Close-up of popcorn chicken at The Old Swan, Llantwit Major.

From nectar to the loin: going “posh” at The Old Swan

Our meal at The Old Swan would mark the final leg of our all-dayer in Llantwit Major. Would I still be able to taste anything? Would any of my pictures still be in focus? Do I remember what happened?! Find out…

Whilst I don’t miss the busyness, the noise, the torn bin bags, or the vulture-like seagulls dragging rotting meat down the street – there has been one drawback to living beyond Cardiff’s perimeters (even if that’s just a few minutes’ drive from Thornhill): relying on public transport.

For ourselves, it tends to mean leaving just as the party is getting into full swing at around 11pm – for our friend who lives in Llantwit Major, it’s 9:30pm (unless he opts for hotel for the night or a £50 taxi home).

We felt it was the least we could do after five years or so of always meeting up in Cardiff for us to make the journey to him – and, bonus, there was a beer festival on that weekend!

 

Hot day, stuffy train – let’s get a latte!

To be fair, our journey got off to a good start – our Arriva Wales train hadn’t been cancelled or delayed! This meant we were going to make our connection with time to spare – and avoid adding an extra 40 minutes to a journey already pushing two hours door to door.

“I was living dangerously.”

And the ticket price was another nice surprise – a return costs us £7.20 from Aber to Cardiff Central (22 minutes), but it was only an extra £1 to go from Cardiff Central to Llantwit Major (40+ minutes).

However, this meant I had both the time and the spare change to pick up an overpriced latte from the Upper Crust kiosk… I was living dangerously.

With stops seemingly every two minutes, there was no air flow, and I was building up a bigger sweater than my 40 minutes every-other-morning on the exercise bike – when we arrived, Mrs. B.B. had to peel me off the seat!

 

The Llantwit Major 150m metre pub crawl

If it wasn’t a ‘thing’ already, it is now.

Five pubs within stumbling distance of each other, occasionally no pavements, cars speeding around corners – all the basic requirements covered.

Kings Head

First up was the Kings Head. And if it looked tired on the outside:

kings-head-pub-building-llantwit

…it was nothing compared to the bar man, who I’m sure fell asleep about three times on serving us – and disappeared on a further three occasions (the slow service would end up costing us a pub!).

“It needs a few signs… beyond those asking people not to fight.”

Being a Brains pub, the options were as limited as you would expect – actually, even worse (no Rev. James?!). There was one guest ale, but it looked too blonde for my taste, so opted for my first Newcastle Brown Ale since… well, my underage drinking days in the local park / bus shelter (roughly twenty years ago).

The bar and lounge are everything I would expect of an ‘old man’s pub’, but it needs some love. It also needs a few signs – two of our party nearly ended up in the cellar when looking for the WC – beyond those asking people not to fight.

I do feel for the neighbours who back onto the beer garden (and I worry for anyone who may be eating from the BBQ!).

The White Lion

Straight across the road was The White Lion.

Again, you knew what to expect from the outside:

white-lion-pub-llantwit-major

…but at least the sign was in tact and it looked like it had received a lick of paint post-1998.

Again, not much choice on tap – Gower Rumour would become our staple for the next couple of hours.

Darker than the clip would suggest:

gower-rumour-beer-garden-llantwit

A few grumbles it wasn’t a gold, but as a malty fan, it was probably my favourite beer of the day – or the last one I feel confident in rating.

It was here that we picked up our pace – well, our drinking pace. Nobody was going to give up our prime spot in the beer garden or cut an inebriated conversation short.

Tudor Tavern

Sorry – we missed you.

Next up was The White Hart – it had an even bigger beer garden! (well, two – front and back).

The White Hart

As with the Tudor Tavern, The White Hart is an impressive looking, traditional pub – stone walls that simply must be painted white.

A pokey looking bar, but at least they had three decent ales on tap (some may argue that fact with Sea Fury) to counter the usual choices (who actually drinks Carling?!).

Gower Gold was popular amongst the group – but I went for a pint of Paradigm Shift. Another malty bitter, but it was lighter than Rumour – dare I say, slightly citrusy.

paradigm-shift-white-hart-llantwit
Spot the CAMRA Beer Necessities magazine from April 2018, which I picked up in pub no. 1 and carried with me all day – but never actually read!

The Old Swan

After a good few hours of solid (high percentage – Paradigm Shift weighing in at 6.2%!) drinking, we made it to our final destination – and the actual beer festival: The Old Swan.

This is where our host for the day had booked us in for our evening meal. That warrants a sub-heading of its own, but before we move on to the food, a quick mention for the festival.

beer-festival-old-swan-llantwit
Smile, you’re on camera!

It was only a small marquee / tent in the beer garden, but there was a decent selection. A bit light on the non-lights, but I found two to match my malty preferences:

Copper Ale from Severn Brewing Severn was a nice bitter that went down far too quickly – fortunately it was only 3.8%. Old Grower from Nethergate Brewery was a fruity porter, but it was heavy going six pints in on a summer’s day.

The beer garden was very busy, but I’m not sure how many people were there for the festival – I’m guessing the weather was probably the bigger draw.

 

A few nuggets at the Old Swan

On entering The Old Swan, it was immediately clear that “this is the posh one” amongst the five pubs.

“It’s not quite your Juno Lounge kind of pretentious, but it’s trying.”

It’s an old building (dating back to the early 12th century apparently) – stone walls, wood panels, etc. – but there’s clearly been some investment to bring it up to your local yuppy’s expectations. Minimalist in design with modern features, an uncluttered bar area, etc. It’s the type of pub the residents of Pontcanna would love – no surprise that Knife & Fork Ltd also run The Conway.

In fairness, it’s not quite your Juno Lounge kind of pretentious, but it’s trying – too trendy to provide menus. Cue everyone leaving the table en-masse to view the black board, which would have been awkward had it been any busier inside.

Mostly standard pub fare, but there was a decent number of veggie options for Mrs. B.B. in both the starters and the mains.

Service was a little slow – I don’t recall seeing our waiter after he took our orders (except when it was time to pay the bill!). However, he wasn’t fazed by our drunkenness (by this point we were a group of eight) – and it was probably wise to keep engagement with us at a minimum!

Starters

The starters didn’t sound all that interesting, which is probably why most of our party declined – including Mrs. B.B.

I was intrigued by the Cajun Popcorn Chicken – and it was spot on:

chicken-popcorn-old-swan-starter
It’s a shame they couldn’t have filled the whole slate.

It tasted even better than it looked. The chicken was succulent, the breadcrumbs crisp and well-seasoned… The guacamole complemented nicely, and the pickled chilli added a nice sharpness vs. any heat.

Mains

I went for the Pork Loin:

pork-loin-old-swan
Pork three-ways… but the same way.

As well as being a small portion, the presentation was odd – I’m not sure what cutting the loin into the three pieces added from a visual perspective. It was also a little overcooked / dry – and the fat was chewy rather than juicy and crisp.

It’s a shame because the chorizo and red pepper puree (not dissimilar to red pesto) was moreish – and I absolutely loved the crisp rosemary and black pepper potatoes. Although they weren’t quite as sexy as the chips nor the onion ring I stole from a fellow diner:

steak-chips-old-swan
Never leave your plate of chips unattended!

The pie of the day looked promising:

pie-special-old-swan-llantwit
What’s inside the pie?!

But Mrs. B.B. opted for something a little scarier looking:

stuffed-aubergine-main-old-swan
Are you brave enough to eat this?

