THE NORTH-EAST’S wonderful produce makes for a fabulous foodie tour, finds Catriona Thomson
V isiting the north-east corner of Scotland, with its endless rolling hillsides leaves you in no doubt you are in the farming heartland of Scotland. Synonymous with the region is Aberdeen Angus beef, and the abundant marine harvest from the North Sea, which is served up at the finest restaurants around the globe.
As we are celebrating Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink 2015 we are off on a family gourmet tour to meet some of the area’s food heroes. This region has unique local delicacies, like butteries, a salted pastry, and the Carron fish bar in Stonehaven first gave the world the deep fried Mars bar. We are licking our lips already.
We are based in Aberdeen’s Skene House Hotel suites, which combine the comfort and services of a hotel with the space and convenience of a home from home. The best perk is the groaning breakfast buffet and as we’re located in the city centre, we are well-placed to walk the length of Union Street to explore the sights.
There are distilleries galore, but our first appointment is at Fettercairn where manager David Doig gives us a personal tour, explaining the process of whisky-making. We are struck by how little has changed. The distillery used to be powered by water, which is something they are aspiring to again. The casks are huddled together in the dark waiting for the perfect time to be woken and drunk.
We drive over the stunning Cairn O’ Mount, towards Ballater, pausing to look at the breathtaking views over to the coast, before heading to the Deeside water factory. Filtered under the granite Cairngorms the water takes around 50 years to reach one of the three springs here. It was good enough for Queen Victoria, who took the restorative waters when at Balmoral. The water is now shipped around the globe, to South Korea, Russia, Italy, Hong Kong, Dubai and Belgium. We explored Ballater, taking in the establishments proudly sporting “by royal appointment crests”, and regal butteries were purchased at Chalmers the bakers.
Next on the gourmet trail was Cambus O’ May cheese, where unpasteurised milk is turned into a range of award-winning cheeses. In the 1950s, matriarch Barbara Reid began making cheese on the family farm. Her middle son, Alex, has sought to recreate its taste, and set up a company to make traditional farmhouse cheese using his mother’s recipes and methods. We are hard pressed to choose a favourite, although Cambus O’ May, Lochnagar and smoked Auld Reekie just might be ahead on points.
Next we go to Portsoy where we meet Alex Murray, owner of Portsoy Ice Cream parlour, a family-run business with loads of awards to their name. Our eyes bulge at the number of flavours on display, and we resolve to try as many as we dare. He whispers that the secret of his ice creams is that they are made with passion using local ingredients wherever possible. And they are clearly addictive. One devoted customer used to travel from Paisley on the bus each weekend, pausing only for a cone before heading back on the return journey.
By now we are all feeling peckish so we drop in for a spot of lunch at Boyndie old school house. A community venture which was set up to help adults with learning difficulties to learn and develop in a workplace environment, it is strongly supported by local people. Its menu is delicious and our top pick is the Cullen skink, named after the nearby fishing village.
Then it is off the beaten track to the delightfully quirky Delgatie Castle. It’s home to the Hay clan, and was most recently occupied by the late Captain John Hay of Delgatie. He determinedly set about restoring the castle when he was told to pull it down. The main historical selling point is the turnpike staircase which is the tallest in Britain, but equally impressive is the vintage high tea in the Laird’s kitchen. It’s an informal place to visit, as the oldest parts of the castle date from 1030 and feisty Shetland ponies guard the front entrance. The personality of Captain Hay is very much on show. A dashing Indian army officer, he fell in love with a glamorous older woman, Everild, and despite not being quite the right class, he manufactured a way to talk to her on the boat to India in the 1930s and they eventually married. When he proposed, she answered “only if you like onions, for I couldn’t marry anyone who doesn’t.” Quite right.
A series of happy accidents brought Joan Johnson and her family to Delgatie when the Captain was around. They are part of the fabric of the place, lovingly restoring and running it all. It’s the kind of place where if you stay too long, you will be handed a paintbrush and will never leave.
On our way home we called in at Castleton Farm Shop and café, at Fordoun, an ideal spot to stock up on all the local goodies we have discovered on our travels. As the most northerly commercial grower of blueberries in Scotland you must sample their range of jams. With stunning views of the Mearns, they are located slap bang in the heart of Lewis Grassic Gibbon countryside. Who wouldn’t want second helpings?