A PUNTER’S VIEW OF THE TORRIDON – A PLACE WHICH IS TRULY LIKE NO OTHER – BY SAVOUR WRITER DAVE MACKAY
It is fair to say that our expedition to The Torridon, in Wester Ross on the West Coast of Scotland, is the furthest we’ve ever travelled for a hotel stay without the assistance of jet engines, pressurised cabins and small but over-priced drinks.
Given that the nearest airport to The Torridon is Inverness, which is still more than an hour’s drive away we decided to go all out and undertake the eight-hour, 450-mile drive from Chez Punter.
For those of you that don’t fancy the drive, you can always opt for their Highland Welcome package, more on that later…
If you do drive though, you will not be disappointed. The journey makes you feel like you could actually be driving through a TV or film set. The winding roads and acres of unspoilt scenery are reminiscent of another “Wester Ross”, the fictional country of Westeros in Game of Thrones, so much so that we wouldn’t have been surprised to see a dragon scooping sheep from the fields or an army of Wildlings marching South. By the same token, we kept a lookout for signs saying, ‘Skyfall 5 miles’.
On arrival at The Torridon we were very grateful to discover that staff had been specially trained in first aid to deal with the numerous smacked gobs and grazes from dropped jaws that seem to afflict all those who arrive and are bowled over by the sheer magnificence of the venue and the surroundings.
Once the appropriate gauzes and ointments had been applied, the remainder of the welcome was as warm as the fire blazing away in the oak panelled reception.
Originally a hunting lodge built in 1887 The Torridon sits on the rugged waters of Loch Torridon and is surrounded by 150 acres of its own estate. It is a 5 AA Red Star hotel with 32 bedrooms split between the main house, The Stables and the private cottage, and The Boat House which, as you would expect, sits on the loch’s edge.
Our accommodation was the 1887 suite which just beggars belief. The bathroom is bigger than our kitchen at home and the whole suite is bigger than our son’s first flat. There was a separate lounge with another TV and a ‘sustenance’ area with a kettle, coffee machine and various nibbles and beverages.
We spent the afternoon taking in the grounds and gardens. We met the pigs, the highland cattle, the robomower and lovely head gardener who gave us not only gardening wisdom but some wild strawberry runners to take home for our garden.
The kitchen garden itself is a thing of wonder. A full two acres of vegetables, herbs and spices for the kitchen (and bar) team to select from on a daily basis. They also have a Gin Garden where they grow the botanicals to go into their own gins which are created locally.
The use of local ingredients isn’t just limited to the Kitchen Garden. The pigs and beef are there for the restaurants and not just for Mrs Punter to shout “morning ladies” at. The loch and local landscape are also a rich source of ingredients and inspiration.
There are 20-30 types of seaweed and wild herbs growing in and around the loch along with a wide variety of mushrooms. The local pine needles are used to infuse the vinegar and oil and even the salt water from the loch is used. All of this means that the kitchen has a daily abundance of fresh, local produce.
An aperitif (or two) was the order of the day in the Whisky Bar which offers more than 365 whiskies. Yes, that’s one for every single day of the year and over 120 gins including The Torridon’s own handcrafted gin, Arcturus – made with botanicals from the kitchen garden.
Dinner on day one was the tasting menu in the 1887 Restaurant which is headed up by new resort head chef, Alex Henderson – who joined in April 2023 having previously been sous chef to Kenny Atkinson at the Michelin-starred House of Tides in Newcastle. He is also responsible for the Bo & Muc brasserie.
The seven-course menu costs £105 and the wine pairing is £45 for four glasses or £55 for five. We went for five and we were glad that we did because there were some crackers.
Mrs Punter, as always, opted for the vegetarian menu and there were a few ‘mutual’ dishes. A nice touch was QR codes on the menu to link to the suppliers and farm.
A trio of canapes kicked us off with pomme dauphine topped with a hearty helping of truffle and we both had tartares, beef for me and smoked carrot for Mrs P followed by little tartes as our third canape. Cured sea trout for me and turnip for the Mrs.
The obligatory bread and butter arrived, followed by chawanmushi – a Japanese set custard topped with charred sweetcorn. They are becoming very popular on menus at the moment but what set this one apart was the delightful surprise of chive oil which really elevated it and when I listened back to our ‘voice notes’ of that dish all I could hear was spoons rattling against the pot trying to get the last of it out.
Another mutual course of garden celeriac, maitake mushroom and yet more black truffle followed and the wine pairing was absolutely spot on. We were also glad that we had saved some of our bread as mopping up of the sauce was required.
Our dishes parted ways for the next course with mine being Gigha halibut with chive and sea herbs. The vegetarian version was pumpkin with shiso and nasturtium. That was followed by the ‘main’. Both were based on beetroot and blackberry but mine had partridge (breast and leg) and Mrs P had a herbed gnocchi.
