Food & Drink: Rich picklings

Skibo Castle - a Gothic pile built by Andrew Carnegie and now an exclusive club - yields up Scottish delights and a few of its secrets to Michael Bateman
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Two of Peter de Savary's chefs at Skibo Castle have won top Scottish cooking awards. And although de Savary has been famous for many things, food has not really been one of them. The owner of hotels from Land's End to John O'Groats (just the two actually, one in each) Peter de Savary is not noted for having a gourmet palate. In fact, his favourite dish is shepherd's pie, served with Heinz tomato ketchup.

In his younger days de Savary took the helm of an ocean-going yacht, sinking millions into a failed defence of the America's Cup. In more recent years he has built up a fortune running clubs, the first of such ventures being the St James's Clubs in London, Paris and Los Angeles. At a later opening of a club in Antigua - one of the last pink blobs left on the map of the vanishing British Empire - he reached the peak of his culinary aspirations. He had invited 400 guests to the opening night, many of them extremely rich Americans. Everything seemed to be going well until the chef, an Austrian, walked out and the manager broke down and locked himself in his room.

Peter de Savary saw no alternative but to cook the reception meal himself. He found a batch of lamb mince in the deep freeze and ordered his staff to start mashing potatoes. Soon a massive quantity of shepherd's pie took shape.

He addressed the waiting guests. "The chef has walked out, the manager has locked himself in his room. I have cooked you shepherd's pie. I hope you like it." Welcome to our exclusive club, huh? "It could have been a disaster," says de Savary now. "They could have jeered. But luckily they cheered."

Peter de Savary has that effect on you. He makes you want either to laugh or cry. This year he announced that, for their own good, he would not be giving any of his five daughters his pounds 20m inheritance. It makes me laugh, and I hope it doesn't make them cry too much.

As you might guess, this man, PDS to his staff, is a captivating egotist. Bearded, balding and boisterous, he is photographed with President Clinton, he drives a hand-made open-top red sports car. Everything he does is several times larger than life.

On a train journey from Scotland (site of his newest venture, the Carnegie Club), en route for his home in Somerset, he found the buffet car closed due to lack of staff, though fully stocked. Most of us, having planned on a snack to break the long journey, would have cursed our bad luck and then cursed the railway. Not PDS.

He calmly broke in, took over the bar, serving food and drink to the passengers, took the money, and at the end of the journey handed it over to British Rail. He further announced that until British Rail put its house in order, he would in future travel with a hamper, and would distribute food and drink free to anyone in need.

The answer to the nagging question of why a man with pounds 20m needs to go by train and not by private jet is that he has a perfectly reasonable fear of flying. In the Caribbean, the light plane which was transporting him flipped and landed upside-down in the sea. The pilot died, but PDS and his family were miraculously rescued.

The present miracle is the Carnegie Club. He bought the Scottish ruin of the baronial Skibo Castle, built by Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the century, along with its 7,500-acre estate, and has turned it into an exclusive club complete with 18-hole golf course and trout fishing, designed for the sporty and well-to-do such as Greg Norman, Jack Nicholson and Lenny Henry.

Andrew Carnegie was a man after Peter de Savary's own heart. The son of a Scottish weaver, Carnegie emigrated to America, and made a pile in railroads, Great Lakes steamers and oil wells before taking over virtually all steel production in America. He returned to his homeland at the turn of the century with pounds 200m in his pocket (at today's value, a sum that makes James Goldsmith's pounds 1.5 billion fortune seem modest). He then became the world's foremost philanthropist, often remarking: "The man who dies rich, dies disgraced." He financed the pounds 1m Hague Peace Palace, created countless educational trusts, founded 3,000 libraries worldwide and made donations of no fewer than 8,000 organs - church music having been a passion from his childhood.

Skibo - a Gothic fantasy of a castle - was Carnegie's personal monument (as it is PDS's). It occupies a strip of mountain-sheltered coast, with its own micro-climate warmed by the Gulf Stream. On the map it appears to be lost in the wilds of Highland Scotland (it is 45 minutes drive north of Inverness).

The distant hillsides may be heather-covered and bleak, but here in the valley you could be in botanical gardens, with vast sequoia trees, avenues of oak and pine, lily-covered ponds, man-made lochs, and the distant movement of water in the sparkling estuary.

And there might not be a better place in the world to be a cook. Among the luxuries of Carnegie's legacy are huge Victorian greenhouses with vines, apricots, plums and peaches. A walled kitchen garden produces crops of fresh vegetables and herbs and, its great glory, the tastiest strawberries and raspberries in the land. The fruit here benefits from the long hours of daylight in the summer - Skibo is on a latitude just north of Gothenburg's.

