It's not easy living and working in Port Appin, Argyllshire. Despite the stunning beauty of the Linnhe loch, plus the mountains, islands and forests near by, Airds hotel head chef Paul Burns is realistic: "The winters are very harsh here. There are no shops or nightclubs, so basically you've got to enjoy the environment to be here."
Burns is, therefore, very happy. He loves hill walking, fishing and roaming around the countryside, which boasts a wealth of wild mushrooms, wild leeks, brambles and herbs - produce which helps him to create the hotel's menus. Burns and his brigade regularly collect chanterelles, cŠpes, hedgehog mushrooms, trompettes de mort and angel wings from the nearby woods. "Angel wings are like oyster mushrooms," Burns explains. "I fry them crisply, then splash Maderia on them and garnish with parsley."
Burns has been at Airds for four-and-a-half years now. He began working for previous owners Betty and Eric Allen, but when they sold up he decided to stay on. Under Shaun and Jenny McKivragan's ownership not much has changed, he says, including the hotel's three-rosette status.
Not much, except that Burns has just been crowned Scottish Hotel Chef of the Year 2004. Now 33, he first rose to prominence at only 23 when he joined the Newmiln hotel, Perthshire, and achieved three rosettes in one year.
"My food is simple, and I don't try to reinvent the wheel," he says. "I try to concentrate the flavours and develop the menu around what we have. Although I do my own versions of things, I don't have a problem in putting classic things on the menu, because if they are executed well, that's all you need. You just can't beat some marriages of food."
So what influences him? "That out there," he answers quickly, pointing to the glittering loch in front of him. "I use it for sea bream, sea bass, wild salmon, octopus and langoustines. We also get fish from Oban, and Cuil Bay is just round the corner. Our oysters are from the island of Lismore, across the bay."
The menu changes every two or three days and offers a choice between four starters, three mains and seven desserts. Starters might include a roast loin of rabbit (from France) on a slow-cooked onion confit tart topped with saut‚d foie gras and chanterelles (the kitchen has gone through 5kg so far this year in various dishes), while the langoustine and lobster ravioli is minced by hand so it has more texture than a pur‚e. Burns doesn't use cream or egg inside, just the meat - "That way you can see you've got a bit of lobster."
For a main, a fillet of turbot and scallops are braised in their own liquor to take on the natural flavour. The fish is served with a mussel velout‚ made with shallots, white wine, vermouth and cream.
Cuil Bay salmon and langoustines are combined with a salad of spinach, rocket and Baby Gems, and herbs such as sorrel, sweet cicely, lemon balm, parsley, dill, fennel and chervil - all from the garden. Wilted in butter and cream, the salad is folded lightly to keep it light and clean. The salmon is grilled with citrus juice, clarified butter and shellfish essence.
There's also a daily meat dish. "I only use Aberdeen Angus which has been hanging for three weeks, and then we hang it for another week," Burns says. "This is a classic dish, Aberdeen Angus with a mushroom duxelle of chanterelles, button mushrooms and wood blewitts. I give it a b‚arnaise glaze and a red wine sauce with roasted vegetables."
For desserts, Burns uses summer berries, naturally, plus what he gets from the garden. Daily souffl‚s include prune and Armagnac, or praline and chocolate, while ice-creams depend on the garden - rhubarb, garden lavender - or on home-made lemon curd. And he has to make something like sticky toffee pudding on Sundays. "You have to, even in summer," he laughs. "It's not right otherwise."
Airds Hotel, Port Appin,
Tel: 01631 730236.
Chef's cheat To avoid chapped fingers when peeling prawns, get your commis chef to do it.
What's on the menu?
(Dinner £45 for five courses. Lunch £17.95 for two courses, £21.95 for three)
- Breast of squab pigeon with foie gras, wild mushroom and truffles
- Warmed seafood salad with artichoke and aged balsamic dressing
- Smooth terrine of chicken liver with bramble and ginger sauce and toasted brioche
- Saut‚d sea bass with spinach, fine beans, local chanterelles and Madeira juices
- Fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef with mushroom duxelle, b‚arnaise glaze, roasted vegetables and a red wine sauce
- Prune and Armagnac souffl‚
- Garden rhubarb ice-cream
- Pavlova of summer berries and coulis