Jack: Having been graciously invited to preview the multi-day-gourmet-food-coma and culinary adventure that is FoodFest15, I’ve taken some time to write a guide that explains a little more about the festival itself.
FoodFest15 is Aberdeenshire’s take on ‘The Year Of Food & Drink Scotland’ 2015 – and if it’s anything like the experience I had, a grand old time it shall be for anyone who goes.
Although it runs all the way through January to December, I only showed up for a few days at the end of June for a press preview. But I’ll tell you what I know, and what I saw!
- Why you might want to come and what’s on (in a very small nutshell)
- What you can do here
- How to get around
- Where to stay
- What you might expect based what it was like for me
What Is It?
A new, yearlong celebration of the North East of Scotland’s finest food and drink – taking place in restaurants, cafes, venues, fields and exciting spaces, all over Aberdeen and greater Aberdeenshire!
When Is It?
It’s already started! As we said, it runs all throughout the year, and so there are events running between January and December.
How to find out what’s happening in a specific month? Have a look here
Where Is It…
All over Aberdeenshire!
…and how do I get there?
Driving from the south, head north then join the A90 at Dundee. It’s clearly signposted from there.
Flights to Aberdeen Airport are available from Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Durham Tees Valley, East Midlands, Leeds Bradford, London City, London Gatwick, London Heathrow, London Luton, Manchester, Norwich and Southampton. Costs vary depending on departure dates, but we’ve been quoted that they start at £62 one-way.
Aberdeen is also accessible by train from most major cities – there’s a direct East Coast line from Penzance all the way up, and there are also direct trains to/from London.
Where Can I Stay?
Top tip for hotels is to visit for the weekend? Rates in Aberdeen are very high midweek due to the energy industry, but at the weekend most hotels slash their prices and you can get a room for a fraction of the price.
I stayed at the Park Inn by Radisson (which, amongst other things, is a rather good choice for its central location). Alternatives include The Caledonian Hotel or Malmaison. For a slightly more luxurious stay, there’s also the Marcliffe (Aberdeen’s only 5 star hotel), which really IS pretty luxurious or The Chester.
There’s a good run down of all the accommodation options in Aberdeen and the surrounding area on www.visitaberdeen.com
How Do I Get Around?
There are regular buses around the city centre provided by First Bus, and Stagecoach Bluebird Services Aberdeenshire. There are also numerous taxi firms, the most prominent being Rainbow City Taxis and ComCab.
What’s Jack been to firsthand?….
The Marcliffe Hotel & Spa, AKA ‘The Marcliffe at Pitfodels’ AKA ‘that place near Aberdeen where all the celebrity people seem to end up’ was the final leg of my Scotland tour, and a bloody good way to end things. Here I tried my first Caol Ila 25, which although delicious, wasn’t as immaculate as I had hoped, based on the Caol Ila 18. But I can’t blame the hotel for that! How about The Marcliffe then? AFAIK it’s the only official 5 star hotel around Aberdeen, and has something of a legendary reputation – which I have seen mainly on the form of people completely losing their shit on Tripadvisor.
The site itself has a history that goes way back, but its current incarnation opened in November 1993 by former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev (ya srsly). I’ve not stayed in the hotel proper (or made use of the spa!), but can tell you a little about the bar and restaurant. Marcliffe’s bar is called ‘the drawing room’ – has a piano overloaded with photos of said celebrities and a magnificent (100+) selection of whiskies (including ones I had never seen before! Oh boy!). All the bar staff are super clued up about the drinks and cocktails on the menu (and it IS an extensive menu). The restaurant is called ‘the conservatory’ and is, as someone else described it, ‘simply top notch fine dining’
The Marcliff is run by Stewart Spence and his family, and has been since the (re)opening in 1993. Stewart has a…pedigree, He opted for a career in the hospitality industry in 1962, at the tender age of 15, as a trainee chef in Aberdeen. Since then he has been awarded honorary doctorates, lifetime achievement awards and the likes for his work in hotels. Oddly enough, Stewart and his family had actually sold the property and closed the hotel – but the deal fell through and he ended up reopening it. From what I heard from the locals, this may have been a pain in the arse for Stewart (et al) but was great news for the surrounding area! Anyhow, if you’re a ‘well capitalised’ person and want to see what your money can get you in Aberdeen, spend a few days here and make the most of life.
