Islay In My Belly | Feis Ile 2015

Islay, aaah, Islay, it’s always such a pleasure to visit your beautiful landscapes again.

Even if you made a liar out of me when I told our Islay newbie friends how we have always had gorgeous weather for Feis Ile (whisky and musical festival) week and would surely have it again.

Even in the driving winds and rains, you were beautiful.

Though the weather made me grateful for the cosiness of our self-catering house with its deep, soft sofas, small but well-equipped kitchen and comfortable bedrooms.

And its windows out across glorious views of green grass, yellow gorse, blue sea and cows. I spent long moments standing watch as baby rabbits, deranged with excitement, hopped and swallows swooped across the spring sky.

There were seven in our group this time; two crazy brave folks on bicycles and the rest of us in joyously rain-proof cars. I think – I hope – we all enjoyed the week, though I remain in awe of the cyclists’ sheer determination and tenacity!

We didn’t visit as many of your beautiful locations as we usually do – no excursions to Kilnave Chapel, the Kildarton Cross or to the ancient seat of the Lordship of the Isles, on the shores of Loch Finlaggan. Few meanders across sand beaches or stony shorelines. And a little less time sitting out in the sunshine with a whisky in hand and the merry notes of live music nearby.

Still we visited all the distilleries: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig and Islay Ales too.

We didn’t diligently attend every distillery open day this time – since our first visit in 2006 the popularity of the festival has grown year on year and there are far more fellow visitors to contend with than ever before. Of itself, that’s no bad thing – it’s an extra pleasure chatting to locals and other travellers – but the narrow, twisting roads and limited parking at many of the distilleries makes transport logistics ever more difficult and there were a occasions when we bowed out of the long, slow queues for park and ride minibuses and pootled away somewhere else instead.

We took it easy, visiting distilleries on their quieter days and booked into only a couple of specialist events – partly be design and partly because they now book out within minutes of tickets being released. I am reliably informed that Jim McEwan’s last Bruichladdich masterclass and Dr Kirstie McCallum’s straight-from-the-cask tasting session at Bunnahabhain were both very fantastic.

Congratulations to both Ardbeg and Laphroaig, both celebrating 200 years as legally registered distilleries. Lagavulin follows suit next year. And a hearty congratulations to Kilchoman on their tenth birthday!

We made two lovely visits to my favourite Scottish pub, An Tigh Seinnse in Portnahaven, run by lovely Laura and her husband.

Of course, I gorged myself on crab claws and scallops from the Seafood Shack – no squat lobsters this time but the crab and scallops were as good as ever.

We cooked three communal dinners in the house and enjoyed two barbeques in the fantastic barbeque hut in the garden – I refer to this handsome hexagonal hut as the Hobbit House, though in reality it’s plenty large enough for the tallest in our group and seven of us had plenty of space to spread out inside. A large central barbeque is surrounded by benches covered in soft animal skins with light coming in from small windows. Next time, I shall pack a few candles for when the darkness falls. ASPorter butchers in Bowmore were the source of delicious meats, and the Bowmore co-op provided most of the rest. Plus some wild garlic foraged by Lagavulin’s car park and, later, from the back garden when we realised it was growing rampant there too.

We returned to The Lochside Hotel in Bowmore for a couple of lunches.

And we made a new discovery when we stopped into the Ballygrant Inn to a warm welcome in the well-stocked whisky bar there. Another welcome respite from the rain, especially for damp cyclists!

Even in the rain, driving around Islay afforded one stunning view after another; verges bright with blooming bluebells and tightly curled ferns, marshy grassland dotted with sheep and cattle, wide sweeping shorelines with gently lapping waters or wind-whipped, white-tipped waves, winding single-lane roads with quaint passing points that were slightly hair-raising when the island’s bus or a large lorry hurtled at speed towards you.

I did a lot of the driving as the only non whisky-drinker in the group, though I rather enjoyed it, perhaps more than my passengers did!

