The Seafood Cabin, Argyll: ‘Exactly the right thing’ – restaurant review | Food

The Seafood Cabin, Skipness, by Tarbert, Argyll PA29 6XU. Rolls £3-£5, salads £5-£13.50, specialties £5-£13.50, desserts 75p-£2.25, wines from £15

The Kintyre Peninsula, which hangs off the western edge of Scotland, is not particularly to the north, but it is surprisingly remote. By car, you have to climb to descend and the trip ends looking across Kilbrannan Sound to the coast you drove three and a half hours earlier. There’s a nicer way to do it, via two ferries and a trip through Arran, but miss the boat and you risk getting stranded. It therefore remains relatively unvisited, which is why I guess Paul and Linda McCartney chose it to escape Beatlemania. I too have found refuge here for the past 15 or so years, as an annual visitor rather than a temporary resident, and I love its beauty, its wildlife, its isolation so much that I wonder if I should write to this topic. The McCartneys did, in Mull of Kintyre, the video shot at Saddell with its wide, pristine beach, and a bit further up, just past the harbor where the little ferry from Arran comes and goes, is Skipness.

The village stretches along the bay, with a peeling post office and a small church, and at the end of the road, across two strange iron posts, is the castle, now in the care of Heritage Scotland . A Victorian laird was looking for more comfortable accommodation and built a Scottish baronial replacement with a turreted staircase and huge crow-stepped gables. This was seriously reduced in size in the 1930s by a fire, which killed the new owner, a Derbyshire industrialist, attempting a heroic rescue. The estate was split up in a rather peculiar way, so his four surviving grandchildren, the James family, do their own thing while contributing to the whole. There is the farm, with sheep and cattle and some forestry; there’s the smokehouse, run by one of their brothers and his wife, and there’s the Seafood Cabin, run by Sophie James, helped by another brother and her nephew and various family members and their friends who come for the summer season.

‘Fresh as you like’: langoustines. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Years ago it was really a shack – an old trailer parked outside the smokehouse where you could get a roll of smoked salmon and a can of pop. Eventually the caravan was moved down the hill to the big house, where it stands today, now incorporated into a permanent structure, with a kitchen inside, a washing-up station outside and a new oak barn next door providing cover if needed. . Most guests prefer to eat outside at picnic tables overlooking Arran, a view so majestically beautiful you have to blink a few times to make sure you don’t see a thing. If the sun is shining, as it regularly does in May, Chinese bamboo hats are available to protect your neck from sunburn. Rare-breed chickens run between tables, dogs roam free (water bowls are provided), and young, efficient room staff try not to bump into them when placing orders.

It’s all seafood and locally sourced, salmon prepared and smoked on site, oysters and scallops from Loch Fyne, kippers from Tarbert, langoustines caught by traps from the Sound and mussels from the wonderful Dougie, a fisherman who sold his catch from a small back shop in Tarbert until he retired, to the dismay of many, but still drives down to Skipness in his van for Sophie.

“Hidden depths”: mussels.
“Hidden depths”: mussels. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

When we arrived there was a small queue at the cabin, right next to Arran’s lunchtime departure. It was only the second day open of the season, but the Cabane has now become so popular that it is busy every day, from 11am to 4pm, except Saturday, their day off.

I had one of the specialties, a plate of langoustines (£14), because I love them, fresh to perfection, served with bread and butter and a pot of what looks like the green sauce you get with a samosa in Indian restaurants. The langoustine was soft and juicy, the sauce both tart and rich and with a wonderfully herbaceous finish that I couldn’t quite place. Chervil? It was sorrel, Sophie told me, one of the 14 herbs they grow, mixed with a kind of enriched yogurt, a nice light peat with the backwash of the langoustine.

“A plated tasting menu”: seafood platter for one person.
“A plated tasting menu”: seafood platter for one person. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

I followed with the seafood platter for one (£16), a tasting menu on a plate, with a single langoustine, a single oyster, a spoonful of white crabmeat and a spoonful of brown, and salmon hot smoked, cold smoked and gravadlax. A small pot of steaming mussels in a creamy broth not too rich with – literally and figuratively – hidden depths, arrived with more bread and butter and pots of mayonnaise and dill sauce for the gravadlax. All were excellent, but the gravadlax deserves a special mention. It’s a hard thing to balance, easily too sweet for my taste, and the anise isn’t the most sociable of flavors, but it was excellent, not only well balanced but with crispy, warm little seeds – pepper , cilantro? – to cut through the clagginess.

My friends had a crab stuffed roll (£6), generously provided, and mussels as a main course, greasy and yellow-fleshed (£12). I drank half a bottle of Sancerre (£17), my friends had a glass of rosé (£5.50), a bottle of Arran lager (£4.50) and a diet coke (1.50 £).

For pudding we had Sophie’s excellent chocolate cake (£2.50 per slice) with a mini tub of Mackie’s vanilla ice cream (£2).

'Excellent': chocolate cake.
‘Excellent’: chocolate cake. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The food is excellent and good value – lunch for five with wine and pudding came to £126.50 – but what makes it so special and popular is the setting . Many fear that efforts to revive the peninsula’s struggling economy, through forestry and sustainability, will affect the beauty of this unique place. A local farmer told me that you don’t see as many birds as you used to thanks to habitat loss, and who knows what impact the giant wind turbines will have on the hills above? The community itself is divided, trying to balance economic needs with protecting a fragile environment. Tourism brings another answer, or a complementary answer.

Skipness seafood booth is absolutely right, more popular every year and consistent with it. My only worry is maybe you can do it too well, and attract more and more people, and lose what Kintyre fans love it for: its remoteness, the oystercatcher gaze, the cloudy peaks of Arran, the mist that rolls from the sea? If he’s kept Beatlemania at bay, he should be able to handle the curiosity of the rest of us.

The Madness of Grief by Richard Coles is published by Orion at £16.99. Buy it from theguardianbookshop for £14.78

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