The vegetarian special was aubergine with lentil and tomato compote, butternut squash puree, new potatoes and green beans. Despite its looks, it was packed with more than just lentils – primarily flavour! The veg was nicely cooked if nothing special, but the smooth butternut squash puree was a real hit – it made the dish much richer than had been expected.

We split the bill, and it worked out we paid just over £30 for two mains and a starter. Even if I was a little disappointed with the pork, that represents good value – the food is punching well above its weight.

Despite the begging/appeals/it’s-getting-embarrassing-now from the younger, more hardened drinker among us to stay for one more, we made the sensible decision to go for the 8:56pm train home – we’ve been stung by Arriva Wales too many times in the past. Surprisingly, neither of our trains were cancelled or delayed, which meant it was just the two-hour journey home – although much cooler this time! (in fact, I may have appreciated a latte).

Plus the garage was still open on the walk home, so I picked up one of these beauties:

topic-bar-llantwit-major
Topic: The most underrated chocolate bar ever?

Follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see more pictures from this meal and to keep up-to-date on our other adventures.

Advertisements
Close-up of the Diavola pizza from da MARA for the banner.

It could have been crapper: da MARA

Who knew a last-minute decision to go for pizza would turn into such an adventure? From the pizza to the privy, Da MARA provided a mid-week night out to remember.

When you get a text from Mrs. B.B. at 4:15pm, asking what’s for tea, you need to act fast.

When she specifies “no chicken,” you know your go-to white meat and two veg (salad when the temperature’s above 20 degrees Celsius) speciality isn’t going to cut it.

Cue turning to Twitter for help to complicate things:

twitter-cardiff-pizza-request-july
No idea why my Twitter is nine hours behind me.

 

And the winner (of the unofficial Twitter vote) is…

There are A LOT of places doing good pizza now apparently!

Having whittled down added a zero to the end of the number of pizzerias on my shortlist for the evening, I decided to ignore the notifications (still coming through as I type this) and plumped for da MARA.

To be fair, it had been on the ‘places to eat’ list for well over… well, way before they moved from Lakeside, so it was about time! (thanks to Twitter, this list won’t clear before I’m 50 now).

 

Parking next to a park

Given it was warm enough to expose my knees, and Mrs B.B. wanted a snap for Instagram:

seagulls-roath-park

…we decided to leave the car next to Roath Park – we could justify the calorie intake if we’d spent 15 minutes walking back from the restaurant.

I’d forgotten what a peaceful escape it can be on a summer’s evening (having moved from the area approximately five years ago) – well, until the warden started whistling and shouting at us that the gates had been locked!

 

da MARA with love…that chilli oil!

The restaurant was quiet when we arrived, which meant we were kindly given the choice of where we wanted to sit. Despite the doors being wide open, you could instantly feel it was too warm, so we attempted to get as close to the freestanding fan as possible without messing up our hairstyles (the odd salt and pepper cellar falling over provided more amusement than it really should have at my age).

“The odd cheeky comment at Mrs. B.B.’s expense is always a bonus.”

The gentleman who show us to our table made us feel very welcome – the odd cheeky comment at Mrs. B.B.’s expense is always a bonus – and generally we found the staff attentive but relaxed. Particularly the lady at the end who saw the funny side of Mrs. B.B.’s grumbles that the portions were too big.

And to think how thoughtful I’d been when I gobbled up all the complimentary olives to help her out when we arrived:

complimentary-olives-da-mara-cardiff

We were having an alcohol-free night. The Italian mineral water tasted the same as any other mineral water (although, the label probably added an extra £1 to the bill) – from what I could see on the menu, they offer a good selection of white / red wines (predominantly Italian with a couple from Argentina and Australia) priced up to around the £25-mark

Surprisingly, there were only 3 options in total for beers / ciders – they should look to partner up with The Bottle Shop, which is literally next door!

It’s definitely on the ‘posh side’ for a pizza joint.

da-mara-outside-restaurant

The décor is chic without being pretentious. Dark furniture, trendy wall art, interior stone cladding – and a nice decorated screen over the side window. The downstairs seating (which I walked through on the way to the wrong lavatory – more on that later!) looked a little less interesting and more formal.

da-mara-wood-fired-oven

The real winner for us though was the playlist – but you only get the full, surround sound (well, there’s a speaker in the ceiling) experience, though, when you’re on the toilet!

Although some were sung in English, I assume they were all Italian artists (or at least, I didn’t know any of them!) – it was an odd mix of Nickelback-esque rock, uber ballads, chirpy ditties and covers (Mamas and Papas California Dreamin’ was particularly bemusing).

Each song was almost as much of a delight as each mouthful of pizza.

Yep, it’s time to talk food!

Starters

Having umm’d and arr’d about whether to go for a starter or save ourselves for desserts, the gorgonzola swung the decision.

fungo-ripieno-starter-da-mara
The official title: Fungo Ripieno

How could a gorgonzola smothered (the menu did claim stuffed but there was no containing it) portobello mushroom possibly pair with strawberries?

In a very peculiar way, it worked – Mrs. B.B.’s taste buds at odds with what she could see on the plate.

It was a bit pricey for what you got, though (£7.50) – especially when the strawberries were “very Tesco” (otherwise known as mushy).

Fearing my heart couldn’t take a mozzarella wrapped in ham pre-pizza, I opted for the calamari on a bed of mayo.

calamari-mayo-da-mara-starter

The calamari itself was cooked well. Firm but tender in texture. But the batter was a disappointment. It lacked any crisp – and someone had been a little heavy handed with the salt. I also think they could have put a bit more effort in with the salad – a few dry leaves (on the verge of turning).

I enjoyed it, but I think it was mainly down to the mayo!

Mains

We were nearly swayed by a couple of the specials (the Spaghetti Con Gamberoni sounded particularly sexy with a mix of giant and baby prawns), but having sent the Cardiff foodie community into overdrive on Twitter (there are still several tangent conversations going on now), I felt we had a duty to order pizza! It had nothing to do with the £24.95 price tag… honest!

I went for the Diavola:

pizza-diavola-close-da-mara

Mrs. B.B. had the Crudo & Rucola.

crudo-rucola-pizza-main

From the small areas which hadn’t been drowned in tomato sauce on either pizza, the base texture was light, slightly chewy, with a crisp accent on the crust (I would have preferred it a little crispier). However, for the most part, the moisture had taken over – which only highlighted the need for a proper pizza cutter. It was quite a challenge to cut a neat triangle slice with the knife provided.

Toppings were generous on both.

The Crudo & Rucola pizza was a mix of prosciutto, mozzarella, rocket and cherry tomatoes.

Mrs. B.B. said she was happy with her “proper Italian pizza,” but I could see envious eyes…

“I was on safer ground than I am with Mrs. B.B.’s fajitas!”

After a quick Google of Spianata Calabra, I opted for the Diavola. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say every mouthful tasted different – nor that every mouthful was a real sensation.

The Spianata Calabra and Nduja were hidden under the mozzarella. My first mouthful put my taste buds into a frenzy as they were kicked about by the heat of the pepper and spices.

There were some additional blobs of (caramelised?) chilli, which wasn’t advertised – and I was being liberal with the dangerously addictive chilli oil that had been wickedly brought to the table.

Despite it all, the heat was never overwhelming. There was a definite kick, but my eye balls weren’t sweating – I was on safer ground than I am with Mrs. B.B.’s fajitas!

I was in pain from about halfway in, but there was nothing stopping me. I finished proud that there were only a few crusts to spare, but this was tinged with a sadness I wouldn’t get a pud.