And when the sun came out more resolutely, for our last couple of days… oh Islay, you were, as always, glorious!

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Views from the main house


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Inside the Hobbit House


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Two visits to Ardbeg, one for Feis Ile open day and one for a quieter lunch in the Old Kiln Cafe


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A salad with foraged wild garlic; a newly discovered pleasure – cambozola cheese in Pedro Ximinez sherry; ASPorter butchers; farm-fresh eggs from the chickens by the house; my sparkling sake whisky alternative; serving up my banoffee dessert; the aftermaths of after-dinner drinking


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Laphroaig, celebrating 200 years this year


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An Tigh Seinnse (with birthday boy Pete and frenzied crab-eating Kavey); Portnahaven harbour views


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Birthday puzzle; whisky and chocolate tasting at Lagavulin; Ballygrant Inn whisky bar; one of An Gleann tablet makers resident peacocks displaying at a very disinterested peahen


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Two visits to Bruichladdich, one for Feis Ile open day and another to buy whisky when the shop was less rammed


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The boys walked to Caol Ila, I waited for the minibus and beat them there; beautiful views across to Jura


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Just some of my lunch purchases from the Seafood Shack


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Although we missed Kilchoman’s open day we did go for tea and cake on a quieter day instead, completing a quick crossword in the car and cafe


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Two visits to Bunnahabhain during the week


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Whisky tastings at Bowmore; Bowmore’s round church, Kilarrow, designed to give the devil no corners in which to hide; lunch at The Lochside Hotel


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Taking shelter from the downpour in the Islay Ales open day tent; I found cake!


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A trip to Islay starts and ends with a CalMac journey


Although this isn’t a typical entry, I’m submitting this to Celia’s In My Kitchen, since we did lots of wonderful cooking in our Islay home-from-home and the fabulous Hobbit House!

Big thanks to my friend Matt Gibson for extra photos, credited by image.

Fresh Crab & Squat Lobsters

As soon as we drove off the ferry and onto Islay, we headed straight to Lagavulin for the first of distillery open day of Feis Ile 2013. Yes, even before we headed to our self-catering house and unloaded the car!

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There I happily spotted the mobile Seafood Shack and quickly bought myself a portion of fresh crab claws, served with either marie rose sauce or garlic mayonnaise. At £4 for a generous serving, I was in heaven! Pete and our friends wandered around, tasting drams and watching a cooper explain how he makes barrels.

I sat at a table, chatted to the first of many fellow visitors, and attacked my claws with vigour, tapping a toe away to the live music that was often being played.


I determined to enjoy Seafood Shack’s bounty every day of our holiday, though in the end I missed two days – on one they took a well-deserved day off and on the other I arrived at the distillery after they’d sold out and shut up shop! I did, of course, find seafood elsewhere on those two days, so all wasn’t completely lost!


Some days I added a portion of scallops cooked in butter and whisky. Other days I added a pint of squat lobster, a crustacean I’ve not encountered before but quickly came to adore; easier to split open with a hard thumbnail or plastic knife and flesh that is sweet and utterly delicious…


The annual whisky (and music) festival is held at the end of May and this was our third time attending. You can read more about the various open days on Pete’s blog. This summary post contains links to a full post on each one.

We plan to go back again in another couple of years, and I’ll be looking forward to finding the Seafood Shack there when we do!

Top Tips For Dining in Inverness

Pete and I recently enjoyed a lovely weekend in Inverness, travelling there to attend and celebrate the wedding of our dear friends Kristine and Carlo. (Congratulations, darlings!)

With a few extra days in hand, we were able to enjoy some excellent meals during our stay, thanks to local and twitter recommendations.

The Mustard Seed

Since 1995 The Mustard Seed has been serving simple, tasty food in an attractive converted church building on the banks of the River Ness. The restaurant describes its cooking as using “quality Scottish ingredients to create a modern European menu with Highland influences.”

