30 Aug 2011

Balfour Castle

TWEED clad gamekeeper Karl collects me in Reggie, Balfour Castle’s launch. It’s piloted by Mike who prefers its speed to the tug boat which he used to skipper. As well as transferring family and guests from Kirkwall on the mainland to Shapinsay, he’s harbourmaster. Measuring six miles by three it’s one of 70 islands within the Orkney archipelago which locals claim is closer in culture to Oslo than Edinburgh. Hence fiddle music’s more likely to pierce the breeze than bagpipes.

Awarded Scottish Chef of the Year 2009, Lyonnais head chef and vintage tractor enthusiast Jean-Baptiste Bady relishes the fruits from the choppy waters for good reason. The North Sea meets the Atlantic here effectively acting as a filter ensuring fish and shellfish taste supremely clean. From organised shoots on Balfour’s grounds Bady’s also assured a regular supply of pheasants, partridges and teal. In fact he’s earning a reputation for lean game sausages. And providing roots and shoots, berries for jams and the UK’s most northerly grapes, Bady meticulously maintains six acres of walled kitchen gardens.
Although Bady’s so tall that his prep tables have been welded to meet his frame, his persistence for precision is clear, an attribute he learnt with Bernard Loiseau, infamously perfectionist former owner of La Côte d’Or. Bady serves succulent, quirky canapés of briefly fried breaded haggis balls in the library where the fire blazes despite it being summer. Then, reached through a not so secret, secret passage, dinner ensues in the drawing room. It features a well loved Steinway, handmade sage wallpaper flecked with gold and uninterrupted sea views. From a gently priced, Bordeaux rich cellar which begins at £15 for white Beaujolais, 07 Puligny-Montrachet (Dom. Latour-Giraud) adds freshness to my starter of moist, paper white halibut. This comes with fleshy aubergine purée and a nervy tangle of sweet peppers spruced with white wine vinegar, garlic and thyme.
Carved with an ivory handled knife, the main course is by Royal appointment. Tenderly rested venison loin comes from the Queen’s shoot at Balmoral but is accompanied by green and yellow baby courgettes grown at home. Intriguingly the courgettes accentuate the crisp, vivid tannins of Chȃteau Lanessan 03 (kindly priced at £29).
Finally, tarte Tatin and passion fruit sorbet gains more texture from a crumble of freeze dried raspberries adorned by slightly bitter edible pansy. Served straight, 12 year old single malt from Highland Park on the mainland where swallows nest beside furnaces, brings complexity with its silky, spreading, heather scented warmth.
Dinner proved fit for a Laird. After a peek at the lay of the land from Balfour’s battlements where it’s possible to see some of the only resilient trees to cling these windblown islands, it’s time to retire to one of Balfour’s nine sumptuous bedrooms.
B&B £200; dinner £55.
Published: Harper's Wine & Spirit magazine.