Scotland's remote and romantic seafood restaurant, Cafe Canna, releases new cookbook

The cookbook features a selection of their best recipes

Every day, apart from the ones starting with a ‘t’, the ferry sails from Mallaig to the tiny isle of Canna, which is just two miles across and has 18 residents.

Sometimes, the MC Lochnevis will have a few foodie passengers, who’ve made the two hours and 50 minutes crossing just for lunch.

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Cafe Canna is the only restaurant on the island, and one of the UK’s most remote.

Cafe Canna book jacketCafe Canna book jacket
Cafe Canna book jacket

However, those who have a craving, especially for its signature seafood platters and Talisker ice-cream, are willing to travel.

Now, they can also take away a souvenir, as owner and self-taught chef, Gareth Cole, who gave up his job in IT to start this business, has written his first cookbook, Cafe Canna: Recipes from a Hebridean Island.

According to him, they’ve welcomed guests from very far afield.

“We once had someone from Iceland,” says Cole, who is originally from Deeside. “They’d met some sailors over there, who said you have to try the seafood platter at Cafe Canna. We’ve got a really nice word-of-mouth thing in the sailing community and that’s the bulk of our custom”.

Gareth foraging for kelp Pic: Simon HirdGareth foraging for kelp Pic: Simon Hird
Gareth foraging for kelp Pic: Simon Hird

As far as recipes go, the book features options that have given hyper-local ingredients a global twist.

Among many other dishes, there’s instructions for kelp-wrapped whole roast mackerel, Singapore chilli crab; beef, Blue Murder and Sky Black Ale pie, wild gorse creme brulee, and octopus ballotine, with some options that are always bestsellers in the restaurant.

“The kelp salad starter is extremely popular. I put it on the menu a couple of years ago and at the time there wasn’t a lot of seaweed on menus, and I just thought it'd be a bit of a laugh. I didn't really think it would last, but it was amazingly popular and people really love it,” says Cole. “It’s sort of the gateway into more adventurous eating. I always think, by the time they get here, many of the customers will have had Cullen skink and mussels up to their eyeballs. It's time for something different. What we're most known for is our seafood platter. We've got such direct access to the sea. We land the ingredients literally just before you sit down. If you're dining with us, you might see us running to the pier, if we've miscalculated how much we need. We can point at the buoys, where the crab and the lobster come from”.

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As Cole is self taught, he takes inspiration from books and visiting other restaurants.

Seafood platter at Cafe Canna Pic: SImon HirdSeafood platter at Cafe Canna Pic: SImon Hird
Seafood platter at Cafe Canna Pic: SImon Hird

When he first arrived, he set up a huge spreadsheet and taught himself to cook by focusing on one ingredient at a time.

“It grew organically from there. It was only later that I started doing fancy crab tartlets and things,” he says.

While Cafe Canna is closed over the winter, his family will travel to the mainland, to research and explore its eateries. His favourite genres are currently Chinese and Japanese.

“The closer it gets to the end of the season, the more we're talking about food and where we're going to go and what we're going to eat and it becomes obsessive by the end,” he says. “One of the first things we do after the season is go straight to a city and fill our bellies”.

Gareth Cole outside Cafe Canna Pic: Simon HirdGareth Cole outside Cafe Canna Pic: Simon Hird
Gareth Cole outside Cafe Canna Pic: Simon Hird

However, there’s more to Cole’s book than recipes.

It’s a celebration of his home, and his tiny team, who are namechecked throughout. The restaurant has 16 covers, but there are only three of them in the kitchen.

“It’s a really intense sort of situation, as we're very busy. So, there's this sort of weird dance we do when arms are just sort of flying around all over the place and we’re grabbing things,” he says. “So yeah, you've got to get on really well. And I've been lucky enough to have totally amazing staff. It's a real pleasure”.

The locals, who like to use the bar at Cafe Canna, also have some input into the business.

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“Someone might say, I've got this amazing mutton, maybe you could do something with that,” says Cole. “Or there's a lady on the island who's like an oracle of all ingredients and knowledge about Canna, so she might suggest some whelks on a certain beach”.

However, Cole’s favourite ingredient is sea urchin. In the book, he demonstrates how to use this in a bechamel sauce.

“That's my absolute favourite, as it’s delicious, though it's not for everyone as it’s one of the least appetising-looking ingredients,” he says.

The book also includes extensive guidance on foraging for seaweed and other plants, like nettles and wild garlic, how to hunt for spoots, prep a crab and joint a rabbit. There is also some very specific anecdotal advice, such as not to listen to music while checking crabmeat for shell. Apparently, Cole does this by chucking it at the interior of a metal bowl, and listening for the ‘ting’ sound.

All of which makes it a book for those who want to be a bit hands on.

“It was really born out of the multitude of questions that we get asked when we're serving in the restaurant, like where do things come from, what can be done with them, and can they do it themselves,” says Cole. “We spend a lot of time chatting about this sort of thing”.

Cafe Canna: Recipes from a Hebridean Island by Gareth Cole is out on March 7 (Birlinn, £25)

Cafe Canna reopens on April 30,



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