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October 6, 2010

‘A Taste of Speyside’ – My Second Helping

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, the distillery shall always recall Dufftown; the whisky Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

This pagoda could just be glimpsed from Braehead Terrace over the three days I stayed there. For me, Mortlach shall always recall Dufftown, and particularly Sandy at 'A Taste of Speyside'.

Without a shadow of a doubt, it was a good birthday. While certain social pressures preside over turning 21-years-of-age, and may lead to some degree of short-term memory loss next September, the location and the company which my birthday of 2010 embraced were sufficiently distinctive to preserve them in my mind, hopefully forever.

In the style of one who is especially hard to please (although I’m not, really), my gift to myself comprised a return to Dufftown. With my parents driving, of course. I had booked the family (my aunt – saviour of the Odyssey’s first week – had joined us) into ‘A Taste of Speyside’ for dinner, and we chugged into Dufftown, past the gargantuan Glenfiddich on the left and the symbolic still neck on the right, tickled by weak sunshine. A box of Northumbrian goodies sat beside me on the back seat - my Hamper of Limitless Gratitude.

Within said hamper (it was a cardboard box, in truth, although it had once been appropriated by the Doddington Dairy, makers of superb ice cream) were Piperfield Pork bacon, a selection of homemade preserves and an array of products from the Northumbrian Cheese Co. Northumbria’s are distinctive cheeses, and some of the loveliest I have ever tasted. I had hoped these would appeal to Sandy’s passionate interest in local produce, and whilst the topic of many of our conversations in April had been whisky-flavoured, he could acquire plenty of this himself. It would – as indeed it had for us – require quite a commute to purloin these note-worthy, delicious items (Piperfield supply Heston Blumenthal at ‘The Fat Duck’).

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

One of my very favourite restaurants, as I may have mentioned. Whisky might have brought you to Dufftown - this eaterie will bring you back.

Our dinner was not as alchemical or psychedelic as one might find in Bray, but just as lauded. Having nipped down the hill to Mortlach for the purposes of yet more distillery photography – I had neglected to capture its eclectic visage when I was last in the area, and indeed my comparative lack of pictorial variety preserved on my SD card is one of my bigger regrets of the tour - I hiked back along Fife Street, passed the Co-op where I had purchased so many highly-calorific morsels to the Clock Tower and Balvenie Street.

Ducking through the front door of No. 10 to witness Sandy holding court before my relatives was tremendous. I had hoped to introduce The Mother to him, but he came to appreciate what I had alluded to in April of his own accord. My dear Mum has enroled herself in an exclusion diet to mitigate symptoms of early-onset osteo-arthritis in the right elbow, an important joint for a chef. Sandy’s menu is fabulously rich in places, celebrating the apparent unpretentiousness of natural Scottish ingredients. The consequences of indulging in flour and dairy my mother agonised over extensively. “I can’t have potatoes, either,” said Mum. “Well don’t have them,” replied Sandy.

Following my Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15-year-old (not my wisest choice as an aperitif but they hadn’t any Tomintoul 14-year-old) I had the Cullen Skink – a creamy, potato-laden fish soup – to start, and then the Speyside Platter which amalgamated many of the finest foods from the Spey valley and the Moray coast. As it turned out, they hadn’t any of the rabbit casserole on this occasion, either. Both were extraordinarily delicious: the Skink pure comfort food and the Platter an insight into the diveristy of produce from the area. Smoked salmon, chicken liver paté, smoked venison, herring, oatcakes and cheeses – my designs on rounding off my meal with the cranahan cheesecake had to be redrafted! I haven’t any photos, by the way, because each course vanished too quickly.

As a digestif I indulged in the 21-year-old PortWood from the distillery whose namesake is the street I was dining on. This was wonderfully spicy and rich, with marzipan sweetness and creaminess. The oaking was assertive but deliciously so and the tannic fruitiness mingled with the textures of the crème brûlée I had managed to despatch. Once again, superlative Scottish hospitality had put the world to rights.