Dessert

When discussing the pros and cons of a starter or dessert, Mrs. B.B. made a statement that she will regret for at least 3 days – “I bet they’ll only do a Tiramisu and then it’ll be ice cream.”

Well, actually, they do two ‘proper’ desserts – yes, a Tiramisu (although it didn’t look like any old Tiramisu) AND profiteroles (which again didn’t look like any profiteroles I’ve ever seen). The white chocolate shavings were the making of them – visually at least.

We watched as the couple dining next to us gleefully consumed both said desserts and made the promise for the 16th time to date that next time we go for pizza, no starters! (In fact, we could have missed the starter and shared a pizza and still left feeling like we’d feasted royally).

 

Before we go, I just need to nip to the… ladies!

Now, I wouldn’t normally talk about my toilet habits (on here), but I thought it was worth highlighting my experiences for anyone else with similar attention deficiency problems – and who doesn’t like to No.2. in the dark.

Having found my way to the toilets in the basement, I was presented with two doors: one to the left, one to the right – both ajar.

I quickly dived through the left door where I was presented with a lavatory and a large sink – room for one – and started to go about my business…

It’s pitch black!!!!!!

Stand up, lights on… Sit back down, (30 seconds later) lights off… Stand up, lights on… Sit down (30 seconds later), lights off… You get the picture. As well as bringing on the sweat I’d managed to avoid from all the chilli, this was seriously impacting my digital note taking.

Just about keeping things together…

There’s no loo roll!!!!!!

I can hear someone shuffling about outside – they’ve already tried to get in twice.

What do I do?

Maybe the black cabinet has… Yes, there’s a bottom drawer.

It’s empty.

Does it have a… Yes, there’s a top drawer – it has toilet paper! Phew!

(fast forward – c’mon, I’m not that bad) I’m getting out of here.

I open the door to find a lady whose facial expression represents an odd mixture of annoyance and surprise.

I glance up to see the door directly opposite has the male WC sign.

I don’t look behind me: just smile and walk away run.

 

What I’ve been through, so you don’t have to

So, there are a few takeaways / lessons learned from our meal at da MARA:

  1. There are clearly a lot of places doing good pizza in and around Cardiff – when we get around to them, they’ll have a tough task to beat the flavours at da MARA.
  2. Skip the starters – they were ok, but we’d have been happier leaving room in our tummies (or stretching them) for dessert.
  3. We need to find some chilli olive oil to drink at home.
  4. “Just tiramisu” may be enough.
  5. Inspect the lavatory doors before entering – and maybe take a torch in with you as back-up.

Follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see more pictures from this meal and to keep up-to-date on our other adventures.

Close-up of chips and salad at Keyif, Penarth.

No frills, no fuss – but plenty of Parsley: Keyif, Mediterranean Turkish Cuisine

It doesn’t serve fish and chips (perhaps the only thing not on the menu!), but in a break from tradition, we decided to “live the moment”. Keyif is a new addition to the Penarth food scene, and if you like good vibes, big portions and parsley, it’s well worth a visit…

Now I’ll be honest with you, the Keyif wasn’t our first choice. In fact, eating out in a restaurant wasn’t our first choice. Who else knew that Penarth has such a dearth of decent fish and chip shops?

Well, thanks for telling me!

On a humid summer’s evening, the intention was a short stroll along the Penarth pier.

We managed that:

penarth-pavillion-evening-pier

With a bag of fish and chips (maybe I’d stretch to an ice cream).

We failed.

No, let’s put this right, Penarth failed… miserably. We saw – that awkward moment when you try to look casual as you squeeze between two benches to catch a decent close-up – what was being served at the Penarth Pier Pavilion.

“I was decidedly underdressed compared to the diners on the veranda.”

The Fig Tree was an option, but the menu sounded heavy – and I was decidedly underdressed compared to the diners on the veranda (combat shorts and flip flops).

And I could tell I was making the staff at James Sommerin nervous just glancing through the window…

So, it was a pleasant stroll through the Windsor Gardens into town… and time to test Mrs B.B.’s patience!

 

We hope it’s chips, it’s chips…

Still no chippy in sight.

Mint & Mustard was tempting – we had a memorable meal in Cardiff several years ago. Even with the front windows open, it looked like the patrons at Bar 44 were struggling in the heat… We could’ve just “made do” with Wetherspoons… When we (eventually) detoured off the main street and found Plassey Fish Bar, Mrs. B.B.’s face said it all.

“What about Chez Francis?” she asked, recalling a fantastic – but sweat inducing (even in winter!) – meal from several years ago.

By that point, I could sense I would be pushing my luck with even 5 more minutes of indecision and gave in.

When we arrived, there was a little confusion:

keyif-turkish-restaurant-outside-penarth

Penarth is hardly big enough to get lost in. Fortunately, I vaguely remembered an online farewell message from the Dupuy Family.

A quick Google search confirmed that Keyif, Mediterranean Turkish Cuisine was now the new inhabitant of 21 Glebe Street – in fact, it had opened that week!

“I stared at the clientele.”

A yet to be scored hygiene rating meant I would be using up my quota of rock’n’roll antics for the month, but it looked modern and I stared at the clientele long enough to determine they seemed to be enjoying themselves… perhaps less so after I then entered.

 

A summer’s evening chez Keyif

There were a few diners, but most of the tables were free.

Still, the waiter seemed unsure if they could accommodate – maybe I looked scruffier than even I thought. In fairness, it did subsequently fill up, so maybe there were concerns looking at my midriff that we’d spend 4 hours consuming everything on the menu (you’d probably need 4 days).

When we were seated, the waiter was very pleasant – they switched during the service, but everyone appeared keen to accommodate. It was attentive without becoming an irritation.

Admittedly, you’d expect that extra effort given the restaurant has just opened – but it felt genuine.

“They didn’t want to miss out on that £4!”

I was quite impressed when they swiftly corrected our mineral water order – we weren’t drinking alcohol so I’m sure they didn’t want to miss out on that £4! And there was no messing about with the bill at the end – in fact, we were offered a free baklava and hot drinks, which was a nice touch (and Mrs. B.B. was told by a Turkish friend that it’s a tradition of her home land)…

Anyway, we’ll get to the food later…

 

Relief! a chilled ambience

I can only assume it was a floor standing air conditioner behind the far table. It wasn’t the prettiest sight (and may not have been the most comfortable neighbour for the couple who came in towards the end of our meal), but the room felt cool and airy.

It no doubt helped that it had been freshly decorated, but the white walls, common sense table spacing, minimal features and chilled out music gave the restaurant a decidedly fresh vibe.

keyif-diners-inside-decor-penarth

However, it did lack a little character. A few wall rugs and generic canvas spice pictures didn’t scream “authentic” – and being able to see the plastic cutlery tray next to the entrance is something I would expect at a greasy spoon café.

On a busy weekend night, the room acoustics could also be an issue. When the restaurant did fill up, there was a lot of echo, with conversations running simultaneously. Any busier and there was potential for the noise to become overwhelming – ironic given “Keyif” partly means “quiet relaxation.” An alcohol fuelled table of diners could easily spoil it for others. Especially if you are looking for a romantic evening.

 

CHIPS! Finally… AND MEAT!!… oh, and veg!

Of course, whatever I had was going to come with chips, which narrowed down the choices for the main slightly – but it took us a while to settle on a starter…

keyif-extensive-menu-selection

I counted 23 starters between the Cold and Hot offerings. For the Mains, there was a list under The Grill (11 options), then there were the Specials (8), Seafoods (3), Steaks (I stopped counting at this point), Vegetarian & Vegan, Salads…

It was a little overwhelming.

