In the early 1990s I remember eating a meal in a pub by the quayside of a West Highland harbour and as I peered out of the window I could see fishermen unloading glistening langoustines from their vessels.
But despite this wonderful fresh harvest right on the doorstep, there was no mention of langoustine on the menu, or indeed anything fresh, just the predictable and depressing fare of processed food.
Fast forward 20 years, and as I dined with my family in the Na Mara Restaurant in Gairloch, the contrast couldn’t be greater. We were on a two-day break last summer in Wester Ross and our experience at the Na Mara (www.namararestaurant.co.uk) underlined the culinary revolution that is now taking place in many parts of the Highlands. The Gairloch langoustines with baby leaf salad, garlic butter and citrus mayo that my wife and I had for a starter were quite simply sublime, as was our daughter’s choice of scallops with baby black pudding and garden pea soup. Our mains didn’t disappoint either; duo of monkfish in Parma ham and Uist scallops, and Highland venison medallions with fondant potato and redcurrant jus.
The dedication of the Na Mara Restaurant in producing excellent dishes using fresh, locally sourced produce is indicative of just how far the Scottish tourist experience has progressed in recent years. And judging by the spectacular scenery and huge range of activities available, Wester Ross is a success story worth shouting about. The area is doing just this through a campaign called the Wild Side of Wester Ross, showcasing key events around wildlife, landscape, food and art.
For our break, we based ourselves at the Torridon Inn that lies close to the shore of Loch Torridon. The inn offers comfortable en-suite accommodation with a great selection of local real ales and whisky. We ate there on our first night and the food was a real treat. We were all more than pleased with our starters, which included cullen skink, pan-seared scallops with garden pea risotto, and Isle of Skye mussels. For the main course, my wife and I shared a wonderful seafood platter groaning with Torridon langoustines, Isle of Skye oysters and Isle of Ewe smoked salmon.
One of the main attractions of the inn is the range of daily activities run by Torridon Activities with archery, climbing, gorge scrambling, kayaking, mountain bike hire, clay pigeon shooting and mountain walking all on offer.
We opted for sea kayaking on a day that was warm and calm.Our guide, Richard Trott, briefed us on the basics of kayaking before leading us on to Loch Torridon. Our kayaks glided over the calm, clear water and Richard led us into a small tranquil bay where otters are often seen. Unfortunately, they weren’t around on our day, but all of our party were entranced by the wonderful scenery and marine life that could be glimpsed beneath our kayaks.
On our second day we took the spectacular drive over the high mountain pass to Applecross and then headed back north along a small coast road. Our destination was Gairloch, for a trip on the Sea Life, a unique glass-bottomed boat operated by Richard and Jill Holmes (www.seawildlife.com). Richard’s enthusiasm and knowledge of the marine world made this an outing to remember. The views of the seabed were quite astonishing and we saw starfish, sea urchins and numerous crabs, as well as a range of fish.
By the end of our stay in Wester Ross we were quite overwhelmed by this marvellous corner of Scotland – and we had sampled just a fraction of the range of things to do and places to see.
A three-night stay at the Torridon Inn starts from £104 per room per night, including breakfast. For more information, including booking with Torridon Activities, see www.thetorridon.com; www.wildaboutgairloch.co.uk