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Last updated 10 September 2019
Spirit of Scotland barge: Food and Wine journey
It’s hard not to get excited about going on a barge holiday in Europe. Feeling like a bit of a veteran of the French waterways now, having completed three in a few years, we kind of know what to expect. Having this prior experience doesn’t dull the anticipation. Rather, it heightens it. We know that overall, taking a cruise on a canal will be an amazing way to see a new part of a country we’ve visited before. We also know that a journey such as this is one of the few ways that actually gets us to relax and wind down. But, the peak of our interest and excitement always centres around the food. With a private chef for a week, we know the food is always going to be very special.
The food onboard the Spirit of Scotland on our luxury barge cruise in Scotland definitely lived up to our own hype.
The Spirit of Scotland is skippered by Captain Melissa, but it’s Chef Dave that has total command of all things culinary here.
Breakfast on the Spirit of Scotland
If the way to start off every day well is to have a hearty breakfast, we’re in the right place. It’s an informal affair, with guests joining the table in a more free-form manner. It’s quite a civilised way of doing it. As long as we were ready to go on our daily site visits around 9 am, we were free to choose our breakfast time. The coffee is always popular and there’s a steady flow of it on the table at all times. For those who preferred a stronger brew, espressos could be made at the machine on the bar.
Mounds of pastries get the continental aspect of breakfast going. They were complemented perfectly with a range of charcuterie and sliced cheese. Fresh fruits with headline inclusions of raspberries, passionfruit, pineapple changed daily. Dried figs, prunes, apricots were also great additions to the yoghurt and lined our stomach with a few healthy vitamins and minerals. Each day a different hot breakfast is featured, which is optional to all guests.
Crowd favourite eggs benedict with a deliciously light, yet tangy hollandaise sauce did the honours one morning. The chilli omelette added plenty of zing to our mouth and got our metabolism well and truly working on another. The big Scottish guns arrived later in the week, with the chef deciding it was time to get a bit more daring. Black pudding featured as did Lorne, a traditional square cut sausage blended with spices. Whilst it might not be thought of as a breakfast meal, smoked haddock with poached eggs makes for a tasty start to the day.
For those that couldn’t be tempted by the lure of these Scottish staples, their order could be as simple as bacon and eggs, cooked how they preferred, or a bowl of porridge.
The Spirit of Scotland kitchen
Dave’s domain is in a room that was smaller than our cabin and yet larger than many other kitchens we’ve seen on barges. With large picture windows and a view out over the canal and landscape, it’s hard to think of many other jobs with such an incredible outlook. Dave is also doing what he loves. He grew up in Tasmania, the southern-most part of Australia, inspired by his mother who loved preserving. Tasmania is well-known for its wonderful range of fresh produce, so as an aspiring chef, Dave would have been in his element.
It also explains why he loves foraging, bringing a touch of the wild outdoors to his cuisine. Throughout the week, the guests will join him for a quick jaunt off the barge in search of everything from wild raspberries to sorrel, samphire and elderflower. Everything picked has an immediate use. At our first mooring in Banavie, a neighbour shares their blackberries and rhubarb from their garden. No doubt there will be a bit of quid pro quo going back their way in the form of a jar of jam or something similar. Later they will appear on our plates as jam and the centrepiece for a dessert. It’s a great way for the guests to learn what some of these unusual ingredients look like and how they are grown.
Whilst the menus might be considered in advance, Dave also allows the weather to guide his daily choices. “You can thank the fabulous weather for your dessert tonight”, says Dave. Our serving of rhubarb, cooked low and slow via the sous vide method is joined with rhubarb and elderflower sorbet. “On a cold, rainy day, it might have been more appropriate to serve a warm, hearty pudding”.
Whatever the weather though, Dave can be found in the kitchen for most of the day and evening, serving up four-course lunches and dinners. I love the location of the kitchen, but I love his willingness to open his kitchen to us even more. On many occasions, we popped our head inside the door, unable to withstand the scent any longer and keen to see what he was preparing for us. For people who are interested in food; where it comes from and how to cook it, these moments were a special part of the week aboard.