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The conversion of the interior (which I’ve singularly failed to capture) has created a very appealing open space with many original features combined with modern styling. We visited for lunch twice during our time in Inverness and were seated downstairs both times. The large ground floor windows were open, letting in a lovely breeze on two warm summer’s days. There is also a terrace floor above where some tables give a very pretty view of the river.

Lunch time visits are a steal; a special lunch menu offers two courses, a starter and a main, for just £6.95. There are five starters to choose from and six mains. The same menu runs for a week at a time, so we chose from the same list for both our visits.


Very fresh and delicious bread and butter was served first.


On our first trip, we both chose the homemade soup of the day, a butternut squash and garlic one. The flavour was decent though not as strongly butternut squash as I expected – the squash was clearly just one ingredient in a general vegetable soup. It was also thinner than I expected and Pete was not keen on the fact that it hadn’t been smoothly blended so there were fibres of vegetables (rather than chunks, which he wouldn’t have minded as much). That said, it was pleasant enough.


One of our group had the spicy aubergine fritters in a cumin and corriander [sic] batter with dressed red chard and a sweetcorn and cucumber relish. This was again pleasant rather than fantastic – the chef had too light a hand with the cumin and coriander, they were difficult to detect. The “relish” seemed to consist of fresh corn and cukes in a bottled sweet chilli sauce. Nonethelsess, again, it was pleasant enough.


Another starter, from our second visit, was a warm salad of roast beef, caramelised onions, pears and rocket with a walnut and chive vinaigrette. It wasn’t visually very appealing but it tasted nice. That said, I didn’t particularly find the steak was a winning match with the pear; it worked but didn’t jump out as a new genius food combination. It struck me as a way of using a surplus stock of beef, to be honest.

Others in our group ordered the salad of peaches, strawberries, fresh blueberries and charantais melon topped with raspberry creme fraiche and toasted almonds. Whilst this looked delicious, everyone around the table was in firm agreement that it was far better suited to either breakfast or a dessert than being listed as a starter.

The last starter in the list was a smoked trout, gravadlax and smoked halibut mousse with sweet pea mascarpone, lemon wedges and home made sweet potato bread (at a £1.85 supplement). It was deemed tasty.


From the mains, I first tried the pan seared rump of beef on roasted potatoes, mushrooms and smoked bacon lardons with a herb and sunblushed tomato butter (at a £3.45 supplement). The steak and sunblushed tomato butter were really nice, I’d order them again. The mushrooms didn’t go well but the bacon downright clashed with the tomato butter and had no place on the plate.

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The roasted breast of chicken with sweet potato mash, grilled haggis and creamed leeks proved a popular choice. On the second day we went in, they informed us on ordering that they’d run out of haggis and were serving it with a slice of blood pudding instead. We thought this worked even better than the haggis, though both were excellent. The (generously sized) breast of chicken was deftly cooked, retaining moisture and flavour. The creamed leeks were excellent. The mild sweetness from the mash worked well against the haggis / blood pudding.

Feedback was also good for the grilled fillet of seabass on crushed lemon adn herb potatoes with sauce vierge (at a £2.75 supplement) and the marinated fillet of salmon in thyme, garlic and olive oil served with a crisp red cabbage, lemon and beetroot salad with chilli oil, which I might have ordered but for the red cabbage salad side.


On our second visit, we shared a dessert of rich chocolate cake (£4.25) which was very dense and fudgy in texture.

All in all we liked The Mustard Seed. For the lunch time pricing, we were willing to overlook minor weaknesses in the combinations of ingredients in some of the dishes, and both the service and cooking were decent. I was a bit surprised at wine prices; a blackboard on the wall listed house wines of the month at £5.25 for a small glass and £6.95 for a large one!

I’d like to see a lunch menu that gives a choice of starter and main or main and dessert.

River House Restaurant

On the opposite side of the River Ness, next to a grand Victorian church (that’s now home to a funeral directors business) is River House Restaurant. It’s just by the beautigul Greig Street pedestrian bridge, a beautiful iron suspension bridge built in 1881 by local firm, the Rose Street Foundry.

