Loch, stock and barrel

It's Burns Night on Tuesday and as Scotland prepares to address the haggis, we celebrate with a Celtic Food Special. Here, Fiona MacLeod visits one of the best, and most remote, restaurants in the country
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Having driven 20 miles down a single track road on the Morvern peninsula in north-west Argyll, I'm having a pre-prandial stroll in the twilight. Tonight, my dinner is at the Whitehouse restaurant in Lochaline, the small ferry port village for the Isle of Mull. Cattle wander idly over the track, mallard skid across the water as I pass and tiny bats are dive-bombing round my head in the gloaming. Across the waters of the loch, the mountains of Mull loom on the horizon.

Having driven 20 miles down a single track road on the Morvern peninsula in north-west Argyll, I'm having a pre-prandial stroll in the twilight. Tonight, my dinner is at the Whitehouse restaurant in Lochaline, the small ferry port village for the Isle of Mull. Cattle wander idly over the track, mallard skid across the water as I pass and tiny bats are dive-bombing round my head in the gloaming. Across the waters of the loch, the mountains of Mull loom on the horizon.

Lochaline is remote. Even though some have succeeded in other, even more isolated parts of Scotland, it is without doubt a challenging location in which to start a restaurant. To draw visitors from far afield, a strong central philosophy is critical.

For Sarah Jones and her partner at the Whitehouse, Jane Stuart-Smith, this philosophy is based on a belief in using top-quality produce from local suppliers. "The style of food at the Whitehouse is not ornate or fancy," says Stuart-Smith. "With the best, fresh ingredients delicious food can be prepared very simply."

The Isle of Mull, just a 15-minute ferry ride across the water, has several high-quality producers and is one of their main sources for produce. "There is the Mull Mussel Company and the Mull Oyster Company which supplies London's Bibendum and the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar," says Stuart-Smith. "While Chris and Jeff Reade make excellent Isle of Mull cheese and also do organic pork." Venison comes from the nearby Kingairloch estate, while Ardtornish, the local estate, provides some of the raspberries and tayberries from its kitchen garden.

It sounds like an ambitious venture and, considering both partners have no experience of running a restaurant, could even be regarded as foolhardy. Stuart-Smith left her job as a lawyer in London and has continued to practice in her own right since moving to Scotland five years ago. "Some legal savvy has been very useful," explains Stuart-Smith. Her husband, Hugh Raven, is policy advisor to the Soil Association and a consultant on environmental affairs and both are deeply committed to both the organic and Slow Food movements.

When I visit them in the medieval keep at the head of Loch Aline that they have converted from a ruin, they have just returned from The Slow Food Festival in Turin. "The organisation works against the culture of fast food and mass-production by supporting small quality local producers in order to nurture the traditions of good food. These are very much the ideals we have for the Whitehouse," says Stuart-Smith.

Jones, on the other hand, has lived in Lochaline for most of her life and has sound business skills from her experience as joint owner and manager (with her mother) of the village shop. "It makes orders and deliveries for such a remote restaurant easier," says Jones, "because we already have many of the systems in place." Having worked on her father's prawn boat and at the salmon farm on Mull, she also knows a bit about seafood and fish, and regales me with knowledge on the preferred habitat of langoustine, squat lobsters and crab.

At the Whitehouse, the langoustine and the scallops are hand-dived, the langoustine are creel-caught and delivered straight to the kitchen by a neighbour after he finishes his day's work as an electrician. "We give him an idea of how many we need each morning and the scallops are dived to order later on." I give a little thought to what it must be like plunging into the freezing Loch Aline but am assured that "he's very warm in his neoprene dry suit".

Sukie Barber, who recently joined the Whitehouse as chef, reckons that Loch Aline langoustine eaten this fresh taste as good as the best you will eat anywhere in the world. "I cook them straight away and serve them with garlic mayonnaise and a big handful of salad leaves from my garden."

For Barber to join the restaurant has been something of a coup for the Jones and Stuart-Smith partnership. "Fate was smiling on us when Sukie agreed to come and cook," says Stuart-Smith. "She won numerous awards in the 14 years she ran the Old Pines restaurant at Spean Bridge with her husband Bill. Also, her belief in using top-quality local ingredients was totally in tune with ours."

"Bill and I have eight children," explains Barber, "and though we do have a huge amount of energy we decided we couldn't carry on indefinitely running Old Pines in the dedicated way we had done." On the site of their new house in the village of Strontian, the Barbers have already organised a thriving vegetable garden and a smokery where Bill cures fish for the Whitehouse, despite the fact that they and six of the children are living in two caravans while their house is completed. The whole family are dedicated foragers for wild food. Fungi are found in profusion in the area; horn of plenty, chanterelles and hedgehog fungi (pied de mouton) are the varieties most commonly picked.

The Barbers also have a boat which they use for fishing on Loch Sunart. "We catch mackerel, ling and pollock, all of which we use at the Whitehouse," says Sukie. "Eaten so fresh it has excellent flavour, particularly the mackerel that Bill prepares in his smokery. I haven't bought in any fish, other than salmon to smoke, since I started cooking here. There are also teenagers in Lochaline who catch fish for us and we're often given catches from the fishing trips that are run in the area."

From the outset, the Barbers agreed with Stuart-Smith and Jones that they would continue to grow the vegetables and pick wild food for the Whitehouse, in the way they had done at Old Pines. "Though we haven't yet got a poly-tunnel, we have grown most of the salad this year," says Sukie. "Lollo rosso, oak leaf and rocket have grown well and we've added variety with wild leaves such as land cress and sorrel."

When I rang, the restaurant was so booked up that on several nights they'd had to divide the evening into two sittings. In winter, in a remote part of Scotland, this is not a bad record. Apartments at Ardtornish House and cottages on the estate are rented all year, bringing in a steady flow of visitors, and there is also a well-regarded residential dive school in the village. Nevertheless, it looks like news of good, slow food is travelling far and fast.

The Whitehouse, Lochaline, Morvern, by Oban, Argyll, tel: 01967 421 777

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