There was only one worrying thing about the trip to Old Pulteney. Where to stay? I'd had a few offers of lovely places but all looked to involve several more hours of driving or - worse - me putting my own hand in my pocket. Yeah, I know, how shocking...
Salvation was at hand though in the rather unlikely form of Shahnaz Pakravan, the former Channel 4 newsreader and Tomorrow's World presenter who has turned her back temporarily on the world of TV to run The Bridge Hotel in Helmsdale instead, alongside her partner Christian Gross.
Set alongside the famous Helmsdale River, the Bridge is an absolute charmer and proof that sometimes the simple pleasures are the best. Surprisingly given Shahnaz's presence, the rooms are TV- and telephone-free and Helmsdale is a bit of a black hole as far as Orange service goes. However, the hotel does have excellent wi-fi throughout, so it's not all bad news if you're as hooked on technology as I am.
Mind you, in the spirit of their chilled vision, I tried to keep my internet activities to a minimum and it's probably no coincidence that I had the best night's sleep of the trip at The Bridge. Saying that, the hearty dinner no doubt played its part as well.
The Green Stag is the name of the Bridge's restaurant and my only question is what came first - the name or the crockery? One suspects it's the latter as it seems unlikely you'd luck into finding so much green stag embossed stuff. Still, it's good to have a theme and, in fact, The Green Stag has two - if you count really good food as a theme.
LIke so many Scottish locations, the focus here is on the natural "larder" the country provides. For this Highlands coastal town the bias is on hunting, shooting and fishing and the menu reflects this. Crab comes from the harbour every morning. Lobsters come from the harbour, via the big tank in the bar. Venison features heavily but, rather than the generic term, they specify the type of deer, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. The result is the sort of menu that makes decision-making a very difficult thing. Fortunately, Shahnaz took pity on me, making a few recommendations - not to mention sneaking a portion of Snipe Pate on to my table.
Yes. Snipe Pate. Having once been a keen ornithologist - once a geek, alays a geek, right? - I was aware of the stubby round bird but had no idea what it tasted like. I can now confirm it's gamey and buttery and somewhere between chicken and, say, grouse. It also goes well with nice, sharp, crunchy gherkins and slabs of heavily-buttered bread. I wolfed that portion down, together with freshly caught Helmsdale crab - I believe the latest net expression to describe that is "nom nom" - and then moved onto the main course: red deer medallions in a green peppercorn sauce. Original? No. Delicately presented in some arty-farty stack? No. Very bloody tasty and a plate licked damn near clean? Hell yes. The meat was tender, the sauce robust, the veg perfectly cooked and buttery. To paraphrase the shouty one on Masterchef, The Green Stag can produce a good plate of food.
Puddings should have been an impossibility but I had the eating head on and the Frozen Honey & Cognac Cream had been suggested by two other members of the lovely staff. They were right, and the cream and booze and home made shortbread, drizzled honey and swirls of homemade quince jelly was both a fitting, hearty finish and the sort of pud that's been added to the list of desserts I intend to pass off as my own in due course...