Gary Goldie won the title of Scottish Chef of the Year 2011, on top of the restaurant's three AA rosettes, for his inventive menus based on foraged wild produce. Neil Gerrard paid a visit
There's a jelly ear!" exclaims Gary Goldie, and within a few seconds he's over a small fence and half way up an elder tree to claim his prize. "I have actually been up this tree looking for mushrooms when my neighbour walked by - but they know what I am like now," he says.
Goldie has been head chef at Ardanaiseig near Oban in north-west Scotland for the past 15 years. For the last several he has been foraging in earnest, both in the area around his house in nearby Taynuilt as well as in the grounds of the hotel itself, 10 miles down a single-track road, on the shore of Loch Awe.
He started with mushrooms, having been taught to root out the best edible fungi by his friend Dick Peebles, a sales manager at Fresh Direct (he and Peebles appeared on Giles Coren's BBC2 show Our Food earlier this month). But when he isn't on the hunt for mushrooms like scarlet elf cups or scarletina bolete, he has also learned to exploit the abundance of edible plants and herbs that grow in the local lanes. In April, that means not just the wild garlic that carpets woodland floors, but also hogweed, wild pea shoots, gorse flowers, watercress, and the mustardy flowers of scurvy grass, which grows on the shores of the loch, to name just a few.
Goldie estimates he spends more than 10 hours a week finding the best wild produce and marrying it with local ingredients - all of which ends up on his set menu, which changes daily and generally caters for 15 to 25 people a day. It is an approach which last year earned him the title of Scottish Chef of the Year.
"Sometimes I will be late to work because I get a bit carried away," he says. "But if something tastes better than a bit of spinach, or lollo rosso from God knows where, then I would prefer to use that. It is just the time getting it, and I make time."
It's possible to see the inspiration hitting the chef, who has worked with the likes of Joe Queen, Ralph Porciani, Bill Costley and Pat McDonald at the Epicurean in Cheltenham, as he explores.
"When you get in amongst the wild garlic, your mind starts racing," he says. "You can get two big leaves like this and pipe a mousse in there - maybe a chicken and morel mousse, or a fish mousse - then you blanch the leaf, close it over and steam it," he explains as he plucks some of the plant from the ground.
Goldie is also a believer in combining ingredients on the plate that grow together in the wild. One of his recent creations, he explains, is gorse flower and citrus fruit jelly with gorse flower sorbet and sorrel. The sorrel is often found growing beneath the gorse bushes. A dish of halibut with Ardfern spinach, girolles and wild strawberry is another flavour combination he is particularly pleased with.
He also favours wild alternatives to more predictable vegetables. In the case of the slivers of St Brides duck breast with fried Lagganbuie duck egg and ground elder, which is on the menu when Caterer and Hotelkeeper visits, he shuns the more ubiquitous spinach in favour of wilted ground elder - once popular with the Romans - which grows in a fenced off patch directly behind his house.
"I don't use things like foie gras any more because you go somewhere and in all the restaurants with rosettes or a Michelin star, you get foie gras, and a chutney or whatever. And don't get me wrong, I like foie gras, I just don't want to be one of the people who does that," he says.
"What I find interesting is using something you can't get anywhere else."
Sample dishes from the menu
(Menu - 19 April, £50)
Slivers of St Brides duck breast with fried Lagganbhuie duck egg and ground elder
John Dory with parsley root, broad beans and spring white truffle (pictured below)
Fillets of Angus beef with braised cheek, smoked tongue, sautéd heart, potato puree and watercress (pictured above)
Criffel cheese with freshly baked Selkirk bannocks
Poached garden rhubarb with sweet cicely panna cotta and rhubarb sorbet
Kilchrenan by Taynuilt, Argyll, Scotland PA35 1HE
Tel: 01866 988220