When she heard I was going to Scotland, Sui Mai told me that I must eat "haggis with neeps and tatties". The version I had at The Dores Inn was so delicious that I decided to go back a few nights later. The restaurant is located about 20 minutes drive away from Inverness, and features a short menu of unfussy and well-cooked dishes. It also backs onto Loch Ness and the view from the back of the restaurant is phenomenal.
Back to the haggis, this was meaty and deeply savoury, like concentrated fond from roasting mammoth dinosaur bones. I liked also that it was relatively free of distractions like oatmeal fillers or peppery spicing, just pure melt-in-the-mouth-gasm with every bite. Neeps are mashed turnips- a bit watery and bland despite the bright orange hue, tatties are mashed potatoes which I preferred, the velvet gravy lapping over them comfortingly.
The view from the back of the restaurant. Isn't it marvelous?
One morning we decided to drive out to explore the Cairngorms, which is Britain's most extensive mountain massif. It is dotted with tiny and very charming little villages with the most adorable names like Aviemore, Kingussie and Laggan. We visited a clan museum, then moved on to find lunch at the Mountain Cafe. Situated in Aviemore, an amenities-centre for the rugged holidaymaker, the food served in the cafe is wholesome and politically correct. No haggis or anything that twee, but my sweetcorn and zucchini fritters (more like a dense skillet cake than fritter) was rather too filling. What blew me away though, were generously thick chunks of hot smoked salmon tucked between; so much better than cold-smoked, hot-smoking rendered the yummy Scottish salmon even more smoky and voluptuous-tasting. After lunch, one could go shopping in the sports equipment shop below but not me. I am not the sporting type, besides the goods are so expensive and rather ugly.
After such a hearty lunch, it was time to visit the Highland Wildlife Park. A bit like doing a safari, visitors drive and walk around to observe exotic foreign species like wildcats, bisons, yaks and even wild boars. It was a fun outing for V, she had enjoyed seeing rare sheep and chickens in a rare-breed farm in Fort William the day before (image above) and this thrilled her even more. I think the animals found me exotic, the Chinese woman with big sunglasses and parasol.
Literally next door, there is the Highland Folk Museum, straddling the two villages of Kingussie and Newtonmore. A sprawling complex of farmhouses and ye-olde churches, train-stations, schoolhouses etc, visitors can explore traditional Highland ways of life, and of course, take a ride in pre-war type buses. It was totally charming.
Clan life, wild life, Hebridean life. There is definitely more to the Scottish Highlands than castle ruins, whiskies and the Loch Ness monster. Darling, take me there again?
The days flew by quickly, and soon we had to leave for Glasgow. Instead of going by the A9, husband took the slower, older A82. We thought we would make Glasgow for lunch, but we didn't account for the meandering two-lane highway full of trucks and leisurely drivers. Couldn't blame them, the view of the waters of Loch Lomond and surrounding forest parks are gorgeous. By noon, and still in central lowlands rather than further south, we had to improvise. Thumbing through the Rough Guide and the road map, I told husband to stop at the next village of Tyndrum, where the Real Food Cafe is said to "serve fast food that is locally sourced and cooked to order".
The cafe sits on the side of the highway. No other buildings save a few houses on the other side of the road. Not even a convenience store or a petrol station in this neck of the woods. Hmm, how many buildings make a village? The carpark was full of trucks containing frozen fish boxes with Eastern European words. Not too local eh? Still, we had no back-up plan, who knows what was in the next town, so we decided to take our chances here.
Inside, it was quite spartan but warm and quietly buzzing. Lots of recyclable cups and blond wood à la Ikea. Families, farmers, mountain trekkers. We sat ourselves in a sunny corner while husband queued up to place our lunch orders. He came back with hot tea and scones for me. The scones did not contain white flour, but were still quite tender and light, there was jam but no butter. I was slowly getting the impression that mountainside establishments hold possibility of good unpretentious food (unlike, say, their competitors in town fooling around with lemongrass infusions and masala veal chops). A middle-age lady and another volunteer shepherded a gaggle of elderly residents out for their lunch outing. All the old ladies ordered fish and chips. The manager came out to take care of them personally.
Eventually, like 25 minutes later, our lunch came. Old ladies table got served first. Husband had ordered burgers for me. The burgers, handmade from good local beef it may be, was too dry and skinny with a cardboard texture; I would have preferred something more recognisably meaty. Still, the cheese was tasty, the bun nicely toasted and the salads properly fresh and crisp.
I munched half-heartedly and then took a bite of husband's fish and chips. Hmm, what is this? Crispy batter with very fresh-tasting fish inside. I couldn't believe it. We had been eating fish and chips at various locations the whole week, including a famous pub in the fishing village of Ullapool which had won awards for its beer-battered version; all had been huge disappointments- too greasy, too bland, too boring. The fish and chips at Real Food Cafe was absolutely fabulous. We were all over the plate, it was the best fish and chips I've ever tried.
I was not the only fan. The boards near the restroom were covered with appreciative letters and approving reviews. The trucks were a red herring (haha); the fish do come from far away, from the Barents Sea north of Norway and Russia. It is good fish, cooked upon order, in a light but still crisp-crunchy batter coating, as it should be. So there we had it, a most excellent fish and chips served not by the seaside but a roadside cafe in the middle of nowhere in Scotland.
Dores Inn Dores, Loch Ness, Inverness T: 01463 751203
Mountain Cafe 111 Grampian Rd, Aviemore T: 01479 812473
Real Food Cafe Tyndrum on the A82/A85. T: 08457 484950