for the week,” said Rosie, explaining that we could use the private roads on the estate to come and go and enjoy discounts in the shop and on fly-fishing permits.
The setting for Balure cottage is beautiful; just a short walk from the shores of Loch Etive and the mouth of the River Awe, the cottage is set apart from the other parts of the estate, ensuring perfect peace and quiet at night.
If you were asked to draw a picture of a west-coast cottage, chances are you would come up with an image of Balure – the wood-burning stove in the sitting room, the thick stone walls, the wooden picnic table outside the storm porch. You are less likely to picture the modern touches, such as the Freesat TV or the power shower, which add an air of luxury to the cosy cottage.
When we visited in the autumn, we could hear male red stags rutting, their bellowing calls echoing across the river from the hills on the other side. Nature trails around the estate enabled us to encounter a host of small birds, from common sights such as chaffinches and robins to hearing the conspiratorial chattering of long-tailed tits.
Walking along the shore of Loch Etive to the “seal look-out” point didn’t yield any seals for us, but the cormorants and goosanders were clearly enjoying the fish in the sea loch. Locals also reported seeing at least one otter in the area, although our evening vigils sadly proved to no avail.
Back at the cottage, the kitchen gave us the opportunity to whip up some tasty treats using ingredients from the gift shop, such as mixing the smoked salmon with some crème fraiche, garlic, leeks and lemon juice as an accompaniment to pasta. Rosie’s cookbook also offers a range of recipes featuring her smoked fish and the smoked meats and cheeses for sale in the shop.
One of the many benefits of self- catering is the ability to pop out for a meal as a treat at the end of a long day exploring the countryside and the Brander Lodge Hotel, just a short drive from the entrance to Inverawe estate, was in our sights.
The smoked chicken and mushroom crêpe I enjoyed as a starter had a rich creamy sauce and a very light pancake, and was nicely washed down with a pint of Petra Wetzel’s St Mungo’s lager from the West Brewery in Glasgow. The seafood crêpe was described as “moreish” by my wife.
After all the talk of fish, we both opted for meat for our main courses and while my sirloin steak from Grants of Taynuilt butchers hit the flavoursome mark, my wife’s steak pie stole the show, with the chunks of meat I craftily pinched melting in my mouth.
Both surf and turf certainly hit the mark in Argyll.
THE FACTS Short breaks at Inverawe Cottages start from £60 a night, tel: 01866 822777 (daytime) or 01866 822542 (evenings and weekends), www.inverawe-cottages.co.uk; the bistro at the Brander Lodge Hotel is open to non-residents, tel: 01866 822243, www.branderlodge.com