An occasional series about interesting wines I try, some wine news and things that annoy me
Saturday, October 15, 2011
THEY SAY YOU CAN NEVER GO BACK
Annat by Loch Torridon is the place that my Scottish ancestors came from before they sailed to Novia Scotia and on to Australia and New Zealand. Here AA Gill (acerbic English food writer) describes a dining experience at the Torridon Inn at Annat
Our intrepid restaurant critic goes north of the border to Scotland, where he visits a 'camp Caledonian cliché, all stag heads and tartan'
The more minimalist interior of the restaurant complete with open fireThe world’s largest sperm bank. Now there’s a thought. I imagine it to be a bit like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but without the midgets, or the chocolate, and not quite Wonka. Cryos — slogan “Come again” or “One in a million”.
It’s not, actually. It’s “We know a man who can”. It’s in Denmark, so it’s probably something like “Versperm durch Technik”.
They’ve just made an announcement: they’re not accepting any more redhead sperm.
They’re up to here with it. Their nitrogen urn runneth over. They’ve two litres of the stuff, and demand is flatlining. Women tick the boxes for clever, athletic, artistic, puts down the seat, cries at films but pretends he doesn’t, always goes to see what the noise in the middle of the night is, naked, carrying a cricket bat, and then they turn the page and tick no golf, no comb-overs and no redheads.
The Torridon Inn
AddressAnnat, by Achnasheen, Wester Ross, IV22 2EY
They say that redheads are going to die out. In three or four generations, ginger may only be available in a bottle, or some weird, embarrassing throwback. Maybe this is our Neanderthal moment. We lived with the Neanderthals for millenniums, and occasionally got together. You know, Cro-Magnon with benefits, or just drunk after the solstice. Then we went off them, and the neander-knuckle-scuffers, as we homos used to call them, died out, and we’ve missed them. Well, I expect someone’s missed them. So Cryos are offering special deals to Irish and Scots women, because red hair is part of their culture and, frankly, they’re not that choosy.
I wonder if sperm banks are offering incentives? Two for one? Bring a friend? All redhead shots half-price before eight o’clock? A sperm bank putting up a sign saying no dogs, no nutters and no redheads says something that I’ve suspected for some time. The amount of prejudice in the world is constant. It just gets moved on, like delinquents at bus stops, or gypsies in Kent, and it’s open season on gingers. The human rights hasn’t got round to them yet. Well, you’ll be sorry when they’re gone, and I speak as someone with a Neanderthal forehead. It’s either that or Klingon.
I’m writing this in Scotland. I come up here to the west coast every year for a week’s stalking. The country is having a late Indian summer, God’s consolation for messing up July and August. Up here, I’m told, the rain has barely drawn breath since last December. The TV weather map is all smiley sun, except for one wee cloud in the top-left-hand corner, and that’s the one I’m sitting under. I stepped out at 9 this morning and walked till 4.30, and got wetter than I’ve ever been. I’ve been in bars that were drier than the hill today. The rain hissed like smoke across the peat hags and streamed in horizontal waterfalls off the granite rocks, and I couldn’t have been happier. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.
There were a couple of hours that were sunny yesterday afternoon, so I drove to the glen next door. In 12 years I’ve never gone the 12 miles to Loch Torridon — jings, but it’s beautiful. The loch is huge, and the village of little white cottages hunkers along the strand. Behind them, the mountains rise like tall storeys. It’s quiet and charming, but also elemental and brutal. Trying to write about the Highlands landscape is like trying to copy a Landseer with an Etch A Sketch. You shoot your wad of exclamatory adjectives almost immediately, and the hills and the heather, the pines and the racing byrnes look back at you as if to say: “Is that the best you’ve got, pal? Can you nae muster a better army of similes, metaphors and allusions than that? Because, frankly, we did nae get up this morning and put on all this finery simply for you to stammer, ‘Wow, awesome’, and go slack-jawed. We’ve been described by the best. Some of the most limpid, lyrical observations have been frotted all over us. So unless you’ve got something pretty damn good to say, you’re better off saving your breath for your porridge. Is that an exclamation point in your pocket?”
