There was a short detour to be made before booking into our restaurant-cum-hotel on the edge of Lochinver. Our aim was to pick chanterelles. In Scotland they are at their best in late summer and one September we had stumbled across a carpet of them growing in their favoured Eeyore environment – a damp mossy patch in a birch wood. That afternoon we decided to look and see if they were still there. We parked the car and after a mile’s walk got a whiff of their characteristic apricot smell. They were, or so it seemed, alive and well and close by.
Chanterelles are a rich yellow colour from top to bottom. For the smaller ones, tiny glimpses of yellow can be seen peeping through the undergrowth. But finding them is often difficult because they are so easily confused with the gold of the fallen leaves. The larger, older, craggy mushrooms are easier to spot as they stand well above the moss. Although there were fewer mushrooms than usual, within half an hour we had collected a bag-full, and these we planned to eat in an omelette when we got back to London.
Next we headed for the hotel. Dinner that night was special – it was our wedding anniversary. Before the meal we met the other guests for an aperitif. In keeping with its small size and Michelin status the restaurant was full, and diners came from all over – four Brazilians, two Canadians, an Australian, a party of two English couples, and us. We all chatted about the day’s adventures, the summer generally, the Olympic games (hence the Brazilians) and the various plans for the next days. In passing, we told of our walk that afternoon and our love of the colour and taste of chanterelles and how to find them.
During the socialising it soon became clear that whilst most of the guests understood the rules of social interaction, one, who declared loudly that she was from Sussex, did not. In fact, with her rasping, brash voice and opinions to match, she often managed to dominate proceedings. After a few drinks and some quietening down it was off to our tables for dinner.
Meals in the hotel are special. There is no choice, although one is asked about food preferences when booking. Usually six courses are served, and sizes of the courses are arranged such that even if guests choose to ‘pass’ on a course, they don’t feel cheated by the end of the meal. We have eaten there often before and, as usual, that evening’s meal was a dream.
The breakfast menu next morning included ‘freshly-picked wild mushrooms’, amongst which were listed chanterelles. Naturally this was my choice, and lightly cooked in butter with herbs they were a delight. Sussex soon arrived and sat with her travelling companions at the adjoining table. In no time we all learned that her room and its view were not as nice as those of her friends, that at dinner last night the cheeses had been too runny, and that the beef had been wrong by dint of being a foreign cut and cooked in a foreign way. French, as it happened (and delicious too!). Next it transpired that the soft Scottish sun, which for most of was a welcome sight, was too bright. So, after some negotiation and much commotion, she swapped places with her husband.
Soon she was presented with the breakfast menu. When she learned of the wild mushroom option all hell let loose, upping the decibels, we heard, “‘I can’t bear fancy mushrooms; don’t you have any that are normal?” Here was the archetypal food bigot and a perverse one too. Why on earth did she choose to eat at a restaurant where the provision of class food was inevitable? Since when is wild food abnormal? And worse, why should she wish to broadcast her views so widely.
Despite her best efforts, Mrs Sussex did not spoil our enjoyment and after paying the bill and thanking the chefs we set off for the airport and home. We arrived home in good time to cook our special chanterelle omelette and the meal could not have tasted better.
Not a bad way to start another year!
Photo credit: Joe Collier. “Mushroom at the Inn”: Albannach Hotel