An Unexpected Oven Repair

I’ve had to fix a few ovens in my time as a chef.

However, the last place I thought I’d be fixing one would be on a farm deep in the Highlands.

After an uneventful drive from Dundee, Jeremiah and I had arrived at Darnford Farms. Fresh faced from his full meal,  3 pints and a nap, Jeremiah was clearly excited to have reached his destination. As we passed rows of fields filled with strong looking cross-suckler cows, his nose was practically pressed against the window, trying to get a better look at the specimens. Trundling over the last stretch of the long beaten track leading up to the farm house proper, it felt like we were suddenly surrounded by the beasts. They dotted the landscape for what felt like miles around, in truth, I found them a little intimidating.

I tried to imagine them as steaks on my plate back in Cornwall, but balked at the idea of my sirloin mooing at me.

As we pulled into the drive outside a fine looking, wide-built Victorian farmhouse, a perplexed looking farmer emerged from the front. I knew he was perplexed because he was scratching his head and biting the lower corner of his lip. I knew he was a farmer because he was wearing faded blue dungarees, wellington boots and a checked shirt. I’m not usually one to stereotype but I felt that these markers were pretty much a dead giveaway and, as it turns out, my suspicions were correct.

Mr. Watson was scratching his head because, as he was about to fire up his gas hob to cook prepare us some of his award-winning steak, the oven had inexplicably stopped working.

A large land owner and successful business owner, you could hardly call him a man with few talents, however this particular set back had surprised him. The confusion had remained as he’d heard our van pulling in. Still rapt with perplexity, he’d come to greet us with the expression fixed on his face.

Thankfully, fixing an oven is something I’ve done before and the task proved not too difficult. Of course, if I were at home in Cornwall, cooker repairs would be a job for an outsourced company. But, being in the middle of nowhere, I thought it best to pull my sleeves up and get on with it myself. With the help of Jeremiah, I pulled the beast of an oven away from the side of Mr. Wastson’s delightfully retro kitchen. No wonder he was having problems with the thing, it looked about 30 years old. After some tinkering around with a few loose wires, we soon discerned the problem and got the hunk of junk working again.

Finally, both of us had the opportunity to try out the Scottish beef that had won so many awards, as well as my heart. But before this, the farmer was keen to show us his land as well as how he ensured that his beef was the ‘best for miles around’, which would have been a boast if it weren’t for the miles of empty fields around his own holding. As he proudly strode through the land that his family had owned for decades, he pointed towards the ground, claiming it to be his secret ingredient. Jeremiah looked a little crest fallen. His hope of eking out the secrets behind the rich taste of Scottish beef had ended somewhat flatly – however, he wasn’t completely disheartened.

Upon our return to the farmhouse, Mr. Watson pulled out a selection of freshly hung steaks and a well-used griddle pan.

This journey might not have been wholly educational, but it had given me a chance to meet new people, broaden my horizons and get the wind in my hair.

In other words – a perfect few weeks away.

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Heading Through The Hills

Over a hundred miles lay between us and our destination, but the Texan didn’t appear like he was in any hurry.

The man earned thousands of dollars every year.

His time, presumably, was worth a lot of money (more than mine at least).

Still, in his own quiet way he seemed to be revelling in the foreign climes that he had found himself in. Although he’d made the mammoth journey for the sole purpose of learning how the Scottish farmers of Darnford Farm produced their award-winning beef, he practically begged to take the scenic route. For the one of the most successful of business owners I’d met, he seemed awfully keen to kick back and enjoy the scenery.

Although by this point, I’d spent hours driving through the roads of Scotland, I had no problem with acquiescing to my passenger’s demands.

As we wound our way through mountainous passes and past glittering lakes, I could tell my passenger was beginning to drifting off. We’d kept up polite conversation for the first hour, but the duration of the flight, in addition to the jet lag, appeared to be finally taking their toll on him. The soft lull of Radio 4 was the final nail in the proverbial coffin. As soon as Woman’s Hour kicked off, the dulcet tones of well-spoken English ladies took him to the land of nod. By the time we were leaving the small town of Perth and heading onto the A90 to Dundee, Morpheus had him well and truly in his grip.

It was nearing 2pm by the time we reached Dundee: the city perched on the edge of the River Tay.