Getting a lesson on how to cold smoke fresh salmon was a highlight, although I think fitting 10 guests and a chef in the kitchen was a huge feat in itself. With wood chips alight on the stovetop, the salmon waited nearby, ready to be popped into the cold oven to smoke.
Lunch seems even more engaging when you are keen to see the end results of the cooking demonstration. The ever so delicate salmon arrived dressed with steamed broccoli and fermented chilli.
Lunch on the Spirit of Scotland
Lunch is a leisurely affair and sure beats my quick bite when I’m at home. The pace of the barge sets the tone for a long, drawn-out lunch. We choose our bread, usually a variety of sourdough or a delicious concoction of seeds, and sit back for the first introduction of our lunch wine. There’s usually a white and a red, although sometimes a crisp rose claims the wine of the day. Host Michelle is always up to the challenge. As Dave’s partner, they travel and work together on the Spirit of Scotland, gaining work and life experience as they plan out their future back home in Australia together.
Michelle has a great understanding of the wines, their origin and what we could expect to taste from each bottle. As chef and drinks aficionado, they are well placed to start their dream of owning a bar-cum-foodie spot upon their eventual return to Australia. Co-host Lori, hailing from Romania also does a wonderful job at explaining our matching wines, always with a broad smile and a “you’re welcome”.
There were five wonderful lunch occasions. One might think that with all the food available on this barge cruise, that eating might become a little overwhelming. But, this is also where Dave’s skills are even more evident. Eating three or four courses for lunch every day, over five days doesn’t mean that the food is excessive. Great food is all about the flavours and the way it is cooked. Simplicity can still drive the most incredible food.
The potted salmon was heaven on a freshly baked oat biscuit. Served first, it was a clever association with the lightly cooked halibut, cherry tomatoes and foraged samphire. A cleansing sous vide rhubarb sorbet meant we didn’t leave the table feeling heavy.
There were so many favourites during the week, so much so that I will be chasing Chef Dave for some of his special recipes. The venison chorizo was tasty as was the vegetarian Caponata, but I particularly loved the venison tataki, served rare. It’s a classic example of eating outside your comfort zone. I’m not at all a fan of raw meat but this was amazing.
The Cullen Skink, a local speciality of the north-eastern Scottish town of Cullen was a flavour sensation. Having visited Cullen only a few days earlier, and tried their version, we were keen to have it once more. Usually, a milky soup with potatoes, onions and smoked haddock, Dave’s version had a few special extras like cream and white wine. It’s not at all pretty, but it’s just one of those meals you have to eat when you are in Scotland.
We made our way through whole cooked turbot. Whilst the fish is not what you’d call a beauty of the sea, the white flesh is sweet and delicate. A creamy smoked butter heightened its flavour and was suitably matched with spring onions and steamed samphire.
Eating on board the Spirit of Scotland is done just as slowly as the ride we are on. It’s a respectful way of being able to pay homage to the chef. With such beautiful food to experience, no one was in a rush to go anywhere fast. Duck rillettes, another of my favourites, was made from scratch and was light, meaty and very tasty. Local oysters were also served that day, along with some good quality fish roe, but I was happy for others to have my share of these. Apparently, they too were very good.
The Cranachan, another Scottish dessert was an example of the light servings of dessert. With oats, raspberries and a whisky cream, it was easy to eat after two courses and cheese.
I was hoping for an appearance of the aptly named Scotch Egg and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m a bit of a fan of eggs on any day, but lightly crumbed, wrapped in sausage and with a perfectly oozy soft boiled egg centre, it was always going to be a winner, I even ate the healthy kale chips that were served with it. Perhaps it was the mustard sauce that made them taste better!
Dinner on the Spirit of Scotland
It’s probably impossible to think that dinner could get any more relaxed but it was. With a day of cruising the Scottish canals, eating (yes this takes energy too) and doing our day trips, everyone was keen to sit back and share our experiences of the day. As we swirled a glass of Laroche Chablis or perhaps a Bourgogne Pinot Noir, we talked about the history of the Jacobite uprising or the whiskies we tasted at the distillery. We regaled each other with recent memories and stories of the day, amidst plenty of laughter.
The table, as usual, was set beautifully. Each night it was a competition between our hosts to see who could make the best napkin fold.
