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Skye Trip

Chris Roberts

(8 min read)
Down a dirt track and then through a gate with no visible signs we are met by a friendly black and white collie. Shortly after, Bridget appears, one of Skye’s best known producers. On Skye she is a superstar, the guru of salad leaves, the must have in every restaurant and our guide this morning for everything green.

Bridget Hagmann has been growing a world class selection of salad leaves, herbs, gourmet vegetables and edible flowers from a hillside garden in Glendale for over 35 years. In a collection of poly tunnels that sit high on a hillside looking down towards the sea there is every colour, flavour and shape of organic leaf you can imagine. Brigitte informs us, “We have over 150 different varieties growing here.” She picks a small green leaf from a knee high flower bed, “Try it” she says as she passes us each a leaf. She smiles in anticipation, we bite down and taste an intense granny smith flavour. “That’s the apple sorrel.”

Our plan this trip is to collect amazing produce and take it to a world famous chef on Skye for him to work his magic and create a dish for us. So before we leave, Bridget selects some prize leaves and bags them up for us to take. Never before have any of us been so excited about tasting a plate of salad. Her passion and amazing produce ignites our excitement about the next visits which are all within 26 miles of the restaurant we’ll be delivering the ingredients to. 

Next up is Skye Sea Salt, a company that was set up in 2011 by four friends who wanted to create a business that was socially and environmentally responsible. We meet Chris and Nanette on a stretch of coastline in Northern Skye. Hugging the shore are four poly tunnels sitting nose to nose, we stand in the first of four with a white carpet of salt below us. The blizzard has moved in, wind is whipping up from the sea and snow is battering the side of the poly tunnels. Chris smiles and says, "This is where we harvest the salt from the sun."

The business works in harmony with the seasons only harvesting from April to October and uses only the power of the sun and wind on site at Loch Snizort. We are early in the season but there is plenty of salt for us to take to season our dish. As Nanette passes us a tube of salt she says, “Our environmental ethos runs through everything we do, as well as no power on site we also use 90% recycled card in all of our packaging.”

So far we have salad leaves grown on a Skye hillside and salt naturally dried from Scottish sea waters. All we need now is the key ingredient and although we are incredibly excited for our next visit, the weather and the realisation of a boat journey is filling us with a little trepidation. We sleep in hope of some let up rom the wild Skye weather.

For three days the wind, rain and snow has battered the island and us, but this morning the wind has dropped, the rain has eased off and the sun has peeked out from behind the clouds. The perfect weather to head out on the boat with David Oakes and his son Ben from Sconser scallops. We meet them both at the cool clear waters of Loch Sligachan, on the East coast of Skye.

Yorkshire-born David is Skye’s most-celebrated scallop diver, and has spent the last 30 years cultivating this local speciality. The area we are in is protected by the Highland Fisheries Authority who awarded David a ‘Several order’, this is a licence that allows only David to dive for Scallops in these waters. He explains “Our scallops are lifted from the deeper waters of the Loch and then re-laid in the shallow waters, where the plankton is thicker and the scallops can achieve their potential.” This move speeds up the fattening process creating more meat and flavour.

We jump in the boat, Ben hits the throttle and we head out to a bouy which marks the territory only Sconser Scallops are allowed to dive in. David perches on the side with all his gear and leans out, gravity pulls him into the water, Ben turns to us and says, “Now we wait”. 30 minutes later David re-appears from the depths, he pulls his way back into the boat and Ben lifts up the sack crammed with Scallops. David has managed to collect around 180 shells that they quickly sort into bags of 60 as well as a special selection for us.

We now have everything we need, scallops, salad and salt so head straight to the restaurant. It’s about a 25 minute drive on the island, we follow the road around until we hit a jetty and we can’t drive any further. In front of us is the open ocean and a view across to Isay, below us the slipway gently disappears into the lapping waters. Directly behind us, with this fantastic view everyday, is Michael’s restaurant, Loch Bay. 

Michael Smith is a Michelin starred Chef and has been based on the Isle of Skye since 2004. He joins us on the jetty with his dog Willow. He has a beanie, fleece, shorts, yellow socks and walking boots on, he smiles and says “Right then, what have you got for me me?” We hand him the produce and turn and head back to the restaurant to get cooking. As we walk he says, “These local ingredients have had so much care and attention already, my job is to practice the virtues of restraint and bring these flavours together.”