The chef, Donald Munro, a Scotsman in his early forties, has an enviable brief: to provide his international guests with a taste of the real Scotland, be it cullen skink or smoked fish, trout and salmon from the estuary, scallops, lobster and crab, grouse and venison from the estate, chutneys, shortbreads, and jams made with fruit from the castle garden. He has an easy relationship with suppliers. If the mussel man's not in, there may be a note: help yourself and put the money in an envelope.

Munro trained in Glasgow, and enjoyed a later stint at Gordon Ramsay's Aubergine in London which imbued him with a sense of style. But before Skibo he had also been chef at Scotland's most northerly operation, a club in Caithness which took 30 corporate customers at a time. And this is how he runs Skibo, more like a college dining-room than a restaurant.

I had two meals - for the first, the bagpiper marched us into a grand, candle-lit dining-room with ghosts of Carnegie's guests (Gladstone, Lloyd George, King Edward VII, Rudyard Kipling, the Rockefellers). What's this? my neighbouring guests asked, when the cullen skink was served. This, I said, is Scotland's answer to bouillabaisse: a smoked haddock soup with potatoes. Usually it's a bit more lumpy, I explained, but this particular one is sieved, more like a smoked haddock vichysoisse.

PDS, mine host, hears this and swiftly explains that international guests don't want any nasty frights, such as unexplained lumps lurking in the depths of their soups. Haggis is another such Scottish dish which requires a degree of modification.

On the second night I eat in the airy, light Carnegie kitchen. It is nice to see what you are eating, and it's fun to watch chef Munro's dynamic assistants in action: Tony Singh (Highland Chef of the Year) and Ross Fraser (Young Highland Chef of the Year).

Donald Munro serves a carpaccio of smoked halibut (an old tradition with modern presentation), and a fillet of tasty and tender local lamb. A plate of freshly picked fruit with a vanilla sabayon and home-made ice-cream followed. What more could you possibly want? Especially when it's accompanied by wines enthusiastically chosen by my second host, the Carnegie Club's young manager, Robert van Eerde.

Breakfasts and Scottish teas are made in the same spirit, featuring the chef's repertoire of jams, curds, conserves and chutneys. "I got a lot of the recipes from my mother," he confides.

Donald Munro is too good a talent to be confined to the club customers, so here are some of his recipes. When making jams, chutneys and curds, always use a stainless steel or enamel-lined pan and only use a wooden spoon for stirring, never a metal one. And to sterilise glass jars, put in a 150C/300F/Gas 2 oven allowing them to warm. Take out and then fill them to the very top. Put on a lid and the chutney/jam/curd will sink slightly creating a vacuum.

Honey Curd

Makes approx 1kg/2lb

600ml/1 pint clear honey

grated rind of 2 lemons

juice of 4 lemons

125g/4oz butter

4 eggs plus 2 extra yolks

Strain the honey, then place in the top of a double saucepan with the lemon rind, the lemon juice and the butter. Place over hot water on a low heat. Allow to melt, stirring occasionally. Beat together the egg yolks and whites and strain into the pan.

Continue cooking over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens and will coat the back of a spoon. Pot into warm, sterilised jars and cover.

APRICOT CURD

Makes approx 500g/1lb

175g/6oz dried apricots

250g/8oz sugar

50g/2oz butter

rind and juice of 1 lemon

2 eggs, beaten

Wash the apricots, cover them with water and let them soak for 24 hours. Cook gently until tender. Put through a coarse sieve or liquidize. Put the apricot pulp in the top of a double saucepan and add the sugar and butter. Add the lemon rind and juice to pan and place over hot water. Cook gently over a low heat, stirring until the butter and sugar are dissolved. Strain the beaten eggs into the pan and continue cooking until the mixture thickens to coat the back of a spoon. Pot into warm jars and cover.

DAMSON CHUTNEY

A sweet chutney that makes a good accompaniment for ham

Makes approximately 1kg/2lb

1kg/2Ib damsons

1 large onion

175g/6oz dried dates

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 pint vinegar

350g/12oz sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Wash the dates, cover them with water and soak overnight. Wash the damsons and drain. Peel and chop the onion. Stone and chop the soaked dates. Place the damsons, onions, dates and spices in a pan with the vinegar. Bring to the boil and simmer gently until the damsons are well broken down. Remove the stones as they rise to the surface.

Add the sugar and salt and stir until dissolved, then continue cooking gently until the mixture becomes thick, stirring occasionally. Then pot into warm jars and cover.

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