Alladale Wilderness Reserve: A new era for Scottish cuisine
Thomas Park, head chef at Alladale Wilderness Reserve, is on a mission to help put Scottish food back on the map
Scotland doesn't have the best reputation for its food – people always seem to think of things like deep-fried Mars bars. Despite great Scottish chefs such as Tom Kitchin and Nick Nairn, who have done a lot to promote the abundance of local produce we have available, it is taking Scotland a while to develop as a culinary place and get past that stigma of being associated with deep-fried stuff. Once you get beyond the central belt it does feel a bit like stepping back in time. There are still a lot of greasy spoon cafes in Scotland's little villages and they all serve the same thing – it's always macaroni and chips, or fish and chips; there's a lot of chips!
My aim as a chef is to help push Scottish cuisine forward and make people realise the country has so much more to offer. I used to have a cafe in Newtonmore on the west side of the Cairngorms and when we opened we made the decision to not get a fryer, so chips were totally off the menu and we just served healthy dishes. It worked – people came specifically because we served that kind of food – that's when I knew things were starting to change.
Alladale Wilderness Reserve is a stunning place to work. It's 23,000 acres, located in the heart of the Highlands, an hour's drive north of Inverness. People visit for many reasons – to retreat, to go hiking, for the wildlife, to learn more about the conservation work we are doing and to go deer stalking. Food is a big part of the experience of coming to stay at Alladale, especially venison as we have many deer on the estate that have to be culled as part of our reforestation initiative to restore the habitat to its natural state. Venison is one of the few meats you can have that is completely wild. It's also the leanest meat you can get – there's next to no fat in venison at all, mainly because the deer are running around the hills and eating very healthy things such as leaves and berries all the time, so it is very high in protein as well. It is a very rich, low fat meat, and extremely good for you to eat.
The most popular cut of venison is the saddle, which is the fillet, but my favourite cut is actually the haunch, which is like the rump steak from a cow but tastier. My cooking philosophy is to not overcomplicate things, but let the main ingredients speak for themselves by focusing on cooking them well and pairing them with simple, seasonal ingredients. I'd recommend pan-frying the steak very quickly and then serving it medium/rare with a bit of butter and a sauce made from a reduced beef stock, redcurrants, juniper berries, and a little bit of chocolate, which gives it a really rich taste and a velvety texture that clings to the steak and looks beautiful. The sauce should enhance the flavour of the meat, but not overpower it. In the summertime I'd serve some seasonal greens such as kale and purple sprouting broccoli as an accompaniment, and in the winter a nice red cabbage braised with some sultanas, brown sugar and orange. Anything fruity goes really well with venison as it has quite a strong and gamey flavour, so it's good to offset that with something sweet.
I try to use as much local produce as possible – the flour for the bread is from Golspie Mill, which is just a couple of hours away from here, on the coast. We get our fish from Golspie too – there's a really good fish merchant called AG Campbell on the high street. The coast is easily accessible, so we get a lot of good shellfish, and there is loch fishing as well, so there is always plenty of fish –salmon, scallops, and lobster when it's in season. Tain is another good place, and Dornoch as well. They're our two local towns and I source most of the fruit and vegetables from their markets, which sell a lot of produce from local farms.
We can also forage for ingredients such as mushrooms and berries on the estate, so this is an activity we can offer to guests if they are interested. As a chef I feel there is always more to learn, and I'm very keen to develop dishes that are not just tasty, but healthy as well. Many people are now trying to eat much more healthily, and we have all the ingredients to cater to that.
A lot of the guests we have at Alladale are quite knowledgeable about food, and what I really like about my kitchen is that people will often stick their head in to say hello, have a chat about the food and find out about what I'm making them for dinner. It would be completely frowned upon in most kitchens, but I don't mind. I think it's great and a really nice thing. Of course, I adapt dishes a little to make them my own, but there's no such thing as an original recipe, so I don't think recipes are sacred. I feel that it's my responsibility as a chef to pass on what I have learned. Certainly when you take on apprentices, you're teaching them your ways, so why would you not share that knowledge with other people who show an interest in what you do? I want our guests to leave with an appreciation for everything Alladale has to offer, including the food.
Because people rent the entire lodge as a home for their stay, it's very informal – almost like a home from home for them. It's a really nice environment. They can shuffle into the kitchen in the morning and make a cup of coffee if they want to, and you just wouldn't be able to do that in many places. I think that's what gives us what we call the 'Alladale Effect' – our guests are generally very relaxed, open to chatting and always leave happy with a renewed vision of all the natural bounties Scotland has to offer.
THOMAS PARK is the resident head chef at Alladale Wilderness Reserve. The main lodge sleeps up to 14 guests and full-board catering is included as part of every booking. Menus are flexible and can be designed in advance to ensure they meet the dietary requirements of all guests. All itineraries are bespoke, with deer stalking, foraging and cookery classes available on request; alladale.com