Michael has been on Skye since 2004 and worked at the Three Chimney’s restaurant. He took the reputation to new heights getting listed amongst the top 50 restaurants in the world and gaining a Michelin Star in 2014. Then in 2015, the opportunity to take over Loch Bay arose and he jumped at the chance. He leads us into the kitchen, puts on his chef whites and gets started on the dish. As he cooks he tells us about the producers he uses “Businesses support other businesses here on Skye. This isn’t just because they are close but because they consistently deliver amazing produce and that makes my life easy.”

It’s not long before Michael is finished cooking and plates up. The ingredients lay elegantly on the white plate. Carefully chosen baby leaf and micro herbs sit on the pan seared scallops, which have been flash fried with lemon and butter and have a drizzle of beurre blanc sauce and pinch of Skye sea salt over the top. Nothing is there that doesn’t need to be. He says as we finish every last morsel smiling and nodding with delight, “Food is about enjoyment, it’s about generosity and because of that it should be handled responsibly.”

With the rise of the supermarkets and convenience food we often don’t think about the provenance or seasonality of our diets. This trip we learned about about the importance of good ingredients, the focus on seasonal taste and that great food that is on our doorstep. It is easy to see why this approach to food brings visitors to Skye from all over the world. The producers we met and the food we tasted all celebrate this special island. It’s extreme seasons and northerly location force locals to think seasonally, to work with the environment and support each other. In this one simple dish we experienced decades of skill and experience from the producers, as well as world class cooking from Michael to cleverly bring the flavours together in a collective plate of beautiful tasting food.

Real Bread

Chris Roberts

(5 min read)
Freshly baked croissants and coffee are waiting for us as we enter ‘Flour, Water, Salt’s’ HQ, the depot. We are joined by four other baking novices and sit around a table where Paul Robinshaw, owner of ‘Flour, Water, Salt’ ensures us that we will be taking home five brilliant loaves by the end of the day. 

Paul has an background in IT and opted for a career move into baking at the age of 40, he says “I guess you could call it my mid life crisis, maybe I should have bought a Ferrari instead?!” But Pauls decision turned out to be a wise move, backed up by years of crazy early starts, plenty of blood, sweat and tears, the bakery now has five world food awards and is selling out every bake. 

We start with a classic Sourdough mixture, just like the bakery name. Flour, Water Salt. We mix the ingredients after Paul has shown us the technique and are underway. Today we will make two Sourdough loaves, one date and Caraway, a raisin and walnut and finally a rosemary and sea salt focaccia. 

Paul carefully takes us through each process, each measure and bakers percentage of ingredients. Each kneed we get better, each mixture we grow in confidence as a group. We are all working towards that moment where the oven opens for the first time and there standing infront of us is our hard work, risen and standing proud. 

Before we know it, lunch is upon us, we break, eat, reflect and then get back to the bread. All the kneading done, we move onto the proving before the all important bake. Finally the dough is ready for the oven. We carefully place the bread in, five loaves, one after each other. Our work is done and it’s  up to the oven to finish our hard work.

As Paul retrieves our beginners loaves from the oven, a collective intake of breath and anticipation hits the group. We all catch an eye of our perfectly risen sourdough and and smiles appear on the faces of us all. Each loaf is completely different, some high, some wide, some random but the sense of satisfaction is the same throughout. We have all achieved today, knowing very little at the start and now full blown bakers. We leave with a sourdough starter levain, perfect for getting us on the road to home baking and hopefully the beginning of a real bread future. Thanks Paul.  

On the road again

Chris Roberts

(4 min read)
It must be around 2am, the blizzard has set in, the road is white and driving conditions are pretty dodgy, but we know we have to be in Thurso for 10am to meet Shane from Wolfburn Distillery so we venture on. 

A mere eight hours North from our Manchester base, Wolfburn Whiskey sits on the rugged Scottish coast in Thurso, Caithness. It is situated in the most northerly town on the British mainland. We arrive early and catch Shane off guard, he is finishing off some emails and clearly isn’t ready for us. We leave and pop back 20 minutes later, Shane is now styling a new Wolfburn polo shirt, wearing a big smile and is ready to give us the tour. 