For an hour or so, I’d been at risk of falling asleep myself. The quiet traffic, hazy sunlight and gentle snores of my travelling companion were having their effect on me and I desperately needed to get some fresh air. The relative still of the countryside slowly gave way to the hum of a city centre, gently bringing Jeremiah out of his slumber. Wiping his eyes, he declared his hunger, more or less to himself and started scouring the passing streets for a place to eat.

Luckily, for him, this wasn’t my first time in Dundee and I knew just the place to take a starving Texan looking for a shot of Scottish culture.

The Beer Kitchen might well be a part of a chain, but it’s a particularly Scottish one. Owned by craft beer brewing company, Innis & Gunn, the Dundee location of the bar/restaurants is a modern take on Scottish pub culture. The decor blends traditional pub features and modern sensibilities, with a similar style applied to their exceptional food menu. As far as drink goes, the beers on offer are what the the company has made it’s money on: a selection of unique brews that couldn’t be anymore Scottish.

The company initially came to prominence when a famous whiskey manufacturer wanted to use a beer to flavour their casks. The job was done and the whiskey was made, but there were reports of an interesting by-product to the process: the beer tasted good.

Buoyed by their efforts, Innis & Gunn was formed around the concept of beers flavoured by the barrels of distillers. Within a few years, the craft beer company had taken Scotland by storm. A few years later and the beer had broken Canada, becoming the country’s most popular British beer. With the money made by their ventures at home and abroad, they invested in the bar industry, thus The Beer Kitchen was born.

Although they’d taken a fair few influences from the States for their food menu, the ingredients and style of cooking can still be considered to be very much Scottish. Scottish beef rules the menu here, much to the appreciation of my travelling partner. He’s initially puzzled by the beer, however after a couple of flights he appears to warm to it. Over piles of meat, we discuss our mutual love for good farming and well sourced food, until suddenly its 5pm and Jeremiah is starting to look a little sleepy again – apparently this beer is a little stronger than the brew he has back in the States.

With my charge safely snoozing in the passenger seat once more, we set out on the final leg of our journey.

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A Quick Trip To Edinburgh

There’s nothing quite like a well-earned kip.

When I awoke, very much rested, from my night’s sleep in the Lodge, the entirety of the Highlands was awaiting me when I opened the front door.

It had rained during the night, leaving a fresh dewy smell on the tarmac of the drives and the grass of the front gardens.

Although I could have quite happily stayed there for days on end, I only had the one night booked. As I dragged myself away from the idyllic miniature village of lodges and back into the van, I received a call from the farm.

A visitor from the States happened to be flying in to Edinburgh that very morning, a commercial Beef farmer from the States who wanted to get the low-down on British Farming techniques and they wondered whether I’d mind making the drive to pick him up. As far as I was concerned these people were already doing me a favour by allowing me to visit their home and nose about their farm, so I agreed, and prepared myself for a quick trip to Edinburgh.

Around 60 miles lay between myself and the Edinburgh Airport parking lot, where I was to drop the van off. The Watsons had already booked ahead, I was to leave the van in the parking space and head straight to the terminal to pick up a Mr. Jeremiah Carson.

On the way to Edinburgh, I found my mind drifting, wondering what kind of man this Mr. Carson would be like.

I’d been given no information beyond a name and occupation. Informed by Hollywood and American TV, an image was conjured in my mind of a man resembling the KFC mascot with a beige suit and twirled moustache. Could such people really exist? Rich talking Texans, with Southern drawls and bolo ties, harbouring strange opinions about the Civil War – surely these were all cliches and stereotypes, amalgamated into an unrealistic expectation of what people could actually be like?

All hopes of meeting a Colonel Sanders-esque figure were dashed when a modestly dressed gentleman in his late 50s shook my hand at the airport. The real Jeremiah Carson was a quiet, well-mannered man with a penchant for stumbling over his words especially when he was speaking about himself. Although he’d spent nigh on 24 hours in transit, from his ranch in Texas to the airport in Edinburgh, he’d somehow managed to take with him the essence of his home country. As we both stepped into the van and shut the doors, the cab was filled with the smells of the farm. An earthy scent of livestock apparently exuded from his skin with the faint undercurrent of a butchers shop – I felt a little sorry for whoever was sat next to him on the plane.