So unexpected and plentiful had Sandy’s support and generosity been at the time I first encountered him - a juncture of huge significance and precariousness - that to dine in his restaurant under entirely different circumstances and yet to discover him unchanged, baffled me no end. This man had made self-belief possible at a time when I had lost my way, badly. What I now accredit as my most treasured achievement to date had at one stage been in serious, ignominious jeopardy. Circumstance and despondency had coalesced on the morning of April 27th, but the potentially debilitating and restricting legacy of each had been banished by a simple demonstration of humanity. A change of mentality was desperately required, and duly arrived as a surprise side dish at ‘A Taste of Speyside’. The man himself, of course, continually dismisses his own pivotal role. Be assured, Sandy, it was not ”nothing.”

For the account of my first encounter with the folk at ‘A Taste of Speyside’, please view my original blog post, typed on his computer. For further information about the restaurant, please visit Dufftown’s website. You can also “add them” on Facebook.

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May 4, 2010

My Half-Term Report (including the hiccoughs)

I am, surprise surprise, beyond halfway now. That juncture was passed on the Saturday night in Helmsdale.

From a fairly precarious outlook in Braemar a fortnight previously, I have entered and exited Speyside (notable highlights being Glenfiddich and Aberlour on the distillery side, Sandy and everyone at A Taste of Speyside in the way of general, unlikely angels), and journeyed up the north-east coast to Wick and beyond to John o’Groats where the concentration of cyclists increased dramatically with those starting or finishing their Lands End to John o’Groats attempts. I’m behind in relating all of these stages to you. Forgive me. For now, I am attempting to ease the backlog of distillery tours – there have been many, and I still need to bring you my views on 11 of them. Yikes!

I am in ‘Whisky Magazine’, after all. There isn’t a picture so I might not be able to use it as a passport for free entry to my following tours but it was a thrill. Unfortunately it reminded me that this blog is not quite the outfit I had hoped, and which one might expect to find mention of in a quality publication like ‘WM’. It also means that the amateurish nature of this site is most likely known to even more people – and perhaps the very whisky enthusiasts I had meant to contact in the first place. I’m sorry guys: no pictures yet and irregular updates. I haven’t my own computer with me so I am very much at the mercy of the IT facilities at my hostels. I shall be spending much time on it once I return home, however, which is two weeks on Saturday. Patience, please, because I’m having quite an adventure up here.

I feel it my duty to explain that between telling Mr Allanson (editor of ‘WM’) of my travels and details of said travels appearing in the magazine, I actually undertook those travels. Certain distilleries have had to be avoided or were closed to me, so that figure of 49 is no longer accurate. Here are the casualties and why:

Blair Athol – Unexpectedly closed, their silent season having been brought forward. There will be no tours of the distillery until July.

Dalwhinnie – I would have died trying to get there. The post dealing with my journey to Braemar will contextualise my exact condition at the time.

Tomatin – See above.

Glendronach – Following my 60-mile slog in the rain, my bike was in a pretty poor state. The cleaning of it and sourcing of oil (and general pulling of hair) left too little time to head out east for Forgue and still make it back for Strathisla.

The Balvenie – It seems I should have booked weeks in advance. I phoned on the Friday to book a tour on the Monday (the 23rd for the 25th) and discovered that they were fully booked until nearly a week into May. This was even before the festival. Be advised.

Dallas Dhu – I elected not to tour this distillery on the advice of the guide at Cragganmore. She said that its museum nature was a rather tragic contrast to the working distilleries and was unlikely to show me anything I had not already encountered.  Also, omitting it saved me time and money. If you are interested, though, it is a self-guided tour round the old production areas, then a video and a dram.

Clynelish – Having struggled along the A9 in the rain under the assumption that the distillery was open (all of my reading and research had said that they were open on Saturdays), I found it to be shut up entirely. This was annoying. It seems they are open on Saturdays… as of next month. No literature or website told me this. I should have phoned ahead, but as I said, I didn’t think there would be any problem.

So not a full tour in the slightest anymore. I am still covering the miles and getting a sense of the regions, however. As I have (quite happily) come to realise over the course of this tour, though: Scotland isn’t going anywhere. I can plan another tour which encompasses the missed distilleries from this loop, as well as returns to those which have made a real impression on me, which at present include Tullibardine, Royal Lochnagar, Aberlour, Glenfiddich, Glen Garioch, and Highland Park, which I toured today.

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April 24, 2010

Braemar to Dufftown

Braemar to Tomintoul, 32 miles

And so quickly this tour has become a salvage operation. How do I continue to capitalise on the tour as planned, despite the hiccough? I had my room booked in Tomintoul, thank goodness, and so all I had to do was get there.

The hostel had emptied on the Sunday morning, and whereas there had been six fellow sleepers on the Saturday night, it was just me in a cavernous dorm. I woke up reasonably cheery. Until I saw the white stuff outside.

Hardly auspicious conditions. I knew the road got higher (much higher) before I reached Tomintoul and didn't like the look of this one bit.

Hardly auspicious conditions. I knew the road got higher (much higher) before I reached Tomintoul and didn't like the look of this one bit.

Throughout my time in Braemar there had been snow flurries, but nothing had lain, even on the lawns surrounding the hostel. This was different. When I get the chance, I shall show you the scale of it just before I set off. The weather news in Tomintoul was better, however, and there was the promise of something hot to drink in the ski resort. I set off.

The snow mercifully stopped as I followed the banks of the Dee. I’d taken off my overtrousers and hood and conditons were rather good. I knew the road I was due to cycle, though, and it filled me with dread.

The main road runs from Ballater to Tomintoul. I had taken the little one. The higher I got, the more it snowed. I reached the top of the main climb – over little hump-backed bridges and rolls of steepness – and it was blizzard conditions. I couldn’t entertain doing anything other than continuing, however, because where could I bail out? I was in the middle of nowhere.

At the top of the steepest stretch, I stopped to rip into the cheese and ham sandwiches I had made for myself. Was that the sun? It certainly was trying to peep through. This felt like a supportive presence and I carried on. I reached the next summit, and there was Donside. And the Lecht.

After a hot chocolate and some soup, during which I appreciated just how freezing I really was, I made my attempt. The first ramp was 20%. I had to stop in the area they normally reserve for turning gritters. Normally, they get to that point and don’t bother about the rest. It’s the hill and road that is always closed from about November to March.

This is one of the most breathtaking views of the entire tour, and thanks to the gradient I had to survive to reach this point, I was literally wheezing and spluttering to begin with.

This is one of the most breathtaking views of the entire tour, and thanks to the gradient I had to survive to reach this point, I was literally wheezing and spluttering to begin with.

 (They closed it again temporarily the following day.) I had another break before the top, and the view was astonishing. Then it was the bald stretch to the ski station and one last awful incline. A motorist (on his way down) gave me a gentle toot and a thumbs-up.

After gobbling a Mars Bar, I limped to Tomintoul. The snooker was on, and I just vegged out. I must mention Mike and Cathy at The Whisky Castle. I walked in and had a chat with Cathy, who then proceeded to pour samples down my throat. It is just the most incredible shop, with awesome stock and there is nothing the pair of them haven’t tasted or visited. There appreciation of the industry as a whole is remarkable, and after Mike’s good-humoured carping, I’m a convert to the “No chill-filter and 46%!” crusade. If it’s single cask then all the better.

***

Tomintoul to Aberlour, 26 miles

Having done The Glenlivet the previous day (see review) I was now completely back on schedule. It was hard to leave Argyle Guest House – they had looked after me so well – but one can’t travel by staying in the same place.

My first proper glimpse of the Spey and the gorgeous, gentle fields and hills it sloshes through. Here be whisky, alright.

My first proper glimpse of the Spey and the gorgeous, gentle fields and hills it sloshes through. Here be whisky, alright.

I reached Cragganmore just as it began to rain and left just when it started again. The tour I have treated in the previous post.

I don’t like the main road to Aberlour. Every HGV in Northern Europe seems to be using these Scottish A- roads. Maybe I’ve been unlucky and the ash crisis is creating extra traffic. Glenfarclas appeared, rather ostentatiously, on my right. I shall review the tour shortly but what a lovely environment. It is possible to taste the independence: right down to using a blue Swiss mill!

I made it to Aberlour without becoming a road accident statistic. In ‘Fresh’, the recommended cafe, I took stock with tea and a slab of carrot cake. And I mean slab. ‘This is why I’m doing this, then,’ I may have said to myself.

***

Dufftown to Huntly, 60 miles

I’m condensing, folks. I had gone from Aberlour to Dufftown the day before but it was a short trip and the distilleries were the talking point, not the journey. This, on the other hand, was a mixture of both.

Having been following it for the last week, now, just outside Tomintoul, I was officially on the Malt Whisky Trail.

Having been following it for the last week, now, just outside Tomintoul, I was officially on the Malt Whisky Trail.

A few miles out of Dufftown it started snowing. I passed into Aberdeenshire and it started to rain. I prefer snow. Huntly didn’t look too promising in the dank wetness. I was deeply cold, and well aware that I had far to go. I checked into my hotel room to leave some things behind while I completed a couple of errands about the town. Less than enthusiastically, I set off for Glen Garioch.

If I thought the A95 was bad, the A96 is by far and away worse. If you are a cyclist, do not bother. I had ten miles of it not to so much endure as survive. In the spray, with all the Aberdeen-bound traffic, I don’t know how some of the enormous trucks didn’t send me through those pearly gates (assuming all of this demon drink isn’t an insurmountable stain on my character). They just refused to give me room, slow down, or even wait until oncoming vehicles had passed. On one instance I was forced over a catseye by a gargantuan flat-bed and thought my time was up.

The motorway swelled and fell, and I felt every incline which the oil boys in there cars barely noticed, judging by the anti-social nature of their speed and disinterest. I knew they were oil-connected because ever second car was an Audi.

At long last the turn off to Old Meldrum manifested before my sodden eyes. 10 miles. OK. I had to be careful. My gloves were saturated and I was getting low on fuel. Could I make it to the distillery before I froze, or did I stop and eat, and freeze? I risked it and just buried myself.

The routes around this part of the country are mostly flat and very very staright. When yet another US-style ruler of tarmac presented itself, I confess I swore loudly. The sheep and lambs were startled.

Full of lively whisky and super-knowledgeable, and just as lovely, people.

Full of lovely whisky and super-knowledgeable, and just as lovely, people.

Old Meldrum: I’d made it. Well, maybe not quite. There was still a mile and a half to Glen Garioch, as the brown signs made it, and I was in a less than cheery mood when I got there. I was soaked to the skin (and a good way below that, I fancy) and all I could do was beg the lady behind the desk for some radiators. She did better than that. She sent me to the still house. Behind the spirit still I found a clothes rack and so draped my drenched gear over that. It would all be dry by the time I finished my tour – for all I extended the time by chatting to Fiona and Jane, as I would come to know and love them.

Jane made me a cup of tea while I wolfed down my lunch. Fiona took me on my tour and as guides go, she tops all I have come across so far, and not just because of her maternal care for a poor droonded waif. Her sense of humour was sparkling. She had been surprised to see me half-naked in the still house when she brought her previous tour in. She debated whether to improvise and say that my presence was essential to the final flavour of the spirit.

The tour over, I just discussed my plans. Their enthusiasm and support were the only things which preserved me back to Huntly. I can’t believe I covered those last 22 miles. I promised before leaving that should I complete this tour – and I will confess that at times it has been a case of “If” instead of “When” – I would come back to the distillery and buy myself a bottle of the 1990. On the way back I added to my plans the purchase of a Founder’s Reserve which I could get them both to sign. I’d drink the 1990! It was the perfect antidote to the weather and fatigue, and once more reaffirmed what can overcome what. In the game of rock/paper/scissors, whisky and people beat rain and exhaustion. I can’t describe the pride I felt in myself when I returned to the Huntly Hotel, whose relatively sparse and tatty-round-the-edges nature did not matter one jot in this new haze of accomplishment.

***

Huntly to Dufftown, 28 miles

I woke up sobered. I felt those 60 miles now, and looking at my bike, so had it. It was filthy, and all the squeakings of yesterday now seemed unavoidable. I had to deal with this.

