Travel: Harris - Shell shock on the islands

A top chef inspires Sue Gaisford to greater culinary heights as she wrestles with crabs and scallops in the Hebrides
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The Independent Travel
Like a strip of tagliatelle slung casually over a fine fat turbot, the narrow road loops and swoops through the tussocky hills of North Harris, beside the clear, unpeopled sea. As it dips towards the shore, a little castle appears. Grey and sturdy on its grassy bed, all battlements and turrets, it is an impossibly romantic sight. What a place to spend a week.

As we drew up to Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, the great arched, studded door swung open and out swooped Rosemary, shouting greetings. It was then I remembered what I'd come for. This was serious. Rosemary Shrager is one of Britain's great cooks and she was about to impart at least some of her culinary secrets to us mere mortals.

Yet "serious" is scarcely the word for Rosemary. She is expansive, generous, voluble, enthusiastic, totally unpatronising and great fun. She was to give us a crash course in classic cookery, with variations all her own: her concerto for halibut, for instance, incorporates a theme of sage-mashed potatoes, a moving largo for the aubergine and a surprising red-wine cadenza (such musical whimsy is irresistible when the chef is given to great bursts of singing as she cooks).

Though she cheerfully admits to never having had a formal lesson in her life, Rosemary has worked as a professional chef for 20 years - for the Mountbattens at Moyns Park, with Jean-Christophe Novelli and with Pierre Koffmann at "La Tante Claire". Now 48, she has a natural gift for communicating her enthusiasm - a book is under discussion for next year. But for this one week, we were there to learn, first-hand.

First, the team was introduced. A couple from New Zealand does the donkey- work: Sam is sous-chef, cleaning vegetables or stirring stockpots while her Jonathan scurries about, washing up, serving, and tolerating shrieked orders with good humour. Bridget, the manager, can produce a herring or a hair-dryer at a moment's notice and Jonathan Bulmer, the owner of this vast Hebridean estate, provides an inexhaustible supply of delicious wine to accompany every meal. (He is also given to appearing at flustered moments with the welcome suggestion of a Bloody Mary.)

For this is, primarily, a holiday. Most of us probably cherished covert ambitions to become more convincing cooks - but all of us were really escaping from reality, taking a week off. On the first day, Rosemary reassures her class: "I'll tell you what we're doing each day, but if you already know how to make gravadlax or stuff a squid - or you feel like walking, or fishing, or staying in bed - well, that's fine. Please yourselves. It's supposed to be fun!"

Undaunted, we put on our pinnies, ready for the fray. Our group included a professional cellist game for anything, rolling up his sleeves and slaughtering a scallop despite the danger to his fingers of its snapping shells. "Feel it!" says Rosemary, taking the pale pink cushion in her palm. "It's so fresh, it's pulsating!"

This was too much for an elegant silversmith from Highgate, who muttered about having excellent fishmongers at home to do that for her. David, a debonair publisher, is cack-handed in the kitchen: when he engages in mortal combat with a lobster, you can't be sure who is going to win. Rosemary intervenes: "You're buggering it up, David. You're hopeless!" "Does that mean I'm sacked?" asks David, optimistically.

Gradually, nearly everyone was drawn in, unable to resist the woman Sam- and-Jonathan describe as The Hurricane. We boned lamb-knuckles, hammered crab-claws, whipped up Italian meringues, cured duck-breasts. A wonderful woman called Effie arrived and we tried to recreate her oatcakes and cloutie dumplings. We resolved to buy blowtorches and plasterers' knives for our patisserie and forever to eschew monosodium glutamate. Above all, we lost all fear of embarking on adventurous dishes. One day, we created golden caramel cages and felt like Benvenuto Cellini. We happily allowed the washing-up to be done for us.

Classes happen in the morning and the early evening. The afternoons are free for snoozing or exploring the unspoilt wilderness, spotting circling eagles and shy deer. One day, there was tea with a kindly tweed-weaver, who dyes her own yarn with lichens from the hillside. Another afternoon, there was a long, sunny picnic on the island of Taransay, with nothing but sheep and seagulls for company. "Enjoy" was the message on Sam's lunch boxes, and we did, returning sunburnt and relaxed. Late into the long, light evenings, we sat sipping malt whisky, listening to Dvorak on the cello and feeling as if we had strayed into a Turgenev novel.

At first sight, this holiday seems pricey, but it is genuinely all-inclusive. You can drink as much as you like and live like a lord. The castle is comfortable, luxuriously furnished, scented with flowers and decked with antlers and sporting prints. A couple of these came from Balmoral, a present from Victoria R, who presumably never entered a kitchen.

It would be quite tempting to do likewise, and spend the week working through the extensive library from the depths of a sofa, with occasional forays out for billiards or tennis, returning only to relish the fabulous meals produced by the others. Nobody would mind, but what a shame to miss the crowning moment of glory when Rosemary presents you with your certificate!

At the end, clutching aprons and recipes, we said goodbye, exchanging addresses and invitations. It had been an idyll, but it left us with great skills and friendships forged in the heat of castle kitchens. As a truly astonishing bonus, one of us, at least, was not a pound heavier.

GET COOKING

Rosemary Shrager's one-week course is at Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, Amhuinnsuidhe, North Harris HS3 3AS (tel: 01876 500329; fax: 01876 500428; e-mail: Northuist estate@btinternet.com; website: www.castlecook.com), and costs pounds 1,400, not including transport.

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