On the plus side, there was a decent selection for Mrs. B.B. who does tend to ‘go veggie’ when we eat out – and is often limited to the token risotto.

It would help diners if they specified what was included in the Cold and Hot Mix Mezzas – I was more than a little envious to see the large and colourful dishes brought out to fellow diners after I’d already ordered.

But hey, I couldn’t complain too much:

sucuk-turkish-sausage-grilled-keyif

Starters

Sucuk is a grilled Turkish spicy sausage. It reminded me of a donor kebab in taste and texture – quite firm, but with enough fat running through to keep it moist. I was expecting a little more heat. If anything, the predominantly flavour was garlic, which I liked – but then I’ll happily bake up a bulb if I’m feeling peckish.

The fresh salad arguably made the dish – the balsamic dressing cutting through the fat. You knew it wasn’t the healthiest dish, but at least you didn’t feel greasy. Although I wasn’t sure about the amount of Parsley that had been included.

Cutting a couple of sausages in half and layering them was about as fancy as the presentation would get.

Mrs. B.B. started with Kisir:

kisir-starter-keyif-penarth

A bowl of quinoa, mixed with tomato, herbs (there was the parsley!), hazelnuts and walnuts. Not too sloppy / not too dry (which is where her home-made quinoa efforts tend to veer between) – with an unexpected spicy kick, which really helped the dish shine.

The bread was an odd accompaniment:

turkish-pride-bread-accompany-keyif
Where’s the butter?

Served warm, with a slightly chewy exterior, the bread (Turkish pide) was tasty enough. However, it didn’t really go with either of the starters – and really needed a dip of some sort or butter. It was quite dry on its own.

I found myself trying to mop up the dregs of balsamic vinegar, but in the end gave up and watched sadly as one piece returned to the kitchen.

Mains

For me there was only once choice – (a massive plate of) Lamb Shish:

lamb-shish-chips-keyif-main

I figured if it was good enough for everyone else (not sure they need such an extensive menu), it was good enough for me – plus it came with chips! I’d searched far and wide for these!

The lamb was tender, but there was quite a lot of fat running through – in fact, one cube was inedible for the gristle. It wasn’t quite the advertised “prime cut”, but it was subtly spiced and enjoyable nonetheless.

“I did live dangerously and have a few nibbles.”

I’ll admit, I was a little fearful of the large griddled chilli – but I did live dangerously and have a few nibbles; the salad was as fresh as the starter’s (well, it was the same as the starter’s) – although I’m not a huge fan of raw carrot chunks (or so much parsley!); and the chips were crisp on the outside with fluffy potato – I think they were frozen, but good quality.

I didn’t understand the strip of tortilla wrap – not enough to really wrap anything (maybe a cube), it just become a bit of sogginess on the plate. And an accompanying sauce would have really elevated the dish. I was offered some chilli sauce at the start, but a home-made tzatziki would have been a special addition (you could order it from the starters as a side dish, I suppose). Without the salad’s balsamic dressing, I’d have found it too dry.

As it was, I felt fairly satisfied for £12.95’s worth of eating.

Mrs. B.B. went for the Vegetable Mussaka:

vegetable-mussuka-main-vegetarian

This could have quite easily gone wrong: either undercooking the carrot and/or overdoing the aubergine would have made for a disaster. It was too simple a dish for any mistakes.

In fairness, everything was cooked perfectly, and there were clear layers when Mrs. B.B. cut through.

And whilst the cheese and tomato flavours dominated, you could clearly taste each vegetable.

It was also a very generous portion considering it was accompanied by pilau rice and a salad – Mrs. B.B. was less forgiving of the parsley than myself.

 

No room for baklava?!

The dessert options were limited (shocker!), but I was very tempted by the rice pudding.

But alas, after two dishes each, we were done.

There wasn’t even enough room in either belly for the complimentary baklava – and if you know Mrs. B.B., it hurt to turn it down!

We rolled out feeling extremely full – but content that we’d received our money’s worth.

It was by no means perfect – a few complimentary sauces and more restraint on the parsley would have taken it up a notch – but overall you must respect the price point.

We paid less than £40 for two courses each and in return received a no-nonsense, tasty fill. And, crucially, I got my chips!

We’ll be back again.

Follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see more pictures from this meal and to keep up-to-date on our other adventures.

Variety of dishes at The Rosedale Hotel, Portree.

The Skye’s the limit – for the credit card! The Highlands, Part 2

The first half of our Scottish Highlands tour had been filled with stunning mountain and loch views, medieval architecture, wholesome grub and 8,000 midge bites. All my hopes – and fears – had been realised. But something was missing… A hangover! And something else… an eye-watering food bill!

Fortunately, we were about to reach Portree (note: you can read part 1 of our Highlands tour here)…

 

Kyleakin time en route

Having spent the preceding 3 days in continuous motion, moving from one B&B to the next, I was looking forward to the promise of ‘chilling out’ in our own house…

Mrs. B.B. clearly had other ideas.

Cue stops in Plockton:

plockton-boat-highlands-part-2

Kyleakin:

kyleakin-saucy-marys-restaurant

More scenic photos! (I don’t have a clue where we are now)

another-scenic-photo-scottish-highlands

And quite possibly the best hollandaise sauce I’ve ever had (no question, the most generous portion).

eggs-royale-en-route-scotland

Deli Gasta

Perfectly located in Broadford to capture the tourist traffic en route to Portree, Deli Gasta is a slightly hipster café – a converted old barn brought bang up to date with modern interior design, neat beards and sound tracked by ‘before their time’ indie tunes.

Don’t let that put you off!

It wasn’t just the Eggs Royale that impressed. Mrs. B.B.’s Highland Ploughman’s was so fresh – locally cooked bread and salad which had quite possibly been harvested within the hour. It was also a ridiculously generous portion for just £5.45:

highland-ploughmans-en-route

Plus, their flat white compared favourably to Coffee #1. Enough said.

 

Swills, spills and bills – but still walking in Portree

Now, we were never going to travel all this way to sit in the pub – I was told after arriving.

Portree is a small, picturesque fishing village made to feel much larger because there are lots of people, like us, spoiling other people’s photos.

We also help to finance the fantastic restaurants and pubs – but I had to earn those!

Yes, we were back on the road around the Trotternish Peninsula, taking photographs of the Creag An Fheilidh ‘kilt rock’ and Fairy Glen, Uig:

fairy-glen-uig-walk
Pesky tourists (move along please!)

And there was the Fairy Pools walk from Glenn Brittle – where we finally crossed paths with one of these beauties:

highland-cow-fairy-pools-glenn-brittle

But, yes, eventually, I’d paid my dues – it was time to fill my belly…

Antlers Tea Room & Restaurant

Or was it the adjoining Portree Bar and Grill?

Not realising just what a happening place Portree is on a Monday night – and having prioritised beer and gin that evening – there were no spaces left in the posh half of the building.

“Despite very clearly offending the bar man not once, but twice… they agreed to serve us.”

Fortunately, we managed to squeeze in next to the sister bar – and, despite very clearly offending the bar man (twice) by mispronouncing Caorunn, they agreed to serve us.

My confit duck and fried egg dish lacked finesse, but it was rich and hearty cooking – crucially, it complimented my fourth pint of Belhaven Best. Mrs. B.B. went full-blown meat eater for the evening with the venison and mashed potato. Tender with a decadent sauce.

antlers-tea-room-venison-mash

The food had slowed us down – but we still had time for a quick night cap in The Isles. The stand out of the local bars with a decent beer selection, and only a slight whiff of disdain from the locals.

Dulse & Brose

You know things have gone up a notch – and a few quid – when you get…

bread-dulse-brose-portree

And it wasn’t just any old bread and butter. The bread was made with Brose (oatmeal) and the butter included Dulse (seaweed) – see what they’ve done there?

It was at this point in the waitress’ explanation that I realised why my lamb two ways was going to cost me north of £25 – and I should have predicted a snowman’s nose would be sticking out of it:

lamb-carrot-dulse-brose-portree

The mains were luxurious, but heavy – Mrs. B.B.’s usual safe choice (aka “going veggie”) backfiring as her chickpea salad came topped with approx. 400g of subtly smoked halloumi. In fairness, she wasn’t complaining about the portion size – but did find the tomato sauce overpowering.

The standouts, however, were the starters – fresh, visually exciting and every ingredient had its place. The trio of salmon included a rillette that surely is only allowed to exist on the Great British Menu? Whilst Mrs. B.B.’s goat cheese panna cotta with a ricotta bon bon (only one?!) was light, delicate and tasted even more exciting than it looked:

goats-cheese-dulse-brose-portree

And a commendation for the waitress who was putting in a real shift during a busy evening service – despite having to be up bright and early for school the next morning!

The Rosedale Hotel & Restaurant

Situated on the harbour front, The Rosedale Hotel doesn’t look like much – £100 for tapas and dessert suggests otherwise.

Fortunately, neither the paint work nor the menu’s price point put us off – consuming Navy Strength Rock Rose Gin earlier in the evening played a big part in that!

rock-rose-navy-mini-bottle
57%?!… I was only allowed a little bottle!

I left Mrs. B.B. to the cured meats (and dodged the “foul tasting” apple and saffron chutney), whilst I overcompensated with the dangerously addictive crispy smoked paprika and parmesan beignets. The herb crusted plaice was as fresh as you could hope for given the restaurant’s location. The Ras El Hanout roasted lamp rump was tender and worked well with the pickled red cabbage – and even Mrs. B.B.’s reservations about the seared salmon with fennel and grapefruit proved unfounded.

lamb-tapas-rosedale-hotel

Although she was unhappy about the lack of vegetarian options – and “where was the Scottish cheese?”

But it was the desserts that truly left their mark:

dessert-rosedale-hotel-portree

Just look at it.

Go back and look it.

What else is there to say?

Ok, if you insist… For me, the Chocolate pave was dense and rich but cleverly lightened by the accompanying crème fraiche and marshmallow. For Mrs. B.B. (again, see picture above), the creamy whisky ice cream had a great kick and was contrasted well by the sweetness of the raspberry three ways (fresh, dry and coulis!).

It’s just a shame that the whole experience was let down by the dining room’s awkward layout – the restaurant’s prime scenic window table situated right next to the entrance. It didn’t help that the waiting staff chose to congregate there – and chat amongst themselves – for much of the evening.

 

Oh, Oban – you’ve got a lot to live up to!

I’ll admit, I was reluctant to leave Portree – and not just because of the hangover.

You just don’t get this on your doorstop every day:

isle-of-skype-pipe-band
The Isle of Skye Pipe Band

But there were fish and chips to be eaten. And not just any old fish and chips – “The best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted” (according to Rick Stein – I’ll give them an alternative quote to use later).

And I was also getting to see a key location from the best film ever made, the best 80s film ever made, the best film Christopher Lambert ever made, the only decent film Christopher Lambert ever made en route: Eilean Donan Castle.

Don’t pretend you don’t know it.

Ok, Highlander!

The castle itself, rebuilt from ruins in the 1930s, is grand and impressive:

eilean-donan-castle-highlander
There’s definitely only one of these.

But it wasn’t quite how I’d imagined it.

It had more charm in Highlander’s version of 1536.

“Time has moved on since faux 1536.”

There wasn’t a massive car park for starters. I didn’t see Lambert struggling (well, besides not to laugh) to park his car amongst the obscene number of brand new 4x4s (Arnold Clark is clearly doing a roaring trade from the tourists), or queuing for a postcard in the equally imposing tourist centre…

Nowadays, nobody gets accused of witchcraft or banished from the village.

I was convinced it wasn’t the same place until we found a room with behind the scenes photos.

Guess time has moved on since faux 1536 – and it was time I did the same (yep, I was getting hungry)…

Oban Fish and Chip Shop

Had we not read Rick Stein’s endorsement, we probably would have missed Oban Fish and Chip Shop (if not missed Oban out altogether).

We’d have followed the crowds to one of the two chip shops conveniently located on the sea front – but the 100-metre walk (or so) up the road was worth it.

The fish was fresh; the batter was light and crisp (not greasy at all!); and the chips were on another level completely – the crunch was ridiculous, yet still fluffy within.

oban-fish-chips

If they want a new quote:

“The fish and chips are mind-blowingly tasty!” (some random bloke with a beard in Wales)

Kerrera Tea Garden & Bunkhouse

I wasn’t aware that my ‘cake treat’ would involve driving to a harbour, a boat trip to one of the nearby islands, a 2-hour walk (including another castle visit) – and lots of teasing:

kerrera-tea-garden-signs
You big teases.

Service isn’t necessarily Kerrera Tea Garden & Bunkhouse‘s strong point (hey, it’s a different way of life!) – it took over half-hour for our cakes to arrive (and even then we had to chase up on two occasions), but you can get away with it when you serve up cake as sexy as this:

rhubarb-custard-cake-kerrera-oban

I could have eaten a tray of it cake. I’m salivating as I type…

The custard and rhubarb were plentiful and cleverly baked in. It was firm but perfectly moist – and it was packed with flavour without being overly sweet or sickly.

Mrs. B.B. feared a dense chore when her fudge chocolate brownie arrived, but it was “gooey yumminess” – in fact, “the most gooey yummy brownie ever” (in case you’re reading this and need a quote for your next poster!).

Baab

Baab would prove to be the final highlight.

Located in the Perle Oban Hotel, we had a spacious and airy dining area, which perfectly matched the meze & grill menu. Fresh, light but pretty substantial – even when picking from the ‘small plates’.

baab-meze-perle-oban-hotel

Now, this is Mrs. B.B.’s kind of food. We ordered 6 dishes, from various locations on the menu (and around the world) – all beautifully cooked and presented. But the standouts were the Lebanese fried halloumi in crispy panko bread crumbs, and the wonderfully tender grilled lamb kebabs, which had been faultless marinated in cinnamon and nutmeg.

 

We’ll cross those days off for Callander

No time to mention the gin… we had to do a runner!

Well, once we got our money back.

We were unaware on booking that our flat in Oban was in the same building as student accommodation – and they were back with a bang (well, about 100) for the weekend’s music festival.

The list of crazy antics could easily make for a part 3, but, ultimately, after a lovely young gentleman tried to force his way into the flat at 4am, we opted to start our long journey home a day early.

It’s a shame we couldn’t keep ourselves awake long enough to properly experience Callander. Although the quaint but classy Lubnaig Guest House served its purpose as we caught up on our sleep before the final leg home.

 

The final leg – for us and for you

A dramatic and disappointing end to the holiday – in fact it got worse. I’m sure the stodge served up in the Mill at Conder Green in Lancaster gave me food poisoning!