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Friendly chef/ proprietor Allan Little (originally from Cornwall) offers a £13.50 lunch and early supper menu. It gives a choice of 5 starters and four mains and is what we ordered from on our lunchtime visit.


Pete’s warm goats cheese tartlet topped with a cranberry and caramelised red onion jam was good. He felt the pastry was a little thick, but the flavours were good.


A strange choice, perhaps, having just returned from a trip to Parma the week before, during which I sampled plenty of fabulous Parma ham, but I could not resist melon n Parma ham as my starter. The ham and melon were complimented by a drizzle of balsamic (keeping it in the Emilia Romagna region!) and a herb oil.

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The salad of pan roasted chicken breast, avocado and crispy pancetta with a honey mustard dressing was a generous plate. A lighter but filling option for a sunny lunch.


I really liked my grilled fillet of sea bream served with a prawn, tomato and mascarpone risotto though I’d been concerned at how well the fish would go with the risotto. I thought it worked! The fish was fresh and moist and the risotto was perfectly cooked, unctuous and creamy yet not mushy.

Good food, fair prices and a very warm welcome.

The Kitchen

Almost opposite The Mustard Seed, and just a minute’s stroll from River House, The Kitchen is a second offering from the team behind The Mustard Seed, opened in 2007.


Unlike the other two restaurants, The Kitchen resides in an uncompromisingly modern new building and diners are seated across three floors. If you book ahead, you may be able to reserve a window table looking out over the river.


To our surprise, The Kitchen goes one better than The Mustard Seed; £1 better in fact: It’s lunch time menu is just £5.95 for two courses! Like its sister restaurant, its lunch menu offers 5 choices for starter and 6 for main. We visited one lunch time.


We both chose Highland haggis and baked potato gratin served with a whisky jus. We couldn’t detect any whisky in the jus and the haggis didn’t come through that well amid the potato. And the mixed salad didn’t work well with it either. This was just OK.

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The home made beef and chilli burger on ciabatta with cheddar cheese, thin cut fries and garlic mayonnaise (£1.95 supplement) went down well. Pete forgave the ciabatta bun, though I’m not a fan. It was a decent burger, nothing to shout out about but great value for the price and Pete enjoyed it.


My baked fillet of salmon served with a panache of roasted tomatoes and sautéed potatoes topped with a creamy crayfish tail and dill sauce was hit and miss. The salmon was excellent, cooked so it retained it’s moistness and a generous piece, I relished every mouthful. The potatoes were pleasant but the “roasted” tomatoes were virtually raw (and insipid). And the crayfish tails were complete mush and tasted of nothing; in fact the sauce itself added nothing to the dish.

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We shared two desserts, the strawberry custard tart and a banoffee cheesecake. The strawberry custard tart was oddly flat, with such a meagre layer of custard on it that it barely equalled the thickness of the pastry. It wasn’t awful but it wasn’t great either and didn’t get finished. The banoffee, on the other hand, was superb. I thought, when I looked at it, that the “offee” layer wasn’t generous enough but actually, everything balanced perfectly.

Of the two sister restaurants, we liked The Mustard Seed better, both in terms of the buildings themselves and food and service (though service was perfectly acceptable at The Kitchen too).

That said, we’d go to both again on a future visit.

Chez Roux

We visited Chez Roux for a splash out meal on our first evening in Inverness. Of the recommendations I’d been given, this one appealed the most, with its menu designed by the legendary Albert Roux. It’s in the Rocpool Reserve Hotel, a small luxury hotel in a converted residential building in an Inverness suburb.

Roux has fond memories of Inverness from family holidays there nearly 50 years ago. Back when the restaurant opened in 2009, he told journalists he wanted to recreate the kind of restaurant he remembered from his home town in France, offering “good and honest country cooking” at a price that would not require “ringing the bank for permission” first!

