The Hebrides is a living larder with the freshest ingredients sourced from the land and sea. From foraging to fine dining, there is something for every pocket and palette.
As the ferry over to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris chugs past Scalpay lighthouse, the tannoy announces that we are almost ready to dock. With hunger in our bellies, the first stop is A.D Munro, a butcher and grocery shop by the harbour. A small counter at the back of the shop is adorned with dozens of awards for prize-winning produce. As well as picking up the breakfast staples of bacon, sausages and black pudding, what we are really here for is the lauded haggis.
This has become an annual tradition following our first visit when A.D himself instructed us how to prepare this traditional dish properly. Microwaves are banned, accompaniments of steaming ‘neeps and tatties’ (swede and potatoes) necessary, and of course, a ‘wee dram’ is essential! For the uninitiated, the texture of haggis is as coarse as oats, and the taste is warm, peppery, and earthy. Hearty food to warm you through on an evening when the wild Hebridean weather rolls in.
Driving through the lunar landscape on the winding road south, we keep our eyes peeled. Not only to avoid the shaggy amber Highland cattle and hardy Hebridean sheep who wander into the path of the car without warning, but to search for the final item to complete our Scottish breakfast. We pull over outside croft houses and on roadsides to check the many grit boxes and microwaves that protect free-range eggs from the elements. It is often a treasure hunt to locate one with any left! It is worth the stopping and starting to find the most recently laid eggs with yolks as orange as the sun.
Lorna’s Larder is on the road to Luskentyre, a tiny truck parked in a gravel layby beside the turn-off to the Golden Road. It’s a welcome spot for a takeaway lunch overlooking the lochs, or it’s a five-minute drive down to the beach. As well as the usual soup and sandwiches, there are also some local delicacies on offer. The plump and buttery hand-dived scallops – caught by Lorna’s partner – are an indulgent addition to the menu.
The road continues along the west coast, and overlooking Toehead, stands the former Manse, now Scarista House. The menu is fixed and changes daily, and dinner is served at 7.30 p.m. precisely. On arrival, you are led to an elegant sitting room for drinks and amuse-bouche; morsels of savoury petite-fours such as parmesan crisps, curried bhajis or crispy croquettes. The head chef and proprietor, Tim Martin, bases his dishes on wild or organic seasonal ingredients sourced from the islands and their waters.
Not being sure what to expect when the menu is as random as a lottery, I am apprehensive when I see monkfish tail is the main course on the evening I visit – it’s something I have never tasted before. I needn’t have worried. The fish roasted in fennel, coriander and lemon tastes as tangy and zingy as a citrus curry. Dessert is pear panna cotta poached in sweet Muscat syrup that would make even a sailor drunk. I would have happily eaten two if offered! For the cheese course, there is a choice of several regional varieties. I am keen to try the historic crowdie, dating back to the Viking era, which is as light as a mousse. After service, Patricia Martin confides in me that they add more cream on-site to make it even silkier.
Crofting is a traditional way of life in the Hebrides: farming the land and fishing the sea. Croft 36 in Northton started life as a shack, offering dressed crab from the roadside. It has subsequently graduated to a shed, where crustacean sales have been boosted with regular catches of Leverburgh langoustines. Over the years, the range has diversified to include vegetables harvested from the machair, alongside homemade bread, cakes and quiches.
Twisting and turning, the road to Huisinis leads to the baronial style Gothic Amhuinnsuidhe Castle on Loch Leosavay, where salmon and sea trout leap up the waterfall in the autumn. It is reputed that the ghost of Lady Sophie Scott haunts the grounds, but I didn’t see her in the stable selling local wares when I visited. When I call in, the only items left are an eclectic mix of tick removers, mittens and venison burgers – the perfect Scottish survival kit!
Standing proudly on grey gneiss rock by Tarbert harbour stands the impressive Isle of Harris Distillery. Opened in 2015, this community-minded operation was designed to provide sustainable employment for the people of Harris. Despite it being the island’s first (legal) whisky, the Hearach will not be rushed. Rumours abound as to when this single malt will be released, but the tasting team are busy behind closed doors in The Flavour Room, perfecting the final recipe. As everyone involved keeps saying, only time will tell when it will be ready.
I do not leave the distillery empty-handed, though. Isle of Harris Gin evokes the sea breeze, flavoured with sugar kelp seaweed hand-picked from around the shoreline. Even the bottle takes on the appearance of the windswept sculptured sands at Luskentyre; the glass glows topaz and turquoise like the Hebridean waters. Collector’s items in their own right, the empties make sophisticated upcycled bottle lights if you are creatively inclined.
Amongst the industrial buildings at the ferry port at Leverburgh is The Anchorage restaurant with its understated exterior. Once inside, there are uninterrupted views over the Sound of Harris with the constantly shifting colours and light as the sun sets.
Whilst perusing the menu, a sailor casually drops off his catch. The manager, Sally, shouts, “any takers for lobster?” as she adds it to the specials board. Straight from the creel to the table in half an hour – you can’t get fresher than that!