The Torridon Hotel was built for Lord Lovelace. There’s a name for the sperm bank. It glowers from the stand of pines that lesser scribes might refer to as “aromatically majestic”. It is built in the odd Scotia vernacular, that is a northern variation of gothic revival, except that it doesn’t revive anything that ever was. It is the turreted and crenellated evocation of Walter Scott novels. The southern equivalent might be all English country houses being designed to illustrate Harry Potter.
I came here for lunch. It recommends itself. Inside, it’s Victorian camp Caledonian cliché, all stag heads and tartan. There was nobody about, so I rang an oversized bell on the desk. It made a noise like summoning the Kraken. After slightly too long, an efficient no-nonsense lady appeared instead, and asked me what I wanted. Lunch, I ventured, with a question mark. “We do sandwiches in there.” She pointed to a Monarch of the Glen memorial drawing room. I was hoping for something rather more sustaining. “Oh, well, there’s the bistro inn behind the car park for that sort of thing,” she said, with the inflection of my people that firmly implies, “Do you think I’m here simply for your convenience?”
The inn was behind the car park. Indeed, the car park was the featured view. It’s a wooden Portakabin containing a sticky, dark bar, with a silent TV showing Scottish football, a blinking fruit machine, no customers and a couple of Australian waitress-barmaids.
We were shown to a table where I could admire a couple of Vauxhalls. I’m not going to dwell on lunch, because they didn’t. I took Emma, the antiques dealer. She began with pan-seared scallops, crushed peas and a rocket salad. At best it was unpleasant. The scallops were wan goitres. The peas shrunken and frozen. The rocket salad some child’s pressed flower collection.
The only identifiable fish in the fish pie was salmon, which is the one fish that you should never, ever be put in a fish pieI had a wheel of Stornoway black pudding with apple and a cider reduction. The cider reduction was reduced to a skid mark. The black pudding was anaemic and greasy. The apple was brown and wizened. We could have had the home-made soup with the crusty bread. Why is the bread that accompanies soup always notably crusty? It’s like a Viking chieftain, Brod the Crusty. Why is the soup invariably cauliflower and stilton? Has anyone ever eaten this for pleasure?
For main course, Emma had scampi in a basket. The only agreeable thing about this was the basket. It came with chips, peas and home-made taramasalata. The scampi had done a runner from the batter, leaving mostly empty shells, like dried moth cocoons.
As for the homemade tartare sauce, it was as welcome as homemade toothpaste. I had fish pie, a large butter dish with a mildly piscine sludge, covered with a thick sputum-coloured scab of melted, nameless cheese. There were more of the ancient, cryogenicised peas, and dead chips.
The only identifiable fish was salmon, which is the one fish that should never be put in a fish pie. There ought to be Celtic punishments for people who put salmon in fish pie. We could have had a burger, or a gammon steak with the excitement of an egg and pineapple.
Pudding was a hideous sticky toffee, of course. This menu is a catalogue of derisively defunct dishes, an Oxfam shop of food you hated first time round. This stuff is as bad as you can eat anywhere in Europe, but is what we all expect from Scotland, outside the Central Belt — wilfully, stubbornly, f***-you-Jimmy awful. Here, just to recap, is the sort of hotel visitors love, with one of the great views in the world, sitting in a country that produces the best raw ingredients in the universe.
So they put the dining room in a hut over the car park and serve ham with pineapple, burgers and cauliflower soup.
It doesn’t just beggar belief, it rather concerns belief. It beggars common sense, hospitality, tourism and joy. You have to work very hard to come up with something this dire, day in, day out. What does it cost? Who cares. It’s a hopeless waste, and you’re never going to go. The Australian service was charming.