No burp.

robs-mill-ponden-green-lancaster

But these articles have only scratched at the surface of the wonderful things we saw, did and experienced – mainly because neither of us has time to sort through the 5000 photographs that were taken.

I’m sure you’ll see more if you follow us on Instagram and Twitter as we try and pad out our lifestyle until we can afford another adventure.

The missus has already decided we’re moving to the Highlands. I’m not suggesting you do anything as dramatic, but I’d recommend a less committed stay if you’ve got a few weeks to spare – well, if you can cope with midge bites and Rabbie’s tours

Bill's asian ribs and coleslaw in Liverpool

A fab time in Liverpool with John, Paul, Ringo, George + Roger (and don’t forget Bill!)

Liverpool may be the birthplace of the biggest and best band of the ‘60s, but for one night only its people made the biggest and best band (well, sort of) of the ‘70s feel right at home – despite what they’d been charged for a ticket!

Finding a wife who, like me, had grown up infatuated with her dad’s record collection has its pros and cons.

On the plus side: a shared love of ‘60s and ‘70s rock and pop acts.

Not so great: Abba; a loft full of 2nd hand brown and orange curtains; and having to spend a small fortune to see musicians now compensating for several hefty divorce bills.

Plus, you often need to travel – on this occasion: Liverpool to see ‘the Messiah’ aka Roger Waters.

 

Taking the long and winding roads (to avoid the M6)

Having endured endless road works and average speed limits on the M5 and M6 a few weeks prior, we decided to take the scenic route from South Wales – ok, it was an excuse for cake!

We timed our packed lunch perfectly (well, an hour after leaving home), to arrive in Ludlow at ‘cake-o-clock’.

Unfortunately, the DeGrey’s Tea Room was no more – replaced by a Deli that looked far too clean and modern for our tastes. Turning the corner, we quickly found what appeared to be a suitable alternative.

Carvell’s The Art of Tea

Creaky floor boards, antique but ‘not worth any money’ furniture; nonmatching, tea stained china; and an engraved table top filled with dust and crumbs – all sure signs of a fat, just out of the oven, home-made scone.

Well, it looked good on Instagram:

carvells-tea-scone-cream-liverpool

The reality: too small, too dry – in fact, had I bought a multiple pack from Tesco (that had been open for a few days), this is what I would have expected.

To make matters worse, we had to share a meagre portion of clotted cream – it wasn’t too sickly, so I could have happily indulged… And the jam? I guess it came 2-4-1 with the scones.

Don’t get me started on the unbrewable tea! Maybe it was art – I didn’t get it.

 

A warm welcome in Liverpool

I say warm. Wow! The sun was angry.

We hid for a few hours in our surprisingly chilled Ibis hotel room – no need to use the air con, as we hadn’t travelled over from the Antarctic!

Ridiculously well-priced at £65 p/night considering it was only 5 mins walk from the Liverpool Arena / docks. Clearly, they are yet to adopt Cardiff’s policy of quadrupling room prices when there’s an event on.

Ok, it was a box room, but there was enough space to crack open this beauty for pre-drink drinks:

fraoch-heather-ale-liverpool
Fraoch – William Bros. Brewing Co.

The ginger / space flavour and floral notes took me by surprise (guess I should read the bottle), but it was a nice divergence from my customary malty choices. Although I think the bottle deserved a meadow for its photographic setting.

 

All you need is… a sticky, moist rib

Not wanting to veer too far from our prime location, we opted for the first casual restaurant that wasn’t a Pizza Express or a Nando’s.

Bill’s had updated its menus since my last visit – and a quick Google photos search was enough to persuade me to order the Oak Smoked Asian Spiced Ribs – despite the £16.95 price tag!

bills-asian-ribs-body-close

Admittedly lacking in The Plate Licked Clean’s considerable rib eating knowledge / experience, I have rarely come across ribs as meaty, moist or tender.

“The size of the dish nearly put me to sleep.”

Borderline acceptable if you want more than a little chew left in them – but I was content in the knowledge I wouldn’t be distractingly tonguing at the dry meat which had wedged into my gums throughout Roger Waters’ set.

Although the size of the dish nearly put me to sleep – and I’m sure it has taken a few years off me.

Mrs. B.B.’s Macaroni Cheese was well cooked – the pasta still had bite left – but was really lacking a creamy, cheesy sauce.

macaroni-cheese-bills-liverpool

Plus, “there wasn’t any garlic bread” (I’m not sure if that’s a standard combination?). Overall, “a bit dry” is never a positive statement.

We did return the following morning for breakfast – again, we didn’t fancy Pizza Express or Nando’s.

The porridge was smooth and plentiful – the coconut milk making it a little richer than usual without being overpowering. The compote was more like a very sweet jam.

bills-restaurant-porridge-liverpool

My Eggs Royale was edible, but not up to their usual standard (we were served by the same staff as the previous evening, looking suspiciously less sprightly). One egg was slightly under, one was slightly over. The hollandaise sauce lacked punch – and was a little on the thin side. And it was served cold.

bills-restaurant-eggs-royale-liverpool

 

Us + Him

Now Roger Waters likes to tell us we are one and the same.

£105 a ticket says we’re not.

Neither does preaching against plastic waste whilst swigging out of a bottle of water. Nor does complaining about inequality and mocking wealthy public figures, whilst charging your fans more than even the Rolling Stones would dare (even the t-shirts were £30!)…

“Some of the protestations were embarrassing for their hypocrisy.”

I’m sure he means well, but some of the protestations were embarrassing for their hypocrisy.

And Roger’s habit of strutting across the stage to reach his arms out as a messiah-like figure made me uncomfortable – if not numb.

Because you can’t get past the fact he’s authored some of the greatest rock songs in the history of music – and has a live band as authentic to the group he founded as you could possibly wish for. Dave Gilmour wasn’t missed at all between the virtuoso guitar work of Dave Kilminster and uncanny vocals of ‘resident hippie’ Jonathan Wilson.

roger-waters-live-onstage-liverpool

Opener ‘Breathe’ lulled us in, before ‘One Of These Days’ attacked every sense – the repetitive bass guitar, distorted vocals and aggressive guitar and drums were heightened by the lighting and visual effects. It was a real jolt to the system that demanded your attention – and Roger & co. kept it until the end.

Of course, The Wall and Waters’ latest album provided plenty of ammunition for anti-Trump / anti-establishment imagery:

roger-waters-anti-trump-pram
Mrs. B.B. can’t fathom why he hasn’t been sued – although, maybe that accounts for the ticket price!

‘The Happiest Days of Our Lives’ was particularly powerful, with local school children dressed in orange Guantanamo bay detainee uniforms lined up at the front of the stage, faces masked and heads bowed – before revealing black ‘resist’ t-shirts and lightening the mood with some enthusiastic dance moves for ‘Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2’.

roger-waters-resist-liverpool-arena

The audience seemed to appreciate the more restrained moments – ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’ giving the mostly shaven-headed, pot-bellied 60-somethings a chance to show off their tender sides. Arms aloft, swaying and singing their hearts out en masse as they brought to mind The Kop in full voice on a European night.

roger-waters-fans-arms-aloft
“… And you’ll never walk alone.”

I could not have imagined these Floyd classics sounding any better had the original line-up played them in their heyday.

I’m just about over the cost.

 

Let it be! You also got to see The Beatles

Well, not quite. But The Beatles Story was the next best thing only alternative.

I couldn’t wait to buy my t-shirts, ensuring I looked extra nerdy armed with the store’s branded carrier bag and audio guide as I photographed everything in sight.

