(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.