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On our arrival we were shown into the hotel bar for an aperitif and some amuses, and given the menus. The bar is attractive, but somewhat soulless, though hard to expect anything else from a bar in such a tiny hotel. The residential location precludes passing trade for the bar too, though I’m not sure it’s allowed anyway.

Chez Roux offers a set price menu at just £25 for three courses, available for both lunch and dinner. However, the à la carte is also reasonably priced and most three-course combinations would come to around £30, or just a touch over.


Once we’d made our choices, we were shown into the dining room, very retro in black and white with red accents. The hideous carpet is an enormous shame; it let down an otherwise pleasant interior.

Service was friendly, helpful and professional right down to the youngest members of the team. It’s refreshing to see wait staff who are proud of their job, proud of their workplace and enthusiastic about the food they are serving.

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Bread was very fresh and very good indeed, served with enough butter that I don’t find myself begging for more, as is so often the case.


Pete’s cheese and leek tart with seasonal salad leaves was excellent. A generous slice of a very well made tart, punchy cheese and leek flavours, well dressed salad and a simple but good sauce. He liked it very much.

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But it was my starter that stole the show. Souffle Suissesse, described as Albert Roux’s twice baked floating soufflé with Mull cheddar and Gruyère cheese was one of the best dishes I’ve eaten all year. So light I dreamt I was eating a cloud, it was served in a cheese sauce that packed so much cheese flavour it was cheesier than solid cheese! And yet, thin and light, not thick and oily and gloopy. Truly a delightful dish and one I’d go all the way to Inverness for, just to eat it again!

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Pete’s fillet of mackerel with crushed potatoes and sauce vierge is exactly what Roux aimed to provide – good and honest country cooking – using fresh ingredients simply to create a tasty dish.


Back in the bar, I was told that the daily lobster special was grilled lobster served with boiled potatoes and salad with a caesar dressing. At £23.50 I couldn’t resist and did enjoy the dish, though the lobster was really overcooked, making the meat soft and mushy, rather than the usual slight resistance and bounce. It did have a nice flavour though. Either I misheard or there was some confusion, as the side salad had nothing caesar about it.

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Pete was happy with his cheese selection in place of dessert. The waiter talked us through all the cheeses and Pete tried all six. The Brie de Meaux was properly ripe and had the grassy hay notes that make it such a wonderful cheese. Livarot was mild, and not one I’d pick for a cheese board as it doesn’t hold its own against stronger cheeses. The Isle of Mull cheddar had a distinct hint of garlic about it, though I don’t think any is actually used. It was a great strong cheddar, really robust. Cuddy’s Cave was a mellow and quite creamy hard cheese, a good mid point between mild and strong. Northumberland Nettle is a hard cheese flavoured with nettles. It wasn’t to my taste but I’m not often a fan of cheeses with herbs or spices in them. I didn’t really like the Strathdon Blue either. It didn’t taste at all of blue cheese, rather the mould reminded me of dust – a musty flavour that had none of the normal piquant flavour of blue cheese mould.

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My hot chocolate fondant and caramel ice-cream and hot chocolate sauce looked pretty as a picture, served in it’s three individual dishes. The fondant itself was a little dry; there was some moistness in the centre but not enough and the outer two thirds needed a lot more moistness. The flavour was great though, and the ice cream and chocolate sauce did add liquid. The ice cream was delicious, though not overtly caramel in flavour, more like a slightly cooked milk taste. Nice though!


The young lad who brought out our latte was keen to check whether it was OK. Pete had already commented (out of his earshot) that it was a good job; when we told him he explained it was the first one he’d ever made. Bless him! I had a mint infusion. With these we were served chocolates, all four were (very good) pralines, which meant I had to make the ultimate sacrifice and eat them all! Woe is me!

All in all we had an enjoyable evening, made so not just by the food but also the service. For Londoners used to much higher prices, we felt this was a great value dining experience.