The Isle of Skye Is a Perfectly Formed Food Community
The Isle of Skye boasts two Michelin-starred eateries, but who cares about awards you have peat-smoked oysters, fresh nasturtium leaves, and fuckloads of whisky?
Photo courtesy The Three Chimneys
It's hard to use the phrase "culinary destination" without sounding like an overexcited tour bus operator or a provincial town guide book, but there are times when only the worst of cliches will do.
Like when the "destination" in question is less than 700 square miles and can only be reached by ferry or a mammoth concrete bridge. Or when the "culinary" offerings are peat-smoked oysters, fresh nasturtium leaves, haunch of venison, and whisky that's been mellowed in oak casks for eight years.
Despite being some 100 miles from the nearest major city, the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides has developed one of the UK's most intriguing (if not isolated) food scenes. As of September, it also boasts two Michelin-starred restaurants.
Just to put that into perspective, Birmingham—a city with more than ten times the population of Skye—has four, Liverpool one, and Manchester has failed to receive a star for over 40 years.
Maybe we can wheel out the cul-des, just this once.
"It's very different from London, I can tell you," says Marcello Tully, head chef at Kinloch Lodge and one of the island's Michelin star-holders. "I fell in love with the area. Although it is remote, we're an island and we're surrounded by fantastic sea food. That was one of the reasons I wanted to come: to have a good end product, you need to begin with good ingredients."
Tully was invited to Kinloch Lodge to "bring the à la carte up to date" by grande dame of Scottish cookery, Claire Macdonald in 2007. He's managed a little more than that. Since Tully's appointment, the restaurant has become famed for its use of Scottish gamefowl and Dan Saltzstein lauded the salmon's "delightfully crispy skin and tender, flaky meat" during a visit in 2010.
Just over an hour's drive from the Lodge is The Three Chimneys, Skye's second Michelin-starred restaurant.
"We started 30 years ago and began in a very small way. We chose the building because it was the perfect location to meet our aspirations as novice restaurateurs," says Shirley Spear, who co-founded the restaurant with her husband. "We had absolutely no expectations of ever having the accolades we've had. What is there now is completely different to what we started."
Spear appointed head chef, Michael Smith to join The Three Chimneys in 2005, following his stint running the kitchen of Glasgow's Blue Bar & Restaurant. His daily Taste of Skye menu is like eating a "top ten" list of Scottish delicacies.
"I was originally working down in London so the whole point of us opening a restaurant was because we wanted to showcase Scottish food and have a connection with Scotland's culinary heritage," explains Spear, who manned The Three Chimneys' kitchen as a self-taught chef before passing the reins to Smith. "It had been kind of forgotten about at that time."
The focus on traditional dishes and local ingredients over tourist-luring gimmicks seems to be the key to Skye's culinary success. No longer confined to deep-fried Mars bar jokes, demand for Scottish food has increased the country's food and drink industry turnover growth by 20.8 percent in the last four years, and official tourism board, Visit Scotland has dubbed 2015 the "Year of Food and Drink." Visitors will now be wooed by "Scotland's natural larder and quality produce," rather than Loch Ness Monster fridge magnets.
Simon Parker Bowles, owner of Green's Restaurant & Oyster Bar in London, is one fan of the island's natural assets. "On my last visit to Skye, I had a delicious lunch at The Three Chimneys," he says. "Oysters have undoubtedly played an enormous part in the lasting success of Greens."
And when Parker Bowles likes your oysters, you know they're good. The the former brother-in-law of the Duchess of Cornwall opened Green's in 1982 and its wild rock oysters have remained a favourite of Sloane Rangers and their Reiss-sporting offspring. Those guys know how to shuck.
Jeremy Lee, head chef at at Soho restaurant, Quo Vadis is another London food titan enthralled by the small island.
"When I think about Michael [Smith]; through his work with Shirley—who we love and admire enormously and was one of the early pioneers in ireland cooking—using local produce, working closely with land, sea and air; the Isle of Skye is a chef's paradise," says Lee, who was head chef to Smith during his time at The Blueprint Cafe in London's Design Museum. "It has been a long cherished want of mine to visit, I hear nothing but good things, and the produce is gorgeous."
But Isle of Skye never needed restaurant guides or accolades from semi-royals to validate its deliciousness. People have been foraging for pickable patches of gorse flower and wild garlic for years, and its shoreline brims with cockles and seaweed, not just oysters. Skye is a place that begs to be eaten.
"I've often said Skye is a chef's paradise, it's all here," says Tully. "I can pick up the phone and ask one of my salad suppliers to start growing a type of sorrel and they'll do that for me. It's a real community feel, we work very closely with the suppliers and make sure we get the right things."
Tully is so enamoured by the island's local produce that the restaurant even uses pebbles found on the beach as butter dishes (presumably, with a quick dust-off first). Spear has a similarly emphatic attitude towards the island's shoreline.
"The seafood from the waters around Skye is second to none. We're getting it straight from the water to the kitchen door and serving within hours of it being out of the sea," she says. "The fishermen catch lobsters and brown crab, and we have local scallop diver and oyster farmer. It's a small but perfectly formed food community."
Who cares about dining awards when you live in a semi-food cult and have sorrel-growers on speed dial?
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2015.