Iain Lynn tries out Scotland’s West coast and finds a haven for food – and gin lovers.
Nestled between Lochs Etive and Awe and the slopes of Ben Crucachan, the West Highland village of Taynuilt boasts a well-kept secret.
Behind the modest façade of the Taynuilt Hotel, an historic coaching inn which has been a staging post for travellers for centuries, lies a surprising gastro pub with 10 en-suite rooms. Which is lucky as it also boasts the finest selection of gins we’ve encountered.
Greeted by general manager David on arrival and taken up to our room, we were immediately struck with a sense of history (our room had a very cosy four-poster), but warmth as this is very much a family business, and a labour of love by young owner and head chef John McNulty.
On one of the main routes out of Oban (12 miles to the west), the cosy bar was bustling on a wet Wednesday evening. We’d already arranged to eat in the restaurant, but decided to soak up the atmosphere in the bar first.
It was here, by accident, we discovered the gin. My girlfriend, who had been put off Mother’s Ruin, after finding it “made her angry”, had become recently reacquainted with it with no signs of shirt-ripping or turning green, so what better place to start than a bar with a choice of almost 40. On David’s expert recommendation – also as bar manager, maitre de, and everything else on that evening, she tried a golden saffron gin (Gabriel Boudier Saffron), with ice, not tonic, while I sampled a pint of local ale from the Loch Ness Brewery.
This hotel is very much about the food and head chef John decided to bring “good, honest food kept simple” to the West Highlands, after training in various restaurants across Scotland, then moving to the Kingham Plough in Oxfordshire as Senior Chef De Partie and working alongside BBC’S Great British Menu regular Emily Watkins.
He was Head Chef at the Hotel on the Park at Cheltenham, before, at the age of 22 and with a tiny baby, he bought the Taynuilt Hotel and moved his young family back to Scotland. Some of his adventures in the past few years at Taynuilt would make a great book, and probably a film too, if he wasn’t so busy running a 10-room hotel and restaurant.
So armed with the knowledge about the culinary pedigree of the food I selected homemade liver pate with Scottish oatcakes, which I’m told is one of John’s specialties and Lucy chose the local Murry’s Hot smoked Salmon, pickled veg and Garlic mayo.
It’s fair to say that we had high hopes for the starters, but they were more than exceeded. The portions were ample and the dishes were fresh and delicious. The mains featured a good selection of local and regional produce, I chose a delicious steak pie for £15 braised in RedNESS Ale, with mash and greens and my dining partner selected Pan Roasted Hake with pink flur potatos and a mussel veloute at £16. Both were incredible and presented and great value for considering the quality of the produce and overall flavours of the meal.
Despite being nicely full by this point, I had my arm twisted into sharing a peat smoked sea salt, chocolate caramel tart, served with ice cream for £6.50. Lucy had spotted a picture on twitter and I suspect had decided to try this long before we had even set foot in the hotel. Suffice it to say, I didn’t get to have much of it.
After a few more gins, this time Botanist from Islay, and again based on David’s recommendations, we retreated to our traditional room slightly later than planned, but contented and ready to explore the local area the next day.
Fearing more wet weather, we discovered the local power station is an unlikely, but popular visitor attraction, whatever the weather, as it’s hidden deep within the mountain of Ben Cruachan – one kilometre deep. with enormous turbines converting the power of water into electricity. Or there’s the sea life centre and town of Oban with it’s famous distillery to be explored.
But on waking the next day, we discovered clearer skies and following some hearty porridge, smoked salmon, muesli and scrambled eggs, I took a step back to my teenage years and walk part of the West Highland Way.
I have completed the entire 96 miles, all the way from Milngavie to Fort William, which included two days solidly walking alongside Loch Lomond, but due to a shortage of time and general lack of fitness, we instead started at the Bridge of Orchy and completed a circular walk to take in some of the dramatic scenery and wildlife.
Fort William and Oban are both worth a visit, especially worthwhile is the short but steep walk to McCaig’s Tower in Oban which is a colloseum-type structure on a hill looking the harbour, town and islands of Kerrera, Lismore and Mull in the distance.
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed more of the local delights on offer for our evening meal, including a particularly good homemade beefburger and potted Loch Awe trout with sourdough. Feeling slightly ashamed at choosing the house wine the day before (which was much better than a usual house white, but showed a lack of imagination) we decided to test David’s wine selection skills and after telling him our food choices (including chicken, red meat and fish) . “You’re not making this easy” he said, before returning and surprising us with a Lebanese wine from the Bekaa Valley.
Unexpectedly, the evening culminated with a champagne tasting session. An expert from Maison Joseph Perrier provided guests and local residents with a selection of champagnes and stories from the champagne producing region, including an unusual Lancashire link which revealed a tractor driver from the red rose county tending the family vineyards.
My girlfriend decided she enjoyed the Cuvee Royale Brut Vinage 2002 the best with its fine mousse and rich texture, but we also tasted non-vintage and a delicious Blanc de Blancs.
After two fantastic days, we reluctantly left the hotel and our new friends with a renewed love for great food, champagne and of course, gin. The Taynuilt is a work in progress, but with passionate new owners with such ambitious plans, the ‘House by the Burn’ may just have started another exciting chapter of its illustrious history.