The small town of Pitlochry, not far from Perth at the edge of the Scottish Highlands, has a good deal more to enjoy than breathtaking mountain scenery, salmon fishing and its Festival Theatre. It's also home to what was once one of Scotland's best-kept secrets: the Port-na-Craig Inn, nestled on the banks of the River Tummel.
|"With ingredients of a high quality there's no need to confuse the flavours" Jamie Thewes|
However, since it was taken over in May 2002 by the Thewes family, the critics have beaten a path to its door - in large part to sample oldest son and head chef Jamie's cooking. The London Evening Standard proclaimed it "at least the equal of the stunning scenery", while Les Routiers recently named Port-na-Craig Scotland's Restaurant of the Year for 2004.
Jamie's style is all about using the best local ingredients he can find. Much has been made of the family's herb garden, where many of the restaurant's flavours are born. The food is not overly messed around with, and tastes remain uncomplicated. "With ingredients of a high quality," he says, "there's no need to confuse the flavours."
Produce is sourced as locally as possible. Meat and vegetables come from the town, and Thewes is proud of his friendship with many of the area's independent producers. Currently, fillet of beef is a star seller: full-flavoured Aberdeen Angus, aged for a month, is served as a starter with a salad of toasted nuts, pesto and a balsamic dressing (£5).
Main courses follow the same principle. Dishes such as locally raised pork fillet with red peppers and sherry sauce (£14.50) and organic salmon served on braised Baby Gems, bacon and spring onion, finished with a horseradish velout‚ (£13.50) are typical. Jamie changes the menu as necessary, often on a daily basis and always in response to his suppliers.
Reassuringly, similar levels of attention have been paid to desserts (all priced at £4). Fans of the dark stuff will find satisfaction in a rich chocolate mousse cake, served with cream and Cointreau syrup. Those preferring a more savoury conclusion are presented with a selection of traditional Scottish cheeses, including Lanark Blue and Baby Pentland, alongside Continental favourites, and served with the Theweses' home-made oatcakes.
The family took over the former 17th-century coaching inn with the idea of transforming a pub and restaurant into a stylish and modern dining room. This entailed quite a few changes to the 38-cover space, but many of the tavern's original features have been retained. The more senior Theweses are now responsible for collecting a range of some 30 wines, drawn from both Old and New Worlds, to match and balance the robust flavours coming from the kitchen. They are also put on "general management and flower-arranging duties".
The customers range from pre- and post-theatre diners to local foodies, and an increasing influx of inquisitive out-of-towners. On a busy weekend evening, the four-strong brigade might cook for 60 or more, and much emphasis is placed on teamwork. Jamie acknowledges the huge influence of sous chef Bob Buchanan, who arrived earlier this year.
And what about other culinary inspirations? "My greatest culinary influences are my mother and my aunt. They both have vast amounts of experience in preparing local fare," says Jamie, who attended the Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland, before serving under chef Roy O'Connell at its sister restaurant. With little formal or trade experience, Jamie utilises a love of simple, rustic dishes - be they local or from his frequent trips to Aracena, north of Seville in Spain, home to that inspirational aunt - for ideas. He also confesses to enjoying the style and decadence of London restaurant Orrery.
So what does the future hold for the 28-year-old? Has the Les Routiers accolade whetted his appetite for further glory? Not at all. Jamie's response is philosophical: business as usual; keep the team strong, with the family at its core; and any past or future accolades will simply be a recognition of their combined achievements. n
Port-na-Craig Inn, Pitlochry, Perthshire PH16 5ND. Tel: 01796 472777
What's on the menu - Vine tomato and balsamic soup, £3.50
- Red chard risotto with Parmesan, pine nuts and chive oil, £4.25
- Seared sea bass fillet with salad and ratatouille, £3.95
- Warm salad of baked goats' cheese with rocket and oak honey dressing, £9.50
- Raspberry ripple ice-cream with lemon shortbread, £4