When Chef Dave announced that we would be eating stinging nettles, in the form of a pesto one evening, the looks on the faces of some guests was priceless. For those who have ever endured the sting of this prickly plant, it’s hard to imagine that eating them would be a pleasant experience. Having been blanched, the sting totally disappears, leaving a very nice flavour that matched well with roast pumpkin.
Several other vegetarian options were presented during the week: onion tart, caramelised with pickled onion, and slow-cooked butter leeks showed what vegetables could do.
I’m always delighted when duck makes an appearance and more than a little terrified when octopus does. The Spirit of Scotland is all about adventure, out on the canals but also in the dining room. This is not the place to eat what you eat at home or eat what you are used to. Well, it can be, but to do so would forego an amazing opportunity to try new things.
The octopus was a revelation for me, it was soft, tender and not at all “seafoody”. Dave’s food philosophy of “doing as little as possible to it” was on display here. Cooked slowly, sous vide style, Stirling proclaimed that “it was the best octopus he has ever eaten” and is constantly nagging me to get the recipe for this one in particular. Stay tuned….it appears we will be trying to cook our own octopus soon.
Other quintessential Scottish foods like the rich Aberdeen Angus fillet graced the table, dressed with potato dauphinoise, beans and roasted garlic. We were never going to get away without having to try haggis. I had done everything I could to avoid it up until this point. Stirling, always braver in the offal department than I am, had already tried this many years ago so he was completely non-plussed about doing so again.
Once again, Dave showed that he understood his customers. There was no huge ball of haggis, still wrapped in skin. Instead, a delicate pastry case provided both the home for this Scottish delicacy and something to eat it with. With the neeps (turnips/swedes) and tatties (potatoes) served alongside it was passable and if you forget about how it is actually made, definitely edible.
Having “been there done that”, I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it again. Not because it wasn’t nice but just because I could think of many things that are better to eat than this. I am quite sure every Scottish person will disagree with me. I’m also equally sure they would say the same about Australian Vegemite, so I’m happy to call it even.
An onshore dinner experience
For one evening during the week, the chef gets a break as we dine at a local restaurant. At The Lovat in Fort Augustus, a hotel that stands on the site of the former Kilwhimen Barracks built in 1718. Hotels have been on this land since around 1869. It was delightful food, but after I had eaten this, the cheese and the wickedly rich “Snickers” dessert with caramel mouse, peanut parfait and chocolate, I was craving the freshness and simplicity of Dave’s cooking.
Cheese was a common feature on this barge cruise in Scotland and it was great to try many of the local varieties. From the Isle of Kintyre Smoked Apple, to the Golden Cross goat, the Taste of Arran caramelised onion and the blues, gouda and traditional cheddars, there was a cheese for everyone.
A true food and wine experience
The food onboard the Spirit of Scotland barge is nothing short of amazing. It’s absolute proof of why you would want to book a canal boat holiday in Scotland that has a private chef. In my opinion, if you are booking a luxury barge cruise, you want luxury food.
The culinary journey is of an exceptional standard, prepared with extreme care and attention to detail. It is also served to the guests in exactly the same way. I imagine there’s nothing better for the chef and the hosts to hear the noises of contentment around the table and to see a plate go back to the kitchen completely bare.
If food is a major part of why you travel, like us, then booking a barge cruise will not disappoint you. The great thing about them, however, is that even if you aren’t unilaterally caught up in the world of food, you will still love the experience of having a chef prepare amazing food for you. Better still, you don’t need to do the washing up afterwards.
The spirit of Scotland barge food and wine journey is one where you can literally let your taste buds do the talking.
Note: Dietary requirements including those related to allergies are taken very seriously on the Spirit of Scotland and can be pre-alerted upon booking. During the barge cruise, guests can also have further conversations with the chef to understand more about the food they are eating.
How to book a barge cruise in Scotland
The Spirit of Scotland is the flagship of the European Waterways Scottish fleet. Enquiries and bookings can be made via the Barge Lady Cruises website. The Spirit of Scotland is growing in popularity so advance bookings are highly recommended.
Read more about our barge cruises in France here
Beer and Croissants was a guest of Barge Lady Cruises. As always, all editorial, images and opinions are entirely our own.