Wolfburn Distillery is a very young distillery that only starting trading in 2013 and selling their first bottles in 2016. It's based 350 yards from the original Wolfburn distillery that closed back in the late 1800’s. The opportunity to produce a new whiskey from scratch is very unique and Shane says, “It’s my dream job to produce a whiskey that I’ve created. Even better that I’m doing it at a forgotten distillery that has been brought back to life.” The taste he mentions only took around a week to perfect, “It is years of whiskey producing experience, but also a good bit of luck which allowed us to produce this great tasting whiskey so fast.” Steeped in history, this modern resurrection of a forgotten distillery is nudging its way back into a whiskey market, producing award winning taste from it’s natural beginnings. 

Wolfburn is one of three visits this trip. Next on our travels is Golspie Mill run by Michael and Becky Shaw, one of very few traditional water-powered mills remaining in production in Scotland. Built in 1863 as an estate meal mill, it was fully restored in 1992 and has been producing specialist meals and flours using traditional methods and renewable energy ever since.

Each morning Michael heads up to the millpond about 300 meters from his house to turn the sluice gate to release the water. It runs down a purpose built narrow stream and speeds past hens and cockerels either side before hitting the paddles at the top of the wooden wheel. The momentum kicks the old wheel into life and its motion powers the mill for the day. We spend time with Michael finding out the process involved and the understanding the unique way the mill is powered. 

Later we are lucky enough to stay with Michael and his family and enjoy a home cooked meal, a lovely bottle of wine and nicely finished off with Golspie Mill award wining shortbreads. As we settle in for the night we can hear Michaels wife Becky singing their children to sleep, Scottish lullabies float in the air and we drift off to sleep after an amazing second visit. 

The morning rise is early, we need to get to Arbroath where we will be met by Iain Spinks, a fifth generation Smokie producer. It’s a good few hours drive and we take in the ever impressive Scottish landscape on route. We jump out of the car and head down a steep, single track road towards the beach. As we round the corner we have an elevated view and can see Iain setting up. The hole is already dug, the fire pit set and fish ready to be smoked. He looks up, sees us and gives us a wave. We quicken our pace eager to find out more about the history and techniques associated with Arbroath Smokies.

After a smokey 40 minutes the Haddock is ready, Iain removes one of the hessian sacks, the smoke escapes and we catch our first glance of the smoked fish. He looks up smiles and says, “They’re ready, would you like two try one?” We bolt forward at the offer, ready to try our first Arbroath Smokie. We stand around the barrel, the oak and beech still smouldering, the noise of the sea gently lapping against the shore and the smoke dancing in the wind as the warm flakey fish just crumbles in our hands and we taste magical bite after magical bite.   

This trip feels special, back on the road again, meeting inspirational people, tasting culinary delights. We are three visits in and already hooked, this collection, this celebration of home grown talent is going to be a real treat. 

The first trip: The Backbone of Britain

Chris Roberts

(10 Minute Read) 
The book from our first trip is available on our shop here

After two weeks on the road we headed back to Manchester. The Land Rover defender was full to bursting like a freshly packed holiday suitcase. The Spotify playlist hummed Paul Simon's Graceland and we all sat quietly reflecting. It was the quietest we'd been for the whole trip - that was until the chorus kicked in and we all blared out "we're going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee," we all chuckled and then started to chat over the near 3000 mile trip that had taken us from the outer Hebrides in Scotland to the Southern most tip of the country in Cornwall.

The sun was beaming in through the windscreen which made a welcome change from a lot of the trip. Our first night in Uig, Skye saw the rain and hail coming in horizontal. Although the windscreen wipers were moving faster than Usain Bolts legs running the 100 meters we were still struggling to see. It continued as we pitched the tent, as we went to bed and as we drove onto the ferry the next morning at 5am. But after a full breakfast we went up on deck to witness a double rainbow straight out of a Lucky Charms advert. The clouds parted and the sun burst through. It felt like Harris was welcoming us in and we were officially starting our journey.

Our mission was to find people who produce things with a passion and a purpose and the first visit was to Sheila Rodderick, one of the only female linen producers on an island dominated by Harris Tweed. A few years earlier she had produced a number of costumes for the blockbuster film ‘The Hobbit’. I jumped out the landy to say hello, followed swiftly by Rob and then rather awkwardly by Matt who struggled to get out of the back of our 3 door bright white defender past the cases and kit packed to the ceiling. It wasn't until Matt had suffered several hamstring strains and numerous bashes to the head trying to exit gracefully that we figured out the pain free, yoga free way to move the passenger seat to get out. By the end of trip we were a finely oiled machine, I would meet and greet all ready with my pen and pad, Rob would quickly unpack his camera to start shooting and Matty would be ready to start filming instantly. We wanted to capture as much as we could, not missing anything or anyone, we had 19 people to meet over two weeks and a wealth of landscapes to explore.

Working with your hands was important to everyone we met but working with your legs was equally important to Skye Weavers who have been producing woven and sewn products from their old croft house on Sky for three years now, weaving everything on their loom driven by a bicycle. They were just one of many people we met on the trip using fabrics in specific ways. There was the Scottish contingent - Jenifer from Edition Scotland who creates traditionally crafted cashmere accessories. Alec from Trakke producing a unique selection of bags from specialist durable fabrics. We slipped on the worlds best mountain shirt in Huddersfield made from the finest Merino wool when we met Natalie at McNair. We witnessed Iggy's inspiration wall which was full of cuttings from various materials at Workhouse clothing in Bury St Edmunds and finally Tom from Finisterre showed us the wide selection of products his cold water surf brand in Cornwall produces.

It wasn't just peoples use of fabric that interested us though, leather was on our list too. Not long into the trip we met Colin from Mcrostie a company based in Glasgow who specialise in premium leather belts and other fashion accessories. Then about half way down the country we stopped in Northampton, home to the finest shoe makers in the UK, our chosen producer was Alfred Sargent a fourth generation business based in Northampton, it was Paul Sargent who showed us around the factory and the wide range of shoes handmade there for decades.

In another part of the country Theo and Tim from Willow and Warson were busy creating a completely different handmade product, they are currently working with a 250 year old wood from the ship HMS victory, producing limited edition wooden bow ties. There is something beautifully unique about wooden products, although each piece can have the exact same dimensions because they are cut from a different piece of wood with different colouring, different grains and knots then no two will be alike. When you take that craft to a grander scale then each one becomes a stunning piece of work, for example Paul from Mears Boat builders whose family have been crafting, shaping and skilfully making wooden boats from their boat yard in Axmouth for three generations and further down the coast was James from Otter surfboards who is producing handcrafted hollow wooden surfboards in Devon. Also Mike from Rowland Wheelwrights was using traditional techniques passed down generations from as far back as 1300's to engineer wooden products such as wheels and carriages for a variety of clients, notably the royal family. But our last visit of the trip to David from Coppice Pot gave us an insight into a way of life we knew very little about. He works with wood with no supply chain, straight out of the ground in the forest he looks after. He uses everything he cuts down, producing charcoal, kindling and traditional wood craft such as carved spoons or willow fences. He cuts enough wood to live off but never too much to damage the forest, working his way around the forest on a yearly basis until he comes back to the first area he started on, starting the process again.

David was typical of the type of person we met on the With Love Project, extremely welcoming, understandably passionate about the work he produced and willing to talk us through and educate us on the whole process. The great thing about this project is that it has a strict focus but is flexible enough to allow us to visit a wide variety of crafts people, producers and trades people. There's not many projects which include a sign writer who has worked for the kings of Leon, next to a female blacksmith artist from Wiltshire or a fair trade coffee roaster next to a couple glass blowing their way into numerous collections and national museums. This trip took the total number of people we have met to date to nearly 40 inspiring individuals who we have found, heard about or been introduced too. We've been humbled by their openness and enthused by their work and attitude. Some days we have driven 10 hours to meet people, other days we've ventured out of the UK. Each and every journey is filled with excitement and anticipation of hearing another great story, an insight into someone's thinking, their way of life and a chunk of knowledge and advice to hold onto. We have met traditional furniture makers at the top of their game, motorcycle manufacturers hand building by eye, wheelwrights who can trace the family trade back to the 1300's and tailors who've produced suits for Pavarotti. Each one of these people has let us into their world after just a phone call or an email, understanding what we are trying to achieve and happy to share in what they are producing.

As we neared home with signs for Manchester and the M60 flying past my passenger window I knew that although this particular journey was shortly coming to an end, our journey to find people who are producing things with a passion and a purpose was only just beginning.

The book from the trip is available on our shop here