As we drifted through the winding roads of the Highlands, more and more buildings began disappearing from the horizon.

I quizzed Jeremiah about his farm back in the States, his holding was a large one covering several acres. In his own quiet way Jeremiah was a proud man. He’d built his modest herd of 50 or so sucklers to a horde of 500 and now employed 60 people to keep them fed and well kept. However, his successes had not left him arrogant, he’d travelled to Scotland in order to learn from the Watsons and try to get to grips with just why Scottish Beef was understood to be the best in the world.

In a way we’d both made the journey for the same reason – two meat-loving pilgrims, one step closer to our Mecca.

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Meeting Friends on the Road to Crieff

By the time I arrived at Highland Heather Lodges in Crieff, it was pitch black.

The drive had been treacherous.

The weather had taken a serious turn for the worse.

50 miles into the journey, so I now had to contend with heavy winds buffeting the van, as well as severely tired eyes and a belly full of rich food. Once more, I was paying the price for my overindulgence. I wasn’t the only one struggling on the roads that night, however, little did I know that I was about to cross paths with another traveller on their way to Crieff.

I’ve always been open to picking up hitchhikers, having spent a summer hitching on the roads of Europe. So when I saw a bedraggled young man accompanied by an even more scruffy dog, resolutely sticking his thumb out on the deserted road to Crieff, I knew that I had to pick him up. Other than the waiting staff at the restaurants, I’d barely spoken to a soul since I’d left Cornwall, so I was more than eager for the company and my new companions were more than eager for the lift.

Bartholomew was a strange chap.

Part Oxbridge graduate intellectual, part civil rights activist – his long straggly hair was pulled back in a tight bun, giving him the appearance of a weather-beaten Samurai warrior. His dog, an impeccably trained Cocker Spaniel called Nestor, sat stock up right next to his master as they both waited patiently for a metal chariot to deliver them from their current predicament.

Their own van, a huge Transit that had seen better days, rested in a ditch to the side of the road. Whilst swerving to avoid a rabbit, the unlucky pair had slipped on the wet road and veered their van off the road. Without a mobile phone, Bart had resigned himself to a long wait, so was clearly relieved to receive his salvation so swiftly – although it looked like he’d been waiting for days, it had not even been an hour yet.

The two clambered into the front of the van with me and we set off once more on the road to Crieff.

Whilst I drove, still wary of the fierce winds that were shifting the vehicle’s momentum, I quizzed Bartholomew about his journey. He had been on the road with Nestor for the past year. Travelling throughout Europe and England, he was a drifter – with no aim or motivation. An amateur chef himself, all his meals were prepared on a single gas ring, including the gourmet dog food that Nestor subsisted on.

We spent the hour drive to Crieff discussing French cuisine, fined dining and Brexit. When I dropped my travelling companions off at a garage we shook hands and I wished them all the best. Bart and Nestor were clearly gifted with a natural joie de vivre that allowed them to forgo the home comforts that most others (including me) could simply not live without.

As I fell gratefully into the embrace of my king-size bed at the lodge, I thought about those two getting to sleep in on their single mattress in the Transit.

Suddenly I found myself falling into a deep, smug sleep.

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On The Road To The Highlands

With a full belly of very rich fine dining, I slid back into the drivers seat of the battered van.

My food pilgrimage from my old Steak House in Cornwall to an award-winning beef producer in Banchory was now well underway, but I still had half the journey left to go.

The first day’s drive had taken me all the way to Manchester, where I’d marvelled at the sheer wealth of galleries and eaten my fill at Simon Rogan’s The French.

However, I still had another 350 miles left to go and that van wasn’t driving itself.

After a difficult night’s sleep in the van (spending over £100 on my dinner the day before had left me rather short for a room in a hotel), I pulled out of Manchester still feeling oddly full from my dinner the night before. Luckily my destination for the day would take me to a much more comfortable night’s sleep at some luxury lodges in Crieff, around 250 miles away. Buried in the midst of the Highlands, I was looking forward to spending a night surrounded by the mountains and trees of Scotland’s visually stunning landscape.

Firstly, though, a quick stop had to be made at Glasgow.

