Great Places to Eat in Scotland
- Sheriffmuir Inn, Stirlingshire
Many thousands of motorists who speed along the A9 trunk road north of Stirling, heading to or returning from Perth, see the sign pointing to "Sheriffmuir" - and pass on. Which is a shame, because just a short distance from the hurtling traffic is an unspoilt moorland area with single track roads, rolling hills and bright clear air. It is on the north-west edge of the Ochil Hills, in a stunningly beautiful part of the border between the counties of Stirling and Perthshire. And out in the middle of this impressive landscape is the Sheriffmuir Inn, its white-painted stone shining like a beacon to the traveller.
The area is popular with hill walkers, particularly at week-ends. However, on the late-March day when I was invited for lunch there, only the sheep and a few cars were to be seen in the restaurant car park.
Before lunch I had travelled first to the world-famous Gleneagles Hotel, near Auchterarder. So on my return, I came off the main road early and travelled by way of a long stretch of country road through the desolate moors. It was easy to imagine those Jacobite soldiers under the Earl of Mar, tramping up and down the hills in November 1715 to face the Hanoverian force led by the Duke of Argyll, who was determined to prevent the Jacobites reaching the River Forth. The battle was inconclusive and neither could claim victory. An old Scots ballad immortalised the battle with the words, "Some say that they won, and some say that we won and some say that none won at all."
Still visible on the moor are the burial mounds and a Gathering Stone from where the Duke of Argyll is said to have watched the Jacobite army. Beside the road is a memorial recalling the conflict and another to the members of the MacRae clan who fell that day (illustrated here).
My visit to the Sheriffmuir Inn was in March 2006, which was the coldest March for twenty years. But the warm welcome from owners Geoff Cook (who concentrates on the cooking) and his wife Moira (who organises the front of house) and a roaring open fire made up for the chill outside.
The building was once a late 17th century Droving Inn from the days when sheep were driven from the Highlands to market in the more heavily populated lowlands. While retaining its aura of history, the Sheriffmuir Inn has been brought up to date with quirky, high-backed seating, with a tartan covering and wrought ironwork - somehow they managed to convey an image of the chairs in a Jacobean dining room. Although these chairs were initially heavy to move, they proved to be remarkably comfortable!
Sheriffmuir Inn is open from Wednesday to Monday (ie closed on Tuesdays) and serves food from Noon to 2pm and 5.30pm to 9pm. Although this is a quiet country retreat, it can also cater for larger events, including wedding receptions. In-house facilities can accommodate up to a 100 guests and there is an option of extending that number with a marquee.
The Inn also provides a small number of rooms that can accommodate single visitors, couples or families. With its candle-lit dining room in the evening, it seems an ideal location for that romantic weekend that we all dream about!
In addition to hill-walking, there are a host of outdoor activities available nearby - fishing, shooting, pony trekking and horse-riding, cycling and, of course, it's a nature-lovers' paradise. There are also numerous excellent golf courses just a short drive away.
It's always a good sign when you have to struggle to choose between various items on the menu - and that was the pleasurable "problem" we had here. The printed menu is extensive - and there is also a board with "Daily Specials". How about chicken liver paté, or maybe char grilled mushroom kebab with garlic mayonnaise? Then there were BBQ ribs with salad or lentil soup listed on that blackboard. In the end, I opted for Cullen Skink and my companion went for a plate of oak-smoked salmon with lemon and ground black pepper. This proved to be a generous platter and unlike many restaurants that insist on adding all sorts of extra dressings or sauces, this came as described in the menu and allowed the tasty salmon to speak for itself.
Cullen Skink is a traditional Scottish soup which originated in the fishing village of Cullen on the Moray Firth Coast, in the North East of Scotland. It is made with smoked haddock, potato, onion and cream and in these calorie conscious days can often be too rich at the start of a meal. But although the large bowl had plenty of smoked haddock and potato, Geoff's version was much lighter than usual and didn't take the edge of my appetite for the next course!
A number of the starters (soup and garlic bread, for example) at the Sheriffmuir Inn can also provide an excellent snack for those who do not want a full meal.
If the starters had provided plenty of choice, selecting the main courses proved to be even harder. At lunch you can (maybe) exclude the Aberdeen Angus Sirloin of finest cut of the fillet steak (with sauces of green peppercorns infused with white wine and finished with cream - or sliced mushrooms flamed in brandy and double cream). But then there's Cajun spiced chicken on a bed of linguine, rolled in a tomato and crème fraîche sauce; or how about beef olives filled with haggis, braised in ale and served with mash? The blackboard was offering (amongst other items) pan seared tuna steak with sweet pepper salsa - or perhaps a medley of seafood poached in white wine cream?
My companion selected the rich venison and steak pie which came in a rich gravy and topped with crusty pastry and a side plate of fresh vegetables. My choice was the grilled salmon served with Béarnaise butter. The fresh salmon was nicely cooked, but I was surprised that the butter had not been melted more - it had made the fish a bit cooler than it should have been.
After the first two substantial courses, we nevertheless felt that we had to try the sweets - all in the cause of a full review, you understand... Sticky toffee pudding with rich toffee sauce accompanied by cream or ice cream was beyond us, but a luxury dark and white chocolate ice cream (minus the optional Baileys Irish Cream liqueur topping) was much enjoyed by my friend. I went for the lemon, raspberry and blood orange sorbet. I never cease to be surprised at how the better restaurants can provide such excellent flavours and this selection certainly didn't disappoint.
Contact Sheriffmuir Inn Web site for current menu and prices.
Geoff and Moira took over the Sheriffmuir Inn in the second half of 2005 and are working hard at establishing a high class restaurant in an idyllic and historic setting. There is a bonus and a downside in that remote but attractive location, but once it has established a reputation both with the up-market towns of Dunblane and Bridge of Allan (which are only around three miles away, after all) maybe word will spread to those car drivers speeding up and down the A9. I for one, now know the way!
For more information, see the Sheriffmuir Inn Web site or phone 01786 823285 for reservations.
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