Slow food at The Torridon

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Food Photos Torridon (1)

The Torridon hotel, nestling between sea and mountain

Deep in the highlands of Scotland, amid magnificent coastal scenery a slow food revolution is taking place. In the vanguard is Kevin Broome, head chef at The Torridon, perhaps Scotland’s most famous small luxury hotel. His ethos is to use local, fresh ingredients from sutainable sources. By taking this approach, he’s ensured almost all of the food served in the hotel’s elegant wood-pannelled dinning room comes from within a 50 mile radius.

Head Chef at The Torridon, Kevin Broome

The slow food movement began in the 1980′s after Italian food journalist, Carlo Petrini began to campaign against MacDonald’s restaurant opening on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Since then, enlightened chef’s, hoteliers and restauranteurs have embraced its values. The Slow food movement is about food – but it also has a wider meaning, as it questions western societies fast-living culture and advocates returning to a more meaningful pace of life.

‘I moved to The Torridon from Jersey in 2002,’ explained Kevin. ‘I’d been running a couple of two-starred Michelin restaurants. It was a hectic lifestyle, and I’d achieved a local fame of sorts, but we decided it was time for a quiter existence, with more time to ourselves. That’s why the whole slow food philosophy now fits perfectly with what we want from life.’

‘The highlands are a beautiful place to live,’ he continued, ‘and everybody looks out of the window and says, ‘God you must have an open larder here,’ but it’s taken five years to get regular supplies of all the ingredients I want.’

A Loch Torridon Langoustine – or a ‘prawn’ as the fishermen call them

A good example of a hard-to-get-ingrediant, are the Langoustine which the local fishermen simply call ‘prawns.’ Nearly all of the local catch is sent to Spain where the prawns command much higher prices than in the UK. The fishermen run a sophisticated operation. In business-speak, they have a modern integrated supply-chain, to make sure their prawns catch the right plane – but they are also comitted to sustainable fishing.

Hauling creels on ‘The Sea Fox’ one of the Loch Torridon prawn boats. ‘We have good days, and bad days,’ muses Kenny MacLeod, ‘but that’s why they call it fishing and not catching!’

An escape hatch on a creel - this allows the smaller prawns to escape

If the Loch Torridon fishermen don’t carefully manage their stocks then there is a risk the fishing will collapse. Skipper of prawn boat, ‘The Sea Fox,’ Kenny MacLeod explained the changes the local fleet made several years ago. ‘We limited the number of days we fish each year and have ‘escape hatches’ for undersized prawns. We also throw back what we call ‘berried’ prawns. These are the ones carrying eggs – which are of course the next generation of prawns.’

In 2003 this initiative was recognised and the Loch Torridon fishermen were awarded the prestigous Marine Stewardship award by Prince Charles.

Prawns, ready to be served

Enjoying Langoustine in The Torridon’s dining room

The Torridon hotel has managed to divert some of prawns normally sent to Spain and now takes a regular delivery. ‘Our guests love them,’ explains Kevin. ‘But in Britain, shellfish is still seen as a luxury item. People have a mind-set where they will only eat lobster when they go on holiday. But this is daft really. We are surrounded by lobsters and prawns – after all, we are an island!’

Slow food scallops at The Torridon: good, clean and fair food

‘Although we are perceived as a luxury hotel,’ Kevin continued, ‘I’m very happy to put down prawns, scallops or mussel’s simply cooked with some salad – but without any fussy embellishments. These are sometimes seen as Bistro dishes, but I can’t sell enough of them – and when our regular guests come they ask for the local seafood.’

Les, head gardener at The Torridon

Nearly all The Torridon’s salad and vegtables come from its own garden which is tended by Les. He makes modest claims that he isn’t an expert, but this is belied by the fact he’s been gardening and crofting for decades and has an encylopedic knowledge of permaculture.

‘We have a real mix in this garden,’ Les explained. ‘I aim to supply salad leaves on a daily basis with a mix of long lasting crops like brussel sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, kale and chards.’

‘The key is to make sure it doesn’t all come at once. You have one crop sowing, and then another. The trick is to make sure there is always something available for the kitchen.’

Les has a background in environmental science, and honed his permaculture skills working in forest gardens. ‘In a forest garden you have all the levels that you would have in a natural woodland from the canopy down to the roots and fungi. But those top layers don’t have to be a huge Scotch Pine – the tallest plant could be redcurrants which then helps create a protected habitat for the plants below.’

Raspberries: come back and see us in the summer

The highlands are a beautiful environment – but also a very hard place to grow a diverse and plentiful range of crops. However, Les’s instinctive understanding of the conditions mean the crops continue to grow year on year. The soil is nourished with traditional fertilisers like nettles and comfry, and of course the addition of the readily available sea-weed. Les pauses as his tour of the vegtable beds continues.

‘Gardening,’ he observes, ‘is about soil management. In the same way that growing for the kitchen is about a little and often, the same approach is needed when adding the nutrients that maintain and develop the quality of the soil.’

Up close and personal with a highland cow

As guests arrive at the Hotel, the Highland cattle wandering in the fields adjoinging the trip are impossible to miss. They add a striking visual element to the character of the hotel, and provide intrepid guests with the lively experience of taking the cattle buckets of food. They also provide another source of food for the hotel.

‘All the meat we serve at the hotel is slow reared,’ explains head chef Kevin. ‘Whether its our cattle or the pigs which we get from a very interesting lady called Lucy. She inherited a farm from her parents which was in debt, but she thought she could make it work. She sought out people like myself and said, ‘look, would you be interested in using these ingredients if I breed them for you?’ It meant that she could keep her farm, and I have these fantastic quality ingredients coming into the kitchen.’

‘The meat is outstanding, so I have to very little to do except prepare it, cook it and keep things simple. Lucy now has over 40 people working for her and is a major employer in this area.’

Talk of all these fantastic, local and fresh ingrediants had my mouth watering, and extremly keen to sample them first hand. Except, at The Torridon, its not just about the food, its about the experience. Nothing is rushed, and everything is given time.

The Torridon whisky bar: you won’t leave here thirsty

The perfect evening for me at The Torridon, begins in the whisky bar. The selections of malts on view elicits a sense of excitement and trepidation, but the bar staff are expert at guiding both novice or coinoisseur in the right direction.

A tipple while perusing the menu

While comparing lowland versus highland malts the menu slips its way onto the bar. The choices are superb, but deliberately limited. ‘We don’t do an a la carte menu anymore,’ Kevin explained. ‘Because we work with local, fresh ingredients I do a daily menu with two starters and two main courses. I always do a soup course, a couple of puddings, cheese and that’s it.’

The starter platter – often enjoyed in the bar before going into the main dinning room

There are five course ranging from morsels to whet the appetite to ample main courses.

And then its on to the dinning room. Most people stay at the hotel for two or three nights, and have the same table for breakfast and dinner. ‘It helps them feel at one with us,’ explains Kevin. In a stark contrast to the over-the-top service characteristic of many London restaurants each dish seems to make an understated but perfectly timed arrival from the kitchen.

Organic salmon by candle-light

This particular meal felt like a cullinary tour of the nearby Glen’s, gardens and coastline. Vegtables pointed-out by Les in the garden were now on our plates, next to fish caught by people we’d been chatting to in the local pub the night before.

One of The Torridon’s many specialities is is incredible (and award winning) selection of Scottish cheeses…

… accompanied of course by oat-cakes made in-house.

At the very least, I’d recommend popping into The Torridon for afternoon tea.

There is home made chocolate cake…

…home made shortbread and scones…

… it’s the perfect way to spend a couple of hours.

Time standing still at The Torridon. Just seeing this picture has me looking forward to my next visit.

When you look around the dinning room in the evening, the range of guests is intriguing. There are young, sporty types next to people in the full tweed outfit. What all the guests seem to have in common though is that they’re taking a proper time-out. ‘You watch people de-compress from their busy lives,’ observes Kevin. ‘They arrive in city-mode. The next night they start undoing their tie and you think, ‘right, we’ve got them.’

‘Really,’ he continues, ‘if we do our job properly, time should stop when people arrive at the door of The Torridon. There’s no rush. I would love people to take their watches off and just sit back and relax.”

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