Ardanaiseig Hotel, Kilchrenan by Taynuilt, Argyll
The suntan is a surprise. I've come to Scotland for a romantic mini-break to celebrate 21 years with Mr M – we're expecting to spend the days reading our books and eating while the rain lashes down. But the sun is blazing as we drive down a long, winding lane to our hotel.
Ardanaiseig is rather fantastic. Built in 1834 for Colonel Archibald Campbell by William Burn, protégé of Robert Adam, on the shore of Loch Awe, its grey façade, elegant scale and architectural furbelows like turrets make a glorious welcome for this old married couple.
Apart from winning "romantic hotel" and wedding-venue awards, Ardanaiseig is increasingly talked about – and amassing plaudits including Scottish chef of the year 2011 and three AA rosettes – for its chef, Gary Goldie. Goldie has been in situ for 15 years. And he has quietly put Ardanaiseig on the foodie map (albeit at the very edge; this place is remote).
I am excited about our meal, not least because I'm unexpectedly having a hand in its creation. The chef has long been an enthusiast of foraged ingredients, particularly mushrooms, and guests are welcome to tag along as he combs the woods and loch shores for inspiration.
The sun beats down as we gather tiny but intensely flavoured wild strawberries. We crouch in undergrowth chasing roots underground to find the pignuts at their end. Girolles stud the ground in the thickly carpeted forest next to the house and, right on the shoreline, Goldie gathers sheep sorrel and sea arrowgrass to add to the sweet woodruff and hogweed already in his foraging bag.
Pink and hot, I take a cooling dip in the loch (yes, it really is that warm in early July). Goldie, meanwhile, heads straight to the kitchen, his mind obviously whirling with ideas for dinner.
And dinner is unmissable for guests – unless they want to drive all the way back down that road to an unpromising-looking pub, that is. It's a no-choice, five-course menu at £50 – that shows confidence.
If there was any doubt about the creativity at work, it is dispelled by the pre-dinner snack with drinks. "Chicken of the woods" masala with a wild garlic naan and a shot glass of blonde beer gets our juices flowing. Little pine-flavoured rolls and an Oban Bay scallop with sea vegetables and caviar keep the excitement going as we order wine (a good list, with a smart by-the-glass selection).
And we're off: a deep-orange duck-egg yolk comes with smoked bacon and girolles (I hadn't dared to admit to Goldie earlier that I'm not, well, wild about mushrooms, but these are splendid – woody and meaty with buttery juices). Then a Tiree-lobster broth, with shaved pignuts, hogweed, sweet cicely and wild pea. This is rich and intense, the shaved root adding an accent of woodiness. And it's a very, very pretty plate of food, too.
Raising my eyes from the dish briefly, I should mention that the dining-room looks down over the lawns to the loch, with its ultra-romantic boathouse for two, and a little boat moored, ready to carry you over to the tiny islands in the middle. The honeymooning couple in the corner practically float into dinner on a cloud of happiness.
"My" wild strawberries make an appearance next, with local roe deer, young beetroot and sweet woodruff. This is my favourite – the sweet acidity of the fruit offsetting the rich meat, white earthy beetroot anchoring it all.
A slice of home-made Selkirk bannock fruit bread comes with Criffel cheese. I feel as if this meal is all meals in one, in a good way – with the egg, bacon and mushroom representing breakfast, and this dish an afternoon-tea delight.
Pudding proper is an Amalfi lemon mousse (c'mon, no one could grow lemons in Scotland) with meringues and iced yoghurt – a deft close to the meal.
If I'd ever felt a bit so-what about foraging – swayed by its ubiquity on TV and menus – I've been comprehensively persuaded. In the right hands, our traditional, unknown and old-fashioned produce is spectacular (even those found in unpromising locations, as chef showed with pignuts near a housing estate).
Goldie is a real talent, not to be swayed by the lure of London or ideas of what's "fashionable". With a Scottish suntan and memories of an anniversary meal that is in every sense romantic, I can see his point. Might pop back in February. You know, just to check…
Ardanaiseig Hotel Kilchrenan by Taynuilt, Argyll, tel: 01866 988 288 Lunch and dinner daily. Set dinner £50 per head, not including wine
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Reviews extracted from ‘Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012 www.hardens.com
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