I was pleased that Mrs P is vegetarian which meant that I was under no pressure to see if she wanted to try some of mine so I got to keep it all to myself. I assume that Mrs P was of the same opinion as I never had the opportunity to try her gnocchi.
A little breather followed and then we were back on it with a mutual palate cleansing pre-desert of sorrel, thyme and honey and then onto the cheese course. Given that we were very much ‘slowing down’ we shared a single serving.
The cheeses were great but the crackers that came with them were even better. Crisp, herby and salty they were an ideal foil for the cheese and the chutney that came with it.
Back then to the main dessert: hazelnut praline and, to our utter delight, Frangelico. To have one of our very favourite after-dinner drinks to be part of the dessert brought a smile to our lips and a loosening of belts to make sure that we had room for it. If the dessert itself was not luscious enough it was paired with an Ambre Rivesaltes Muscat and Mrs Punter had to restrain me from asking if they ‘did it in pints’.
Thinking that the previous courses would see us through until Spring we were about to haul ourselves up from the table when the kitchen deployed a super weapon, their petit fours.
Four small teardrop-shaped items arrived, two of each type. One was reminiscent of a fudge but with a mushroom flavour and the other was like a very light liquorice allsort but with the flavours of black garlic. It was, hands down, the best petit fours we have ever had.
The next morning, we set out with grand intentions of taking advantage of the extensive walks around the area. New winter boots and coats were put on, flasks were filled with warming liquors and even the weather held off. Two-thirds of the way up the smallest hill proved that no amount of gear and optimism isn’t enough to make up for an utter lack of fitness. So it was back to the hotel for afternoon tea.
Sandwiches of tarragon chicken and cucumber and dill were accompanied by a cracking sausage roll and crispy cheese and chutney toastie. The dessert section involved newly created selections including a coffee-caramel choux bun, a whisky fudge and a lemon and elderflower Swiss roll.
The next tier up had a berry macaron and the pick of the bunch which was a chocolate marshmallow with the flavours of black forest gateau. To top it off (or finish us off) were plain and fruit scones with bottomless clotted cream and jam.
We then had a decision to make. Take advantage of the various outdoor pursuits that the Torridon offers, including archery, watersports and guided tours or go back to the room and have a food-induced kip. No prizes for guessing which we opted for.
Suitably rested we headed up to the Bo and Muc brasserie which is attached to the Beinn Bar, The Torridon’s pub with a range of local ales and yet more whiskies and gins. It is a less formal dining area named after the Gaelic words for pig and cow. It has a menu which embodies the spirit of less is more. There were six starters, four mains, four desserts and five more dishes on the specials board.
I am sorry to the carnivores out there but we both went for meat-free starters. A salad of pickled beetroot, crowdie and toasted hazelnuts for me and wild mushrooms, sourdough, poached egg and (of course) truffle oil for Mrs P.
Having felt like Mr Creosote from Monty Python all day to have a light, fresh starter was just the ticket and I didn’t even covet the various mushrooms which covered the majority of Mrs P’s plate.
I reverted to type for my main, with steak and chips which I polished off with gusto. I even ate the green leafy things that came with it. Mrs P also reverted to type with a wild mushroom and butternut squash risotto with parmesan tuilles. She assured me that it was very tasty and just as tasty as my steak. I didn’t want to risk her being right so I left her to polish it off by herself.
Unlike the night before we were adamant that we just couldn’t face pudding if we wanted to have any chance of being able to make it up the stairs to our room. Still had to have another cheese board though. I was pleased to find that Mrs P didn’t like the port that came with it and I, of course, did the gentlemanly thing and drank it for her.
In order to compensate we went to the bar for a nightcap, or two before tackling the stairs and collapsing, once again, into bed, absolutely stuffed and totally satisfied.
You might think that winter is a terrible time to visit Scotland but The Torridon takes that idea and destroys it completely. Scotland is at its most magnificent in the winter with its grey skies, pine forests standing starkly against the deciduous trees, and brisk winds which all lead you to a warm fire, comfy sofas, board games and the desire just to let the outside world disappear.
There can be no better way to experience this than The Torridon’s Out Of Season deals which include three nights’ stay for the price of two and even an all-inclusive deal which is three nights in a deluxe room and includes all meals, unlimited house drinks, an afternoon tea, a day’s bike hire and a guided walk with Torridon Outdoors. Prices start at £2,380.
The Highland Welcome (which we mentioned earlier) not only includes two nights’ stay with breakfast and a meal in 1887 restaurant and the Bo & Muc brasserie but also a chauffeur from Inverness Aiport with a goodies hamper and guided tour of the Highlands on the way to The Torridon.