S C O T L A N D : D A Y 1 2
AUGUST 30 (Wednesday) -- Ballater to Leslie Castle
I'm not sure about the others, but I awoke this morning with a sense of anticipation--this was the day I was to learn whether a very special treat I'd encouraged the others to try would live up to its advance billing.
First, though, we wanted to visit one of the many whisky distilleries along the "Malt Whisky Trail" in the fertile northeast. (Incidentally, the Scottish drink is spelled "whisky," not "whiskey"; the latter is the proper spelling of the Irish and American varieties of the Celtic water of life, as connoisseurs of the Scotch product will quickly inform you.)
The distillery closest to our present location in Ballater was the Royal Lochnagar Distillery. This suited me since it meant that I'd also have the chance to see the part of Scotland described in the children's book The Old Man of Lochnagar. This book was written years ago by the present Prince Charles, who knows the region well as Ballater is but a few miles past Balmoral Castle, the summer home of the royal family since Queen Victoria rediscovered the beauties of Scotland.
The landscape turned out to be no more or less awe-inspiring than any other part of Scotland; the day was overcast, and the countryside was green and cool. After perusing the wares of the gift shop (I did not buy any books, though now I wish I had), we were led through the distillery where each step of the whisky-making process was explained to us in good detail. I found my attention wandering; the webs of brightly-colored piping, condensation tanks, the hiss of live steam and the scent of refined alcohol soaking the air... all these sights and sounds and smells brought back forgotten memories of long days and nights I spent in college struggling to learn the arcane secrets of chemical engineering.
Finally, after touring this modern tribute to technology in the service of getting drunk, we were shown an example of a primitive still and sent on our way. I bought a gift pack of airplane-sized bottles of various whiskies (for a taste-testing I have yet to begin) and a bannock. "What," you may be asking, "is a bannock?" A typical bannock (there are several different kinds) is a round, pyramidal lump of bread about half a foot across, with bits of nuts and sweet fruits baked in. I was hungry, so I gnawed on that as Beth drove us northward toward Insch.
This part of Scotland was unlike anything we had heretofore seen. The hills seemed softer, and the dark green bracken had long ago given way to light green clover, patches of dark purple heather, and golden-stubbled fields in which rolled-up bales of hay dotted the landscape as far as we could see. Every time our road crested a hill, the patchwork cloak of green and purple and gold lay before us again, rolling away into the sunlit distance.
This was the lay of the land in which we found Castle Fraser. Beth had wanted to visit this place, which was a castle belonging to one of the famous side branches of her own family. I'm glad she thought of it. If this modest castle in its agricultural setting was less grandly imposing than Glamis, it was also more spacious and welcoming. Castle Fraser is set on a small rise amid the green-and-gold hills and surrounded by leafy trees rustling in the breeze. Not to be outdone, the castle itself (essentially unchanged since its completion in 1636) is built of a warm rose-colored stone in surprisingly attractive proportions given the military purpose of its original construction. Inside, we found tour guides who were not only knowledgeable but very friendly, especially when they learned of Beth's own familial connections to the Frasers. So we got more the "special" tour, here in the castle with the most cheerful setting of any we'd seen so far.
And this was the setting in which a few hours later we found the gem that is Leslie Castle, the surprise I'd been waiting to spring on my friends.
I first read about Leslie Castle in doing research over two years earlier for a possible visit to Scotland. Someone had stayed there and described his stay in a few short paragraphs which he placed on-line in the UKFORUM of CompuServe. Based on his glowing review, I thought that this would be a good place for me to stay... but I had no idea how right I would be.
Leslie Castle is a pair of tall square towers sharing a central staircase. Until about a decade ago, it was a ruin of a castle which had stood on the site for nearly a thousand years. Then the Baron of Leslie, David Leslie of Leslie, decided to restore his old family home. Drawing on his training as an architect, he and his wife Leslie (yes, her name really is Leslie Leslie of Leslie) began to bring the castle back to life. In order to help defray the costs of renovation, five rooms were set aside as guest rooms, and the Leslies began to accept paying visitors.
After meeting us at the door, Leslie showed us to our rooms. This meant schlepping my two suitcases up four or five flights. I rested a lot on the way.
But the trip was worth it. Gin and Bill shared a room, as did Beth and Ann, which left me in a room all my own. Each of us had something a bit special: the others had canopy beds, or a large bathroom, while I wound up with an enormous room sporting two small turrets to either side of the main windows. We had some time before dinner, so I opened up all the windows, made myself a cup of tea, and rested beside a window that looked out across the fields. The smell of freshly-cut hay drifted in on the cool breeze. Sparrows flew by, scolding one another. Rabbits emerged in the soft sunlight of late afternoon, lolloping unconcernedly through the front garden.
Only once or twice before in my life have I felt so at peace with myself and the world.
Soon enough, though, it was dinnertime. I dithered for a while over the proper dress; I knew that dinner could be a significant affair here. I finally settled on mimicking what the others were wearing--the "safety in numbers" approach to fashion.
First we gathered in the lounge. Huge, sturdy wooden beams crossed the ceiling, and the fireplace still held a whiff of honest woodsmoke. The room was warm, and the chairs were comfortable. We tried not to fall asleep. Later, David Leslie came in while his wife was preparing our dinner and we all chatted for a while, which was how we learned that their daughter was not only unlikely to win any cooking awards but was to be married the next weekend. (I'm fairly sure these two items were unrelated.)
Soon it was time for dinner, so we all trooped into the adjoining dining room. We had a table to ourselves, and the only other guests (whom we concluded from their speech were Italian) had their own. David came around to serve us... and that's the last non-food-related fact I can remember from that night, because the meal I had utterly obliterated any competing memories.
As near as I can recollect, my meal began with thin slices of chilled venison on a bed of crisp fresh lettuce. Our other meals in Scotland had typically covered meat dishes with heavy sauces--not so at Leslie Castle. While we waited for our entrees, we feasted on two or three kinds of hot and cold breads. Then came the main event. Ann and Beth had some kind of fish; I was too busy admiring the presentation of the baked duck on my plate to pay much attention to what anyone else had. Even better than the presentation, though, was the taste--I think I may have blacked out at this point. It is claimed of some meals that they "melt in your mouth"; this one actually did. Over the course of dinner, I used my knife exactly once, and that was to cut a small cherry tomato in half. It simply wasn't necessary. The duck, for example, was so tender that it fell off the bone when you touched it with your fork, but it wasn't overdone to the point of being mushy or tasteless.
Now, admittedly my palate has been numbed over the years. Between the spicy Cajun dishes I love and such delicate confections as mac & cheese & hot dogs, it's a wonder that I have any taste buds left at all. But even so, I could still appreciate the amazing quality of our dinner. In praising it to Bill, he mentioned having enjoyed the cuisine of four-star Michelin restaurants in Paris--and he concurred with my estimation of our dinner.
Then came more bread. Then came a selection of cheeses. Then I went to my room and slept, but not before yelling at myself for foolishly having arranged to spend only one night at Leslie Castle.
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