A phone call to Breezes revealed my incompetence as far as maintenance is concerned. When Mark had said that on-the-hoof maintenance wasn’t really necessary, he obviously assumed (as he had done with puncture repairs) that I knew to do the basics: clean the chain and lubricate it regularly. I hadn’t been doing that and yesterday’s rain had washed the last of the grease of it. I was advised to try and get as much muck off as possible, then try and get some oil. When I asked about WD40 I got the same response as I had when I voiced my idea to pressure wash the bottom bracket: “No!” I spent 40 minutes with some rags and soapy water, then tried to find a garage. I didn’t find a garage but I did find an unlikely good samaritan. As I stared glumly at the lightless interior of the garage, a man appeared. I only understood maybe 10% of the words that came out of his mouth (and there were a lot) but he was eager to help and got me some 3-in-1. This did the trick. I was off again. I didn’t do Glendronach for my equipment issues had cost me lots of time. Disconsolately, and contemplating the ridicule I’d get for throwing the towel in now from all my readers, friends, employers and colleagues and how I was generally a weak human being, I headed for Keith and Strathisla. Yesterday I was on top of the world, believing that I could conquer anything now on my itinerary. Now I was riding in fear of my machine simply capitulating. I couldn’t see a future.

After the tour I had my Mum source some phone numbers for local bike shops. Everyone over the last few days had said that Elgin was probably the closest. Not great because it isn’t that near, but there’s nothing I could do about it. I spoke to the folk at Moray Cycles and they promised to look at it if I passed through. They also recommended some different oils which I found in a car DIY shop in Keith. I felt much better.

I returned to Dufftown, then, and after a shower, headed out for my dinner. I wanted to cheer myself up and vowed to spend the money that would have gone on the Balvenie tour on some really good grub. I was no longer after budget calories. I’m one of these people whose moods are dependent on their stomachs and so went in search of other Dufftown eateries. I arrived at ‘A Taste of Speyside’. The beginning wasn’t auspicious – they were out of rabbit! They couldn’t get hold of any. I can recommend a garden in Northumberland that has a surplus. I elected for the pork and was not disappointed. Lovely big portions full of richness and flavour. The ethos of the restaurant owner is locally grown, and in season. Plates are simply presented and ingredients confidentally, though sympathetically, prepared. This Scottish produce can speak for itself.

Probably my most favouritest restaurant in the whole entire world: fabulous food and super, unprecedented people.

Probably my most favouritest restaurant in the whole entire world: fabulous food and super, unprecedented people.

I had the muffin to finish and what a splendid shot of endorphins that was. I finished replete, and very satisfied with my decision to reward myself for my endeavours. I got chatting to Sandy, the owner and chef, and what a unique man. We discussed my previous dining in Dufftown and as we were on the computer, I showed him my blog. When he heard of my strife with internet access, he insisted I sit down and update away. I said I hadn’t my notebooks. He said I should go and get them then. I said what if I don’t come back. He said he knew where I was staying. And so here I sit, still typing because what a week it has been. Fortunately, with a cup of tea inside me, I have a renewed appreciation of the values still held by other foodies and the capacity of others to help out where they can. Sandy and his team have gone above and beyond on this occasion, and it is thanks to them that you are largely up to date with my movements. As I have said before, it is my encounters with people such as Sandy (and Liam at the Old Cross Inn, and Gavin at Tullibardine, and Jane and Fiona at Glen Garioch) that elevate my day-to-day workings and struggles. Off the bike, it is coming into contact with them that appeases and silences any negativity about when I’m going to call it a day on this trip, to simply give up. Their hospitality, genuine interest and generosity are priceless and my will to enjoy more similar encounters trumps the dejection of exhaustion.

So I do have my dark times, and I’ll be honest I still cannot envisage cycling into Glasgow in a few weeks, but there is always some glorious person spurring me on, when I’m least expecting it. If nothing else, I shall take that with me from this incredible, and incredibly challenging, journey; whenever my reserves of fight and passion seem to have been utterly spent. I hope to carry on for a few days yet, though. 

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