We’re standing on a verdant, bouncy lawn with a view over the Sound of Sleat and I’m nervous as I try my first cast. Fly fishing, I know, is for the patient, the determined, the people who don’t fidget, and here I am flicking out a line with a piece of sheep’s wool attached, trying my best to be mindful and calm.
My teacher, Mitch Partridge, better known as Skye Ghillie, is telling me to sweep the rod up to two o’clock, then bring it back to ten, while flicking my wrist (but not too much) and drawing a nice arc in the air before landing my fake fly. At first I don’t do too badly, but as I begin to overthink it I find I’m all over the place. But my ghillie, Mitch, makes me keep going until he’s confident I won’t take my eye out with a real hook and, finally, I’m ready to have a proper go at fly fishing.
We move to a stream just outside the grounds of Kinloch Lodge, the hotel that was formerly the home of one of Scotland’s most renowned cooks, Lady Claire MacDonald. We seek out ripples on the surface of the water that indicate trout. I cast and cast but nothing bites. We move to another spot where, just last week, Mitch says, they landed three in no time. “Nae pressure,” he jokes. As we walk, he stops to show me yarrow, with which you can make tea, as well as several other forageable edibles — which is just as well as I don’t seem to be very good at catching anything. Mitch assures me that most of his clients get a bite. All I get is midgie bites.
But in the kitchen of Kinloch Lodge, chef Marcello Tully is prepared for such failure. There’s emergency fresh trout that he’ll teach me to skin, fillet and fill with a scallop and crab mousse flavoured with chilli, ginger and herbs (one of the chef’s signatures), before forming the stuffed fish into a roulade and rolling it until it becomes a perfect sausage shape.
There’s lobster to be steamed, then broken apart, béchamel sauce to be made, before the whole thing is assembled into a glorious thermidor. I learn the secrets of the base stocks and sauces in his Michelin-starred kitchen: that tasting, tasting, tasting is the key and that black pepper does not have much of a home here.
“I prefer the flavour and depth of Tabasco and we go through a lot of it,” says Tully, before adding a sprinkling of sugar to the béchamel, tasting it, then judging that it needs a final grating of raw garlic and some nutmeg. He tastes it again: “That’s more like it.”
In the step-back-to-the-time-of-the-clans dining room that night we enjoy an eight-course tasting menu. I feel like boasting, “I helped make some of these dishes.” But I maintain my decorum somehow (my parents are with me,
so I merely boast to them instead).
Skye is one of the most dramatic of the Scottish islands. It has the black and red Cuillin mountains and the Quirraing landslip as its backbone, with the Old Man of Storr standing sentinel and marking its Jurassic past. And it has the sea, the lochs and the moors, which provide much of what you’ll find on menus here.
Up behind the Talisker whisky distillery, we seek out the Oyster Shed, run by Paul McGlynn, whose family has been farming oysters in Loch Harport since 1981.
“I took over the business in 2008 and grew it from 200,000 to two million oysters, but an algae bloom came into the loch in 2011 and spread a vibrio bacterium throughout the farm. Over 1.5 million oysters died in two days. The Shed began in 2012 as a means to diversify and to maximise the return on the stock that we had left,” he explains. “My philosophy is to keep seafood simple and affordable to everyone. It all comes from Loch Harport, across Skye, and no further than the surrounding islands.”
You buy a ticket for your seafood inside the shed then take it outside to a catering van to pick up your choice of lobster and chips, crab rolls, prawn cocktails and seafood platters. For £8.50, we’re handed a polystyrene container overflowing with oysters, crab, mussels, lobster, pickled herring and bread — and this is what they call the ‘small’ portion. McGlynn smokes his own shellfish and salmon, and for the coming season in 2016, plans to sell his own hand-made oyster ice cream.
We wander down the hill to the Old Inn at Carbost, serving ales from the Isle of Skye and Cuillin breweries. Inside, it’s a little vintage, a little fun, a place where on a Friday you can shooglenifty to live folk music and where if the weather blesses you, you can take your pint to the garden and watch the sun dance across Loch Harport or dapple the Cuillins.
On our last day, we drive along a spectacular 15-mile single track (every bend in the road brings a new gasp at the view) to the white sands of Elgol beach and board the Bella Jane, which take us out into Loch Coruisk skirting the foot of the Cuillins. We watch the local seal colony as we nurse a cup of hot chocolate, sneaking out the home-made shortbread we’ve pinched from our rooms. It’s almost perfect. If only my ghillie was here to catch me some fish.
Four places for a taste of Skye
Marcello Tully has had a wide and varied career at the luxury end of catering, but the mission given to him by Lady Claire MacDonald at Kinloch Lodge was to win a Michelin star. This he did with aplomb. Signature dishes on the seasonal menu include home-cured salmon, scallop mousse and cod loin bouillabaisse. There’s a seven-course tasting menu, but also a great value set lunch menu.
How much: Five courses cost £70, seven courses cost £80 (both plus wine).
In a terraced house overlooking the harbour in Portree, chef Calum Munro has opened tiny Scorrybreac, bringing some of Scotland and Skye’s finest ingredients to the plate with finesse. There’s a starter of local scallops crusted in coconut, with butternut squash purée and salad leaves grown at Glendale or a main course of coffee-seared Skye venison, chanterelles and parsnip purée. Munro worked alongside Marcello Tully and cooked in Paris before operating a pop-up in his parent’s living room and then opening Scorrybreac last April.
How much: The fixed-price menu features two courses for £30 and three for £35 (plus wine).
The Three Chimneys
Shirley and Eddie Spear blazed the gastronomic trail on Skye when they opened this once-Michelin-starred restaurant more than 30 years ago. A starter of ‘slow-cooked pork belly, fennel, apple, pickled mussels and oysters’ features a compressed and sticky slab of meat, while a main of ‘cod, scallop, carrot, potato terrine & langoustine sauce’ provides a light contrast. The house-made bread is worth the journey alone.
How much: A five-course dinner menu costs £65, and eight-course ‘Skye showcase menu’ costs £90 (both plus wine).
Talisker Distillery, The Oyster Shed and the Old Inn — Carbost
Take a distillery tour at Talisker, where one of the world’s finest single malt whiskies is made, before climbing up the hilly road to the idiosyncratic Oyster Shed. Order platters of crab, lobster, oysters and chips, if you need them, and sit outside on a timber deck overlooking Loch Harport. Then amble back down the hill for a pint of locally brewed ale at the Old Inn.
discovering-distilleries.com theoldinnskye.co.uk taliskerskyeoysterman.co.uk
Six Skye food finds
From oysters and scallops to crab and lobster, Skye’s seafood and fish is as sweet and as fresh as it comes.
The Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company
Premium, gourmet finishing salt made by evaporating the waters of Loch Snizort, using only the power of the sun and wind.
A quirky little spot attached to a vintage shop in Uig, with home-made cakes, home-grown vegetables and salads and soups.
Isle of Skye Baking Company
Maker of breads, cakes, and Lavosh Jaggies, an Armenian-style flatbread with a Scottish twist.
Skye is abundant with edible seaweed, berries and plants — and, of course, seafood such as mussels can be found at low tide. Just don’t pick the mushrooms. skyeghillie.co.uk
Isle of Skye Brewing Co
Producers of real ales such as Skye Red, Skye Gold, Skye Black and Skye Blaven, all made using hand-milled grain.
How to do it
Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)