Out of all the stereotypes that have been piled on top of Scotland – a lack of sunshine and an obsession with deep-frying chocolate bars – there is one that holds absolutely true. Anyone working in the food industry for long enough will know at least one Scottish chef and they will, more than likely, be an exceptional one. All the major cities in Scotland are home to some truly spectacular restaurants, so I felt it would be simply negligent to not stop by in Glasgow for a quick bite.

Although I’d heard good things about the recently opened Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery, I elected for something a little out of the ordinary instead.

The Ubiquitous Chip has been serving a rich example of Scotland’s cuisine since 1971.

Opened by Ronnie Clydesdale with the aim of bringing traditional Scottish cookery to the forefront once more, The Chip (as it’s informally known) serves a fine dining take on classic Scottish cooking. Now I’d officially crossed the border and had been surrounded by the wonderfully rich accent of it’s indigenous people, there was nothing more that I wanted than a traditional Scottish meal to ground me culturally.

To start I enjoyed The Chip’s signature dish – venison haggis with champit tatties, carrot crisp and neep cream. Wonderfully seasoned with just enough give in the meat, the modest portion left me wanting more in a good way. To follow, I elected something a little more daring. Galloway roe deer was prepared with a bramble gel as well as vanilla, peanut and cocoa. This was a strange blend that I wasn’t convinced would work completely – however, I ended up being pleasantly surprised.

Although I was risking over indulging again, I couldn’t quite resist the sweets menu.

Once more, The Chip’s speciality stuck out like a sore thumb. An exquisitely presented oatmeal ice cream was presented with poached brambles and oats. I still had another hundred miles to get to Crieff, I chose to pair this with stiff shot of Whiskey…when in Rome!

After suffering another minor heart attack at the sight of the bill – I spent an hour walking in Glasgow’s peaceful Necropolis. Although it might have been an oddly grim way to spend an hour, the views that this cemetery offers you of the city are unparalleled.

When I finally got back to the van, my head had cleared and I was ready to get back on the road to Crieff.

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First Leg Of The Trip: Manchester

Beef was the reason why I hit the road.

It only makes sense that the source of said beef should be the first port of call on my journey up North.

As a born and bred country lad, I’ve always had a lot of respect for farmers.

Many of my school friends came from farming families so I had the opportunity to spend time with livestock and appreciate the journey that they all make from birth to dinner plate. The responsibility of housing a hundred or so animals, in addition to looking after their welfare and health, is a big task and one that often requires an entire family’s worth of manpower to do.

Luckily, that’s just what the farmers at Darnford Farm have. The Watson Family, consisting of patriarch David, his two son and their wives, is a big one. They run over 400 cross suckler cows in addition to another herd of 25 pedigree Salers from their farm near Banchory.

When I was bored out of my mind, counting steaks in the walk-in refrigerator of the kitchen back in Cornwall, it was their steaks that I was counting. As much as I was losing motivation in my job at the time, it was always an absolute treat to slap one of their richly marbled, fresh sirloins down on to the griddle. After cooking up so many of them over the  last year, I was excited to finally be meeting the men and women behind the wonderful meat that had gifted me with so many tips.

Of course you don’t get from Cornwall to Banchory (30 miles or so away from Aberdeen) without doing a lot of driving.

After saying my goodbyes to my team at the restaurant and my family, I jumped in the van and started the first leg of my trip up North. Nearly 700 miles stood between my home in Cornwall and the Watson’s farm – and I wasn’t about to do the whole thing in one day, so I’d planned a little stop off in Manchester first.

Scotland may well have been my main destination, but I’m glad I took it easy on the way up, it gave me plenty of time to check out a city that I’d not explored much before. Manchester is a massive place, full of museums and galleries. Of course, that’s not why I stopped by with an empty stomach and cash to burn.

Simon Rogan’s recently opened restaurant The French, at The Midland Hotel was my purpose for stopping off in Manchester.

Every chef has heard of Michelin Star winner Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume and the buzz for his reopening of one of Manchester’s most prestigious venues was promising. Thankfully, it didn’t disappoint. The taster menu was wide and varied with everything from Asian Steamed Buns to Artichoke to Langoustine. Manchester is a city in search of a Michelin Star, perhaps next year it will finally receive one.

I was feeling flush with cash, so I only suffered a minor shudder of shock when I was given the bill after eating the thoroughly divine 9 course meal.

With a full belly and a lighter wallet, I hopped back in the van and got back on the road to Banchory.

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