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Food Hotel: Ardanaiseig, Argyll, Scotland

Ardanaiseig Hotel
Kilchrenan by Taynuilt, Argyll, PA35 1HE
01866 833 333
Cuisine: British
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THERE is an unmistakeable primal allure about food that has been plucked from the wilds and put on your plate: it is food at its freshest and purest. And the flavours can be surprisingly exotic.
 
These are just some of the reasons why Gary Goldie, the chef de cuisine at the Ardanaiseig Hotel, is such an enthusiast about the larder on his doorstep in the wilds of Argyll. Herbs like wild cress and lemon-sour wood sorrel flourish outside the door of his kitchen, and five minutes walk away is prime mushroom woodland.
 
When he’s looking for a missing flavour or texture, it’s only natural that he puts down his chopping board and picks up his hunting knife. Short of the dish still breathing when set in front of you, ou can’t get fresher fare. Autumn is one of the best seasons for country estates like Ardanaiseig in terms of both setting and food.
 
By the tranquil Loch Awe, this rugged, grey-stoned 19th century stately home built in the baronial style gives guests access not just to boat trips and fishing excursions but also an opportunity to explore its rolling wooded grounds, which burst into colour during the closing months of the year - and wild mushrooms are one of the season’s main attractions.
 
There’s a sense of adventure bordering on danger if you are a wild mushroom novice, because if you don’t know what you are doing, the innocent white mushroom on the forest floor may turn out to be a deadly Destroying Angel. It’s always a good idea to have an experienced mycologist on hand, so with baskets in hand we followed Gary on one of his afternoon forages.
 
Despite his initial concern about a spell of mushroom-unfriendly dry weather, within minutes we were clambering over logs and through glades. Tracking ‘shrooms is like hunting any other well-camouflaged game: you need to know what to look for, and not all edible fingi are flavoursome.
 
But soon we were able to fill both our punnets with safe and tasty morsels such as the vivid orange chanterelles, spiny hedgehogs and the luminous white flesh of angel wings.
 
Back in his kitchen, Gary sautéed a selection of our bounty for us to appreciate – the chanterelles had a particularly nutty flavour, the hedgehogs a texture reminiscent of sweetbreads - whilst explaining how he had taken to harvesting herbs and plants on the way to work for dishes. One of the most striking of these creations was an ice cream made with an infusion of meadowsweet: a pale yellow flower found growing wild in abundance during summer and early autumn – with a marshmallow sweetness and an intriguing herbal undertone. Another one of Gary’s imaginative combinations was a delicious peach and basil sorbet, which undercut the soft sweetness of the peach with a refreshing herbal undertone It was this balance of strong, dense tastes with clean light flavours that was to be a theme throughout our later that evening.
 
Of course it’s not all foraging and food at Ardanaiseig, though country pursuits are at the heart of its attraction. Fishing, boating, deer stalking, and clay pigeon shooting are all on offer, which explains the phalanx of for-visitor wellies that greet you in reception.
 
We decided to have a go at shooting, which found us armed and, given our complete inexperience, dangerous in a thankfully deserted field. However, under the patient tutelage of estate gamekeeper David Sturrock, we managed to go from being barely able to hold our shot guns to at least being able to load, point and shoot in the general direction of the clays – if not quite hit them with the clockwork regularity that he demonstrated for us. Beyond its huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ attractions, what Ardanaiseig offers most is romantic intimacy.
 
The acres of woodland are perfect for long country walks; the boathouse, which stands separate from the main building, is perfect for couples; the hotel’s polyglot period furnishings reinforce the sense that time doesn’t pass with any sense of urgency here, while bedrooms bypass cutting-edge style for old fashioned comfort. In the basement, a traditional games room is dominated by a football pitch-sized snooker table, which felt as if the house’s original owners had just stepped outside for a break before resuming their match.
 
But with evening approaching, we found ourselves in the dining room perusing Gary’s tasting menu for the evening. An ox-tail terrine mixed earthy dark flavours and soft textures with the astringency of the horseradish cream and crunch of the crisp baby leaves, while a perfectly-cooked halibut’s in a buttery sauternes sauce sat in harmony with the tawny flavours of the autumn Chanterelles, purple carrot puree and organic spinach. A mention should also go to the playful use of popping candy in the coating of our pistachio ice cream, an appropriately snappy end to a meal at a hotel which fizzes with potential.
 
With a dinner behind us, we were left with coffee and petit fours to contemplate in the golden-walled public room, the main subject of our conversation on how we could hunt out another opportunity to visit Ardanaiseig.
 
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By: Craig Brown
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