Buchanans Bistro at Woodend Barn describes itself as “a collective of self taught cooks who aspire to create something a little different from the norm”. It’s hard to pin down exactly *what* they are, but whatever you want to call Buchanans, there’s a LOT of cool stuff happening down there. There’s an onsite home brewery (in the kitchen) – where chef brews an ever evolving selection of craft beers (some using some very unusual yeast strains – such as sourdough starters). Then there’s the smokehouse where they cure and smoke fish, fowl, oil, vegetable, scallops, etc. And of course there are the breads – which Buchanans are probably best known for! Many varieties (many of them rare and unusual), all baked on site each day.
As for the food at the restaurant? Mostly salad and vegetarian options (though there’s some damn good fish), the vibe is very ‘family friendly’ (I saw many families in my short time there!). There’s also a pretty active live music schedule, with many local musicians setting up in the corner for informal live music – no stage dividing them from the audience and all that. There’s also a secondhand book store, with the books kinda equally distributed all about the bistro. Book bistro. They grow lots of their own food onsite, and are very, very involved in sustainability and fair trade. It’s great to see.
As for the decor and the feel of the place, there’s lots of floor to ceiling windows allowing you to enjoy the views of the surrounding countryside and the massive garden – it feels spacious and clean. Speaking of massive gardens, said garden that overlaps into a field which makes it feel like an almost infinitely large garden. When I was there, said infinite garden was home to a fish themed art exhibition, a few hundred locals had contributed to it! I think the individual fishes were made during textile classes, which I believe are also held at Woodend Barn (where there is also a theatre and probably more wondrous arts related things). Bloody good place doing bloody good things. Well done Buchanans!
The Banchory Lodge Hotel is a very picturesque place indeed. Based beside the River Dee, it’s a 28 room luxury hotel in a Grade II listed Georgian building near the small town of Banchory. Recently renovated, the best bit is probably the river views or the sound of the water rushing along beside the hotel (very relaxing and all that). It’s at the end of a long private drive, which ensures that, although the Banchory Lodge is pretty well connected to the road network, when you get there you do feel like you’ve just ended up further in the countryside that you actually are. And it’s only 25 minutes from Aberdeen.
I only had a small lunch there, so can’t talk in huge detail about their food offerings, but from what I remember in the form of a sexually gratifying piece of salmon, it’s worth. Like most good restaurants, there’s a seasonal menu, that’s full of lots of excellent local produce – think Aberdeen Angus, local cheeses, Scottish salmon and the works. Deeside and The River Dee in general are pretty famous for salmon – so worth giving that a try if you’re in the area. Sitting on the patio and watching the river roll by as you eat is a fine and wonderful thing. It’s probably easier in the summer but I am told that the outdoor terrace is heated in the winter as well. I spent about 45 minutes wandering the gardens, and there was to be found strong statues and many strange things….
Crathes castle was probably the only non food related stop in the tour, but I’m a history nerd as well as a roving camera stomach so this was also fine. Crathes is a 16th-century castle in the Aberdeenshire region, located near Banchory. The castle and grounds are owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland and are open to the public all throughout the year (it’s actually the only castle that does this). The castle itself is surrounded by 240 hectares of rolling Scottish countryside, and ‘formal’ gardens. The Ranger Service provides guided walks in the summer months (we didn’t get to do one of those), and it’s also home to the north-east’s only Go Ape.
The castle is an L-plan in shape, and six stories at its tallest points. The interior is extremely well preserved (I’m not entirely sure how or why but I’ll assume that the people who used to live inside it contributed to the upkeep for a few centuries!). Who used to live there, you ask? The Burne xtt family. The land on which the castle sits was given to them as a gift by King Robert the Bruce in 1323, and they lived there for many hundreds of years to follow. Obviously it wasn’t just them who were there, as a noble family they had many servants ensuring that their needs were seen to and the place functioned (and it would take quite a few people to do this, since the place ain’t small!). The building contains a huge collection of portraits and art, plus extremely rare, well preserved original Scottish renaissance painted ceilings. The Burnett family later went on to produce a series of admirals, generals, judges and bishops, even a Governor of New York! (not sure when this was).
The only time that the castle saw anything close to military action was in 1644 when the Marquis of Montrose and his Royalist army turned up at Banchory. Montrose asked Sir Thomas Burnett to surrender, he did, they had a nice dinner – and nobody had to get killed. Seems like a good way to do business. Today things are, on the main part, more peaceful – and they have an event space called The Horsemill (which I presume used to be a mill powered by horses?). Fun fact – the place is said to be haunted by ‘The Green Lady’ – there’s a room known as ‘The Green Lady’s Room’ where a bunch of spooky shit has happened over the decades. I did’t see anything suspicious, but everyone loves a ghost story, right? ^_^
Opening in 2004, the Moonfish Cafe is kinda hidden away down the windy and winding medieval streets of Aberdeen’s Merchant quarter – and can be found at the foot of a beautiful (and imposing) 12th Century Church – St Nicholas. Nothing too imposing about the Moonfish itself though, if anything it’s quite the opposite – being very friendly, laid back and unpretentious on the main part! It’s modern, slightly eclectic cuisine with a heavy seafood focus, plus a very extensive gin list and a not so bad wine list. I think you could call it ‘casual dining.
The food menu is kinda streamlined – 4 selection for each course, whether that be lunch or dinner, which gives it a kind of well thought out feeling. The walls reminds me a littlle of a modern art gallery minus art snobs etc. fantastic atmosphere, small but intimate. It definitely has a cafe feel. Combination of tiny size and local popularity has lead to many people advising advanced bookings, as it tends to get busy most nights by all accounts – seating only 40. In my evening spent there I enjoyed their 7 course tasting menu of exquisite Scottish seafood. Very splendid.
And for some reason or another there’s a shitload of Scandinavian shot photography on the walls. I’m pretty sure it’s all the work of Sam Brill, Aberdeen-based photographer, though I am not sure of his connection to Moonfish. The head chef? Mr. MasterChef himself, Brian McLeish – who was a Masterchef Professional finalist in 2014 and is also a real chill guy with an energetic way about him. He’s keen on amuse bouches. Prior to arriving in Aberdeen, Brian worked at Eat on the Green in Udny with the “Kilted Chef” Craig Wilson. Brian has no formal training or qualifications whatsoever, but he hasn’t let that stop him! (a man after my own heart). Fish of this quality, minimal pretentions, intimate atmosphere and fine photography on the walls – I love this place!
We had the exciting and fortuitous opportunity to drop in on Mackie’s Of Scotland and meet the current owner, Mac. That’s him standing by the sign. Coincidentally (or not?) we showed up on a day when the factory was ‘off’ – so I didn’t manage to get killed by any chocolate making machinery. Founded in 1907, Mackie’s is a family held business in Aberdeenshire that makes, amongst other things – dairy ice cream, chocolate, ice cubes (yup) and crisps. Extremely Scottish sounding crisps such as ‘Haggis and Cracked Pepper Potato’ and Flamegrilled Aberdeen Angus. They started making ice cream in 2012 – which is also the end of the Mayan Calendar. Coincidence? I think not *shifty eyes*
Thus what you see before you is a chocolate, ice-cream, crisp and ice factory. Yeah, I know right? Willy Wonka doesn’t have anything on this (OK, maybe he does – since Mackie’s staff do not APPEAR to be Oompa Loompas and there were no musical recitals during my time there). Aaaanyway, Mackie’s describe what they create as ‘everyday indulgences’, and having now eaten flame grilled Aberdeen Angus flavoured crisps I am inclined to agree. Not that I eat them crisps every day, but I could…theoretically. Maybe ‘occasional indulgences’ would be a better way of putting it? OK, I’ll stop now.
What else to say? They’ve won awards aplenty for being green and stuff. Mackie’s are almost entirely self sustained, their own wind turbines power the business, the farm grows crops that feed the cows (and they have lots of cows, see photos for evidence). The ice cubes are made with spring water on the farm. Over the decades Mackie’s have come up with (and removed) many products from their various ranges. Their office has an informal museum of some of their older products, dating back many decades.
So, Eat On The Green. In a nutshell…fkn incredible. Described by a TripAdvisor reviewer as “Gourmet food in the middle of nowhere” (lol). The little hamlet of Udny Green isn’t exactly the middle of nowhere – it’s 20odd minutes from Aberdeen town centre. The restaurant’s style is mainly british/modern European/Scottish with what someone else described as ‘A French twist’ I think. I didn’t have the chance to do a ‘proper’ review but based on the few hours I spent here, it was at LEAST an 8/10. So yeah, it’s fine-dining restaurant in a former post office though I think it was a pub that had fallen on bad times before the guys started converting it in 2004. They keep strange hours, being closed on Mondays and Tuesday
Who’s behind it then? None other than the ‘kilted chef’ Craig Wilson (as affectionately named by TV personality Lorraine Kelly). He’s cooked for the likes of Sir Sean Connery, Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Patrick Stewart. Craig got started at the tender age of 16 as a trainee chef at the Strathburn Hotel in Inverurie. He even did an ‘industry’ stint as a product development chef for Baxter’s Food Group and Grampian Country Foods. Craig’s also a real chill guy – that’s him standing by the entrance, no kilt the time but STRONG tartan trouser game going there.
These days, everybody goes on about using fresh and local produce (which is undoubtedly a very good thing indeed). But these guys really take that seriously. as in, they have their own little farm. The pictures of what looks like a farm are taken at the secret location of Craig’s polytunnels – where they grow much of their own herbs and produce. Having eaten fresh strawberries off of the stalk, I can say that the farmer/horticulturalist that Craig’s got looking after it knows his shit. And it’s all real healthy too! A hidden gem this one is, oh yes. Well done Craig.
The Brasserie at The Clubhouse / MacLeod House & Lodge @ Trump International Golf Links, Menie Estate, Balmedie
The splendiferous looking food and architecture you see before you are the result of Donald J Trump’s development of the Menie Estate in Balmedie a few years ago. Trump International Golf Links, Scotland officially opened in July 2012, but the development, as you may imagine, took longer than that. Trump had “been actively looking for links land in Europe for the past few years” – and this one made a bit of a stir a with the compulsory purchase of the homes of people who’d actually been living in the area for…y’know, ages. There was a BBC documentary about it called ‘You’ve Been Trumped’.
Disregarding what may or may not have been entirely ethical purchase and all the butthurt that came of it, the end result of Mr. Trump’s purchase is very slick indeed. The Trump International Estate is set amongst mature woodland and certainly fits right into the majestic Aberdeenshire countryside (Trump described Scotland as “The Home of Golf”) . We saw two parts of the estate, which I’ll outline below
The first is The Clubhouse Restaurant. It’s all leather seating and floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Great Dunes of Scotland and the North Sea. The menu is mostly Scottish/Modern European with a fair few American numbers snuck in. I was told by the food and beverage manager, Chris Hodgens, that every dish gets taste tested by ‘The Donald’ himself before final approval on the menu. They’re open daily from 6.45am till late. And apparently they’re open every day of the year – which must be difficult ‘cos the weather can get pretty formidable round there in the winter.
The second is MacLeod House Restaurant – a five-star Hotel offering luxury accommodation in the form of 16 ‘Superior’, ‘Deluxe’ and ‘Grand Deluxe’ rooms. Home to the highest ceilings i have ever seen in a hotel room and also the largest bathroom i’v ever seen. Plus an ultra luxurious and rather superfluous bed (*i sleep on a futon and what is this?*). It’s named after Trump’s mother, Mary MacLeod, who was from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. She, supposedly, grew up in a small town, until she landed in Manhattan at the age of 20 – her first language was Gaelic!
Glen Garioch (pronounced ‘Geery’… as in ‘cheery geery’ in the Doric dialect of Aberdeen) is one of the oldest whisky distilleries in Scotland – supposedly dating back to 1797 (though varying dates are given as to the actual founding of the distillery). Originally a brewery and a tannery, before someone got the bright idea of making harder stuff there, Glen Garioch is also the most Easterly of Scotland’s distilleries.
Based on the outskirts of the historic old market town of Oldmeldrum, the site occupies an entire road, with its bonded warehouse on one side, and the distillery proper on the other. The surrounding area (‘the valley of the Garioch’) is supposedly is known as ‘the granary of Aberdeenshire’ – a good place for the malt that goes into said delicious delicious whisky. We got to do the distillery tour as part of the trip, which is highly legit and gives you the chance to try a bunch of their lesser known, rarer expressions. Other things to doinclude bottling your own (straight from the cask – and it tastes fucking SPECTACULAR)
Their cask strength Founder’s Reserve is one of the very first whiskies I ever tried and it entirely melted my face. I’ll never forget it. I certainly wasn’t ready for it back then, but returning about 4 years later was a different story entirely 😀 Fun fact – they closed in 1995 (reopening again in 1997) and the ‘Vintage 1995’ was last Glen Garioch to be made with peat smoked barley. They’re run by Morrison Bowmore Distillers, which is, as of 1994, owned by the Japanese/American booze conglomerate Beam Suntory. Each of their malts is “non chill-filtered as nature intended”.