As we bump along a Scottish country road at breakneck speed in a vintage Land Rover, two hunting dogs jostle for a front-seat view, noses pressed to the window. Tom Lewis, my host and driver, doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he seems to relish the company, feeding off the dogs' frenetic energy. Suddenly, he yells out that we've found what we are looking for and pulls over to the side of the road. He immediately jumps out and begins cutting leaves from a bed of mysterious-looking foliage. "Most people don't know what they're looking at even when it's staring right at them," Tom says with a laugh. "But not me! These will be perfect for dinner. I love foraging. The food is free and you get a bit of exercise."
This isn't just Scotland—it's Tom's Scotland, a snow globe of Highland wonders that he shakes up on a daily basis for his and everyone else's pleasure.
Tom Lewis is the chef and owner of Monachyle Mhor, a family farm-turned-hotel nestled between scrubby, glorious mountains and numerous, shimmering lochs. He's also a restless modern-day folk hero like Rob Roy (which is fitting, as Roy is buried nearby in a tiny churchyard). I had arrived at his mini-empire to taste and experience the purest possible distillation of Scotland.
To get to Monachyle Mhor (which loosely translates to "the big place where the lakes meet"), you turn off road A84, about an hour and a half north of Edinburgh, onto a meandering road surrounded by sheep, who are also meandering. With no indication that you are getting anywhere anytime soon, you suddenly see a pink manse looming in the distance. Even if the Mhor wasn't your final destination, you'd bring your car to a screeching halt at the sight of it. When I arrived, I found Tom painting the side of the manse, his hunting cap pushed up jauntily onto his forehead. As I was to learn, he's a human Swiss (well, Scottish) Army Knife—capable of and willing to do anything.
After greeting me and taking me to the former stables (since renovated into a quaint lounge) to sip whiskey, he led me to the vast new stables. I peeked behind an open door and found deer and pigs hanging from hooks. Tom flipped half a pig onto his shoulder, marched it over to a table and began to deftly butcher it for the night's menu, all the while giving orders to his staff who were doing tasks like feeding the animals and refrigerating bottles of fancy sparkling water. A typical country scene.
I decided to head over to the nearby Loch Voil for a proper Highland walk. Outside was pure magic: endless stone walls and crags engulfed by low-hanging fog. Verdant, ancient and moody, the air was a thrilling awakening. Along the way, I passed a vintage trailer not too far from an ancient clan burial ground. Outside was parked a posh, shiny Bentley that had obviously driven up from more urban climes. The trailer was one of the many super cool lodging options on offer at the Mhor. My room, for instance, was like a seaside thatched hut turned inside out—chalk white walls, roughly hewn wooden tables—with a bit of Bauhaus whimsy thrown in. There was also an old ferry waiting room turned into a chic cabin and the manor-like rooms in the courtyard. The Mhor wasn't just pure Scottish, it was a pure escape.
Back from my walk, Tom invited me to go foraging with him, an activity for which he's rightfully famous. He was once late for a culinary conference on the other side of Scotland because he couldn't refrain himself from making constant stops along the way to harvest all the wild goods that most of the country can no longer identify, much less cook. I felt a similar obsession over the Muppet-like, long-haired Scottish cattle that we passed on the drive to the local village. Tom first wanted to show me Mhor 84, his converted motel, restaurant and design shop that will ignite the "I'll just drop everything and open a B&B" fantasy in anyone. We drove on, and Tom found the aforementioned roadside greens. They tasted like scallions spiked with lemon. I could have eaten them by the handful for supper had Tom not made other plans. With thae basket of greens safely in the back of the car, we headed back to the Mhor. On the way, I spotted a mirage-like figure walking in the middle of the road. Out of the mist emerged a man with dreadlocks wearing full Highland regalia, and Tom yelled out, "It's Maggie!" Tom laughed as I experienced my first Scottish Rasta, stunned as he recited homemade Highland poetry.
Tom is known for creating a kind of modern Scottish cuisine that's only made possible when you have a vast supply of uniquely local foodstuffs at your doorstep. The chemistry he has with the surroundings is almost supernatural. Lamb, ducks from the glen, those greens—wild garlic, Tom explained. "The great thing about them is that they're one of the first things that come up after winter, when you're desperate for something other than kale and leeks." Tonight he was going to pair them with the pork he butchered earlier. "We'll do a nice, simple pork chop with crushed potatoes and tarragon creme fraiche and lace the whole thing with the wilted garlic." The result? Countrified bliss. "I only started cooking because farming didn't pay the bills," Tom says. He really does seem to know how to do everything, but he had a role model. "My mum was the true founding "father," he says. "She wanted to buy a bike for my brother for his birthday, so she put out a sign selling tea and scones. Later she added sandwiches and before we knew it, we were a hotel."
After dinner, I settled in at the dark wooden bar before a crackling fireplace. And yes, there was a dog napping on the warm stone hearth. Paging through the old history books strewn about yet not really thinking about anything particular, I realized that I was pretty damn happy. Monachyle Mhor truly was the perfect escape. It's just as Tom says: "We're an hour and a half from being able to fly anywhere in the world, but it feels like we're miles away from everything."
Todd Coleman is a creative director and editor at large for Tasting Table. Follow him on Instagram at @toddwcoleman.
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