There were some nice touches – recreating the Mersey Beat office, the inside of a ‘Yellow Submarine’, and the Cavern Club, which brought back fond memories of my less-costly gig going youth at the Cardiff Barfly.

beatles-story-cavern-club-liverpool

But it was largely a collection of photos and anecdotes that you’ll have surely have seen / heard already. However, you feel like you’ve had value for money – the audio tracks ensure you don’t move too quickly.

And the baked potatoes taste better than they look:

beatles-cafe-baked-potatoe

 

Getting back to where we still belong

We did all the touristy photos we could manage in the heat – plus one of a seagull:

seagull-liverpool-docks

And made our way back – unfortunately, via the M6 (no cake!).

Our stay was sadly brief, but who else can say they’ve seen the biggest and best bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s within 24 hours?

Ok, technically, I can’t. But it was the closest someone born in the ‘80s was ever going to get. 

Follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see more pictures from our Liverpool trip and other adventures.

 

Close-up of my burger at the Ben Nevis Inn, Fort William for the banner.

Man vs. midge: Who ate more of whom? The Highlands, Part 1

Hospitality in the Highlands has improved considerably since a French Connor MacLeod was driven out of his village and paid to not to laugh in the face of a Spanish (or was it Egyptian?) Sean Connery – I either need to watch more films or learn to Google places.

Here are a few of the predominantly food-related highlights from the first half of our 16-day road trip, which took in Stirling, Fort William, John O’Groats – and plenty of midges (first piece of advice: talk little and often – please note: there’s no more advice).

 

Close, but still Carlisle

I agree, it’s odd to feature Carlisle in a Highlands article.

Plus, I have enough material ammunition to create a standalone piece on the B&B we stayed at: 4-foot long bed, next to the sort of bars that make the Borough look tame, etc.

But the reason I wanted to start here was to wax lyrical about a hot pot.

The Old Bank City Pub and Chop House

carlisle-old-bank-pub-chop
Highly deceptive.

It may not look like there was much room underneath those crispy potatoes – but they certainly made the most of it. Plenty of chicken, big chunks of ham and a tarragon and cream sauce I could drink by the glass.

Mrs. B.B. went for the vegetarian option: tagliatelle with asparagus, mange tout and peas. “A huge portion. Probably too much chilli for most people – but I found it made the dish really addictive. Somehow managed to gobble the lot – stretching my stomach in preparation for the meals to come. Often feel cheated when ordering pasta dishes out, but this was definitely worth a tenner.”

A lengthy gin list for the cool kids amongst you – even if the waitress herself seemed surprised that they sold most of them!

 

‘There can be only one’ in Glasgow

Ok, so we didn’t stay in Glasgow – have you seen Taggart?!

But as fans of Strongman, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend a ‘Highland games’ – even if it was just a small local event on the outskirts of Scotland’s biggest city…

We didn’t expect to see the one, the only, “The Mountain from Game of Thrones” (surely a catchphrase now for Colin Bryce), 2018’s European Strongest Man, 2018’s World Strongest Man, 2018’s Arnold Strongman Classic winner… you getting the picture yet?

Yes, Hafthor “Thor” Bjornsson (did I mention he’s also Iceland’s Strongest Man?) was – we still can’t believe this – Chieftain at the Carmunnock International Highland Games. And yeah, he only went and broke the world height record for the 56lbs SHGA weight (and probably for the slowest moving queue to get a fan photo).

highland-games-thor-world-r
Who was the real star attraction?

Slim pickings on the refreshments (the less said about my anaemic-looking burger, the better), but a good-natured event, with plenty to keep all the family entertained – well, mainly the compere’s scathing putdowns of Thor, the contestants, and the waifs in the crowd who attempted ‘The Manhood Stone Lift’.

 

A gold ‘old time’ in Stirling

By the time we reached Stirling, there were concerns that factor-50 wasn’t going to cut it.

We hadn’t come to Scotland expecting to get a tan. Fortunately, Mrs. B.B. is a packing magician, and we’d managed to squeeze both of our wardrobes into a Skoda Fabia. Amongst the puffa jackets, rain coats, wellies and woolly jumpers, we had an ample supply of shorts and tees for the heat wave that was to remain a constant.

stirling-castle-sun-shining
Finding some shade to admire Stirling Castle.

It’s only a small city, but the temperature certainly helped us work up an appetite as we explored the imposing castle, Wallace Monument and various historical landmarks.

Friars Wynd

Of course, I had to kick off the holiday ‘proper’ with some ‘proper’ Haggis, Neeps and Tatties.

fryars-wynd-haggis-neeps-ta
Lost a few marks for the dressing.

Friars Wynd obliged – not too dense, plenty of pepper. Although it didn’t look as impressive as Mrs. B.B.’s chorizo and prawn packed paella – which arrived minus the advertised langoustine and calamari.

Mrs. B.B.: “With two key ingredients missing – two key reasons for ordering the dish! – it was disappointing. As much as I like chorizo, I have my limits. It was far too greasy.”

“They weren’t kidnapping the clientele!”

And fortunately, they weren’t kidnapping the clientele! We were a little concerned as people failed to return from ‘the toilet’ – but we checked before calling the police and discovered it’s also a hotel. Phew! Although, I could have made the evening more comfortable for myself had I known at the time.

Brea

I was in meat heaven at Brea:

brea-lamp-chops

A little on the pricey side (£24.95!), but give me 3 lamb cutlets and I’ll pay anything. The pesto sauce really complimented the lamb in fairness – something I need to try at home. And there was a decent selection of local beers – something the nearby Wetherspoons failed to deliver on (Lancaster Red the closest geographically).

Mrs. B.B.’s sweet potato, spinach and butterbean stew was “a little pricey for what was basically a plate of veg! It was well cooked – and a nice healthy option as I attemped to compensate for the chorizo overdose the night before – but £14.95?! I don’t think so.”

Victoria Square Guesthouse

With our original accommodation cancelling just days before, we had to up the budget to find a last-minute alternative. And on this occasion, the old proverb that you really get what you pay for rung true.

victoria-square-guesthouse-stirling

An 1880s Victorian building, the guesthouse was beautifully decorated and well maintained – with nods to the past, but contemporary in its design and features. Although located just a few minutes from the city centre (and the DJ surely past 5 on the Richter magnitude scale), it was remarkably quiet. In fact, we wouldn’t have known anyone else was staying – had they not drunk all the complimentary sherry each evening!

“Even more rich and luxurious than it sounds.”

And the all-important breakfast: I was particularly wowed by the VS Eggs Benedict – toasted muffin topped with haggis and a poached egg. My only regret was opting for the salmon on day 2 – Scotland’s national dish would prove almost impossible to come by over the subsequent weeks. Mrs. B.B.’s porridge, served with cream, brown sugar and a splash of whisky, was “even more rich and luxurious than it sounds.”

 

Walking everywhere… but up Ben Nevis

That we reached Fort William in less than a day was some achievement. A 2-hour car drive extended to 8 as we stopped at every passing place roadside gravel patch to take photos of the awesome loch and mountain views. Mrs. B.B.’s protestations that we’d have plenty of photo opportunities over the next fortnight falling on deaf ears.

en-route-fort-william-views
One of about 4000 mountain shots.

We sensibly opted out of climbing Ben Nevis, but our stay in Fort William was still filled with action – and even a little danger – as we walked to Steall Falls along Nevis Gorge, visited the Neptune’s Staircase and fought for a prime ‘Harry Potter train’ viewpoint (otherwise known as the Glenfinnan Viaduct for the non-geeks).

harry-potter-glenfinnan-via
Took a few bruises from the Harry Potter fans to get this shot.

But the real excitement was to be found at the local Wetherspoons.

The Great Glen

Now, for all its founder’s faults – and the occasionally suspect clientele – we’re not adverse to a Wetherspoons. Low effort, decent beer selection (not always the case – see Stirling above), and comparatively tasty fast food. It seemed like a good choice after I’d exhausted us with endless “photo opportunity!” stops.

However, we must have visited on everyone’s first day at work! Orders heading to the wrong tables, angry complaints, refunds being issued in every direction – and then they ran out of coleslaw! (Not ideal when you’ve only ordered a jacket potato with coleslaw).

In fairness, they did offer us a refund – for 2 steaks! And then proceeded to bring a plain jacket potato out post-refund (for the correct amount – we’re honest!). However, we opted against the freebie and moved a few doors down…

The Geographer

There was a table left in The Geographer! (who knew Scotland was such a tourist magnet?!)

I wasn’t convinced by the menu’s ‘Global inspiration’, but my Braised highland venison and mushroom stew was simply divine. The meat was moist, it was packed with flavour and the sweet potato chips somehow remained crisp to the death. It was enough to forgive the lack of air con as the alcohol consumed poured just as quickly out of my forehead.

the-geographer-fort-william

Mrs. B.B.’s Mexican vegetable and bean chill “was as memorable as it sounds.”

Ben Nevis Inn & Bunkhouse

We may have bottled Ben Nevis, but we weren’t afraid of a battered fish the length of my wife’s forearm (and twice as wide). Well, I was – playing it safe with the inch-thick Ben Nevis Beef Burger, topped with melted cheddar (I still have dreams about it now), streaky bacon, BBQ mayo, tomato relish – and 50p wasn’t going to put me off a pot of coleslaw (it’s rare in these parts).

fish-ben-nevis-inn

Unsurprisingly, Mrs. B.B. could only manage a few chips, but thought the fish was a knockout – “light and crisp batter, wasn’t greasy; nice and fresh.”

I had my favourite beer of the holiday at this point – Nessie’s Monster Mash. A smooth, malty ale from the Cairngorm Brewery Co. which currently holds a rare 4.5 rating from myself on Untappd (will I ever give a 5?). I’m sure they feel honoured.

nessies-monster-mash-ben-nevis

It was an important meal at The Ben Nevis Inn to regenerate – the midges had feasted well that day.

Ardlinnhe B&B

It was at this point in the holiday I made the sensible decision not to feast on a full English (or Scottish!) every day – breakfasts would consistent of fruit, yoghurt and a variation on egg (ok, I had the odd vegetarian sausage) from this point on. No complaints on the poached, scrambled or fried eggs on offer here.

We’d been spoiled at the Victoria Square Guesthouse, so neither the building nor the room offered the same elegance or splendour. But we were, again, just a few minutes’ walk from the town centre, had stunning views of the loch:

fort-william-hotel-view-day

…and couldn’t fault a thing. In fact, it seemed remarkably cheap given every B&B we saw (and they seemed to be everywhere) had no vacancies.

 

Into the mist: John O’Groats and then… well, we couldn’t see where!

My shooting rate remained stubbornly high, but my photos were compromised as we made our way up North (properly up North now!) to John O’Groats and then back down the ‘other side’ via overnight stays in Lybster, Durness and Loch Luichart. The sea mist that was to set in only heightening the otherworldly feel as cyclists appeared in what appeared slow-motion from the clouds.

cyclist-john-o-groats
It wasn’t a figment of my imagination!

It was at this point, I had well and truly lost touch with reality – we had the Carry On box set as our companion, the only other vehicles on the road were camper vans – and chickens had made their home at the local petrol station. It would take me a few weeks to readjust to the 30-minute morning queue into Newport when we returned home.

Dunnet Bay Distillers

No longer primed for 5:30am starts, I did put our 11am gin distillery tour (with the makers of Rock Rose gin) in jeopardy – fortunately, we were only 2 minutes late! “No apologies necessary,” we were ushered in and promptly handed a glass of gin and tonic that went straight to my head.

dunnett-bay-distillers-rock
Mrs. B.B. is more accustomed to opening bottles of gin!

If you’re on trend, you’ll be a gin expert. We’re laggards, so found the tour enlightening in every respect. The engaging guide talked us through the history of everything from the local area to the founder’s various Frankenstein-esque experiments.

It was very good value, with plenty of interaction, a dogged determination to get the wax melter working – and enough gin consumed (and taken away) to cover the entry fee!

Oakwood Traditional Scottish Restaurant & Gift Shop

Sorry, I was a bit too keen to get to the gin then!

The day before the distillery tour, we met up with the Elgin-based in-laws for lunch near Loch Ness at the Oakwood Traditional Scottish Restaurant. It would be one of the best-tasting meals of the holiday.

And it was unexpected to say the least.

There was more than a little trepidation as we pulled in to the car park:

oakwood-restaurant-building-scotland

…and the décor certainly had more in common with the hotel in Carry On Abroad than any restaurant we would normally choose to part with our hard-earned cash. But there was a collective sigh of relief, which turned into disbelief, and finally adoration as our eagerness to bequeath plaudits saved us from indigestion.

bread-butter-pud-oakwood
The bread and butter pudding that nearly put our marriage in peril.

The laird’s casserole was exactly what the menu promised – rich in flavour (red wine, port, brandy and, of course, gin!) – and the meat was so tender.

“Slow cooked to heaven.”

Mrs. B.B.: “It might not have been all that to look at, but my butternut squash casserole had been slow cooked to heaven in cider, with sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms.”

This was hearty home cooking at its best.

I couldn’t quite fit in a dessert – but I was happy to steal half of Mrs. B.B.’s bread and butter pudding, which was light and moreish. I’ve regretted not sucking it up and dealing with the heart burn of a full portion ever since – and Mrs. B.B. still hasn’t forgiven me.

Smoo Cave Hotel

Once we’d passed Loch Ness, it was slim pickings on the grub front. The electric cool box and never-ending supply of Shredded Wheat bitesize were both a genius move on Mrs. H.’s part.

However, we did have one hell of a pie at the Smoo Cave Hotel. Well, two – one each!

steak-pie-smoo-cave-hotel
The pastry could barely contain the filling!

Crispy pastry, packed with meat – I don’t recall any veg (inside the pastry that is), but I guess there wasn’t room for more than a whole cow – and a decent beer or two (the Raven Ale from Orkney Brewery stands out as a Golden delight).

Hillside Bed and Breakfast

Our hosts – who had moved from Warrington to run the B&B – were welcoming to the point it felt like we were simply staying with friends. It’s a shame we couldn’t see the views – the mist made our accommodation seem even more isolated than it already was, although it did add an eerie quality that elevated our visit to the Smoo Cave (the actual cave – the stares from the locals served the same purpose in the restaurant!).

 

Don’t loch now..

Having survived the midge invasion in Loch Luichart – there’s a horror book in me now – and a mattress I assume was filled with cement, we started to make our way to The Isle of Skye for the second half our Highlands getaway.

The alcohol consumption would increase, the food bills would set off mild convulsions – and we’d make a four-hour road, ferry and foot trip to find the best.cake.ever!

Don’t forget to check out part 2 – and to follow us on Instagram and Twitter as we try and pad out our lifestyle until we can afford another adventure.