"Does it have gills?" I was in the driver's seat, calling through the open passenger door to my girlfriend who had crouched by the roadside to break the stem of a mushroom. The previous day we'd picked up some edible fungi lore from local expert Ian Douglass: look for pores, not gills, beneath the cap.
She passed it to me. Big and brown with an underside like pale nougat, it looked like a possible eater. Given that Douglass was landlord of our new favourite pub, the Melvaig Inn near Gairloch, it would be no chore to have it identified.
We'd come to experience the Wester Ross of legend: mountains like stone thunder, unnervingly desolate beaches. Yet the region's bounty quickly became our focus. Products that seemed exclusive – langoustines, oysters, squat lobster – were served up with a minimum of fuss (or expense). Others that we knew better – kippers, smoked salmon, pickled herring – were of startling quality. But our raid on Wester Ross's larder began with a £1.60 tray of chips.
Approaching the region from Inverness, we'd passed through great vats of ever more luminous landscape. Now, on our first morning, we were enjoying this saturating otherness in Ullapool, the region's largest settlement. The light was a feast in itself, but then good smells of vinegar and frying snagged us as we walked about the Loch Broom waterfront, Ullapool's postcard pose. We ordered chips at a standard-looking takeaway nearby, and they were some of the finest we'd tasted. This was The Chippy, and it merited that capital "C" in other ways, too. Listed on its red, backlit menu were "queen scallops and chips" and elsewhere, a poster for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's campaign (fishfight.net) against discarding overboard the caught fish which exceed a fisherman's EU-stipulated quota.
I spoke to Harry MacRae, a partner in The Chippy and the adjoining pub-restaurant The Seaforth. "Ullapool used to be a major fishing place, but it's gone now, almost fished out," he said. "The pelagic industry [herring and mackerel] isn't so bad, but the whitefish [cod and haddock] would improve only if we could control our own waters."
Haddock for the shop has to be brought in from Norway. "Sustainable is the way. We know it comes from one of two Norwegian boats. I was a fisherman for most of my life, and I still have a small boat that I go out in on Loch Broom for the majority of the mackerel and pollock we serve at The Chippy."
There were some fine exhibits at the town museum, a former church with a bunting-hung exterior, but I was most taken with the hefty bag of scallops behind curator Jim Inglis's desk. "I get them from Dave, the owner of Deli-Ca-Sea," he told me. What was Deli-Ca-Sea? "Just a fish-and-chip shop. Not much to look at." When I asked if they were for a special occasion, he plumped his bottom lip and shook his head. "You should try the Ferry Boat too. They do their own pickled herring."
The curator was right about Deli-Ca-Sea's appearance. Like The Chippy, though, they believe in boat-to-counter eating. Theirs is a creel boat, which catches shellfish by laying woven traps on the seabed. "All the langoustines and lobsters were going to Spain, so it made sense to get one," said Stephen Couper, owner of SRC foods and partner in Deli-Ca-Sea with Dave Mackenzie. "We're basically the town's fishmonger."
While he spoke, the big windows of The Ferry Boat Inn's compact bar room framed a view of the sea loch and a man with an expensive, cumbersome camera sat nearby, showing a woman the photos he'd taken of the waterfront, enthusing about the morning light. We could make out a bright shard on the little grey screen. The herring (£5.95) came as a generous plateful of thick, firm fillet that hadn't taken kindly to being rolled.
Onwards. At the weekly market in Gairloch we bought squat lobster from Dry Island Shellfish: £5 for enough to feed two generously, frozen in a plastic takeaway tub. Owner Ian McWhinney, 30 years a fisherman, runs "seafood safaris" to demonstrate his creel fishing methods. "It used to be teeming with fish here," he told us. "That's including cod and haddock, but not any more. Langoustines are the mainstay for the Scottish fleet now, after mackerel."
He has no doubts about what caused the West Coast white fish decline. "There are two types of fishing: creel and trawling. Trawling is very non-selective. Everything you catch is dead whether you want it or not. The same thing happened to Grand Banks in Canada [the Newfoundland cod fishery], so they put a total stop on fishing about 20 years ago and the fish still haven't come back."
The single-track road seemed to dangle down from Rubh Re lighthouse like a rope as we drove north-west from Gairloch, so empty was the landscape. We met a sign for Melvaig Inn that depicted three fish, one on top of the other. The interior of this stone, clifftop building was a scene of artful clutter. Retro elements – vinyl records, classic toys – were mixed with elegant vases, a large African textile and a display of excellent paintings by Mitzi Douglass, mother of the owner. The beer garden was in a pleasingly edge-of-the-world setting.
Ian Douglass moved slowly about the place as if being gently nudged from behind. He'd visited a car boot sale that morning, he told us, gesturing towards shelves of vinyl. "I keep buying them. I know what they're worth just by looking at them now," he said. He can do the same with fungi: the menu often features mushrooms he has foraged himself.
When I asked where he collected them, he responded with a dubious look. In the River Cottage Handbook on the subject, author John Wright comments: "The rudest question you can ask a mushroom hunter is, 'Where did you find those?'" But Douglass's reticence was born of caution. "You have to be absolutely sure," he said. "Otherwise you'll be having a blood transfusion."
We ordered a smoked platter of mackerel and salmon: the crinkled salmon skin might have been used for decoration, like gold leaf. Afterwards, Douglass showed us some birch bolete and ceps, and shared the gills-vs-pores idea. "You get a gut feeling, eventually. Most of it [the fungus] is under ground, and when the weather's just right the mushrooms come up really quick. It's almost like they have a brain. Most you can't grow in warehouses. That's why they're so special."
The next morning, on the rainy waterfront of Shieldaig, we spotted a small sign propped against the side of a house alongside a tin of paint, a stirring stick and a few chunks of wood. "SMOKED SALMON," it read, in peeling white letters over black.
"A South African lady came here once. She was very excited. 'I've found you, I've found you,' she was saying. Said she'd been told we had the best smoked salmon in the world." Mandy Aves, who took over Loch Torridon Smoke House in 2011, was giving us a tour. The smell inside this bottom-of-the-garden shack was incredible: sweet, dry, saliva-inducing. "You can put anything on it as a marinade. Some people are using whisky." The local competition, Isle of Ewe Smokehouse (whose excellent kippers we also bought), uses rum. We had a taste, and bought two packs of the hot-smoked. The South African woman's journey had not been wasted.
Applecross, our next destination, had none of the chocolate-box charm of its name. The coastal approach road was cuttingly bleak, with Skye a kind of lodestone away to the right, drawing the gaze, while the very knowledge of the place's remoteness made us edgy. One "passing place" stop along the route yielded our mushroom.
At Applecross Inn – the reason many people make this journey – a little table was free by the peat-burning fire. The interior was a mix of the ordinary (pinewood panelling, spotted burgundy carpet) and the strange (a Michael Forbes painting, an ancient-looking tortoise shell decorated with Captain Cook imagery). Across the road a beer garden overlooked the Inner Sound's pebble beach. The menu, spread across dresser-sized chalkboards, was resplendent with king scallops, squat lobster, prawns, crab and Loch Torridon Smoke House salmon. Orkney rollmop salad was tangy and robust, while our smoked haddock chowder had such depth of flavour that this thrillingly isolated place felt homely for a while.
At timber-framed Kishorn Seafood Bar, the penultimate stop on our final day feeding frenzy, squat lobster tails were piled behind a sparkling display counter. "This is a shellfish area," owner Vivienne Rollo told us. "Creel boats work out of here ... but the trawlers still come. It creates huge tension." Trawlers can disrupt the static creels on the sea floor.
I mentioned Stephen Couper's comment in Ullapool that much local shellfish was exported. "Well, I try to intercept it," she said with a laugh. "That's why I started this place: I used to live up in Lochinver in the Seventies and early Eighties and could never understand why people couldn't get fresh fish even though it was a white-fish port."
Two of the bar's top sellers are garlic scallops served with a croissant and the seafood platter, but we enjoyed a plateful of plump oysters (£1.50 each) that had just come in from Skye.
Back at Melvaig Inn for our final meal, Ian Douglass was walking off with our mushroom – identified as an orange birch bolete. "I'll cook it and add it to your seafood platter." But I protested; we wanted it for breakfast. "In that case ..." he wagged his finger and returned with one half of a much more impressive version of our find, and a few pale orange chanterelles. "There you go," he said. It was pitch black when we left, and the road was blocked in places by sheep trying to bed down for the night. I took it as a sign we should stay.
Inverness is the gateway to Wester Ross. Trains run from Edinburgh, Glasgow and London (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk). Inverness Airport is served by FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com).
Deli-Ca-Sea (01854 612 141; delicasea.co.uk).
The Ferry Boat Inn (01854 612 366; ferryboat-inn.com).
Dry Island Shellfish (01445 741 263; shellfishsafaris.com). Loch Torridon Smoke House (01520 755 379; lochtorridonsmokehouse.co.uk). Applecross Inn (01520 744 262; applecross.uk.com/inn). Kishorn Seafood Bar (01520 733 240; kishornseafoodbar.co.uk).
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