As I was driving to Ardbeg Distillery where I was to meet with Mary, the Old Kiln Café cook for an interview, on that clear May morning, I was far from imagining I would experience a new job. The Islay Whisky Festival had just started and since the first event had proved so successful, the second one was to welcome an even greater number of malt whisky lovers from all over the world.
When you are on Islay, you have to adjust your watch to a special time difference. Forget about the clinical punctuality of your business appointments, be ready to add 'ish' - and a few drams - when you are meeting someone at a precise time. And keep in mind that 'rush' is a four-letter word here. I truly enjoyed, nay savoured, the drive on the winding and narrow Kildalton road that morning, stopping by Lagavulin Bay to glance at Dunyvaig ruins, slowing to admire light playing on silvery rocks and trying to spot the familiar sight of lazy seals basking in the sun. When I got to the distillery, it was close to midday. Judging from the dozens of cars parked in the yard, I was pretty sure the restaurant and shop would be busy.
They were indeed. In the kitchen, Head Cook Mary MacKechnie was promptly checking the yellow and red peppercorn soup seasoning. Head waitress Emma was placing an impressive list of orders while young waitress Patricia was inquiring about the cheese toasties for famished children. Great signs of agitation showed me it was quite clearly not the perfect time for a question and answer session. I made an enquiry, feeling like I was cluttering the place up: "How can I help you?" I had hardly asked and an apron was tied around my waist. "Can you do the rhubarb crumble for me, Martine?" It was explained to me this pudding is among the most popular sweets on the menu and the lack of it might start a riot!
A few hours later, I was still sprinkling parsley on salad, cutting lemon slices and spreading prawns in a Marie-Rose sauce on baked potatoes.
Okay, so sometimes you have to rush on Islay!
At the busiest time of the year from May to the end of September, an average of 100 meals a day are served at the Old Kiln. "When we opened it, we did not intend it as a restaurant," Mary explains. "We just wanted to open a Café with a short list of sandwiches, soups and sweets. But people kept asking for some dishes and it soon became a restaurant. It all just snowballed, really."
The Old Kiln boasts good, home-cooked food. There's no sophisticated menu with 30 words describing a single item - but there are hearty servings of traditional dishes, all freshly prepared with a specials board which changes daily. Mary MacKechnie uses local produce when possible: local fishermen for clams and game from Ardtallan Estate. But the vegetables come from the mainland, and are delivered twice a week by lorry. Some are brought by regular customers such as Douglas from Dundee who fills up his car with home-picked rhubarb especially for Ardbeg restaurant when he comes to his Port Ellen holiday home in May. "We love coming to the Old Kiln. It is fantastic to find such a great place off the beaten track. I could just die for Mary's clootie dumpling and her raspberry pavlova!" Changing the classics is out of question. Apart from the two sweets mentioned above, prawns in a Marie-Rose sauce laced with Ardbeg 17-year-old or the homemade smoked mackerel paté and prawns à la Ardbeg are the best-sellers. Mary likes to revisit some of her family recipes, like her mother's clootie dumpling which she teases with Arbeg 17-year-old. As far as Reception Centre Manager Jackie Thompson is concerned, declooting the clootie is a blissful moment: "The mixed fragrances of the spices and whisky are just terrific."
The off-peak season does not mean closing time. The restaurant is quieter, but the locals heartily support it. Between ceilidhs, local weddings, anniversary parties and regular weekday lunches, the Old Kiln remains a meeting place for the South Coast Ileachs. Ardbeg Distillery restaurant is the only pleasant place to dine for 15 miles around.
Though Ardbeg's real kiln no longer exhales those distinctive peaty smells, the Old Kiln Café retains all the smoky distillery character in the plate. The coastal wind carries those tantalising aromas overseas.
Here's to proud Mary and her friendly team!
The Visitor Centre (and restaurant) is open all year from Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm and seven days a week in the summertime (June, July and August from 10am to 5pm). During The Islay Whisky Festival 2002, I am hosting a Cooking With Ardbeg Single Malt demonstration at the Old Kiln Café on Thursday 30th May. Details on the festival can be found at www.ileach.co.uk.
Here are two favourite recipes of The Old Kiln Café kindly shared by Mary for your enjoyment:
Mary's Clootie DumplingINGREDIENTS
- 1lb self raising flour
- Teaspoon of baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 8oz soft margarine
- 8oz caster sugar
- 1lb sultanas
- 3 teaspoons of mixed spice
- 6 crushed rich tea biscuits
- 1 grated apple
- 1 beaten egg
- 3 tablespoons of black treacle
- Enough Ardbeg 17-year-old to make dropping consistency
Sieve together the flour, spice, salt and baking powder.2.
Gently rub in the margarine until the mixture attains the consistency of fine breadcrumbs. Mix in sugar, sultanas, apple and biscuits. Make a well, add liquid (egg, treacle and Ardbeg) and mix well.3.
While making the mixture, boil a large pan of water and scald your cloth. Lay cloth out and flour it well. Put mixture in centre and shape into ball. Gather cloth and tie it loosely at the top with string.4.
Place a plate upside-down at the bottom of the pan, put the dumpling on top of it, cover with hot water and boil for 3½ hours. As the dumpling is sitting on the plate, it won't move around while the water boils.5.
Remove from the pan and plunge into cold water. Remove the cloth carefully. Turn it upside down onto the plate and let it steam for a while.
Ardbeg smoky bread or rollsWill make approx four small loaves or 30 dinner rollsINGREDIENTS
2¾ lbs strong white bread flour
4oz Ardbeg grist
6 teaspoons salt
6 teaspoons of sugar
8oz cubed butter
4oz fresh yeastMETHOD1.
Measure flour, salt and sugar into mixer bowl, cube butter into the mix and mix together with the mixer on low speed.2.
Cream yeast onto small amount of warm water until blended, then top up with 1½ pints of warm water.3.
With motor running slowly, put in the yeast and water mix to blend together. Keep the motor going a short time to allow blending. Turn out onto lightly floured work surface. Knead well until dough is smooth and elastic (approx 5 mins).4.
Cover with a damp, clean tea cloth. Leave in a warm place to rise (approx 20-25 mins).5.
Knock back the dough, cut to size and shape into rolls or bread as required.6.
Prove finished bread in a warm place (15 mins).7.
Bake in a hot oven until golden (15-20 mins).
The originality of this bread recipe stands in the use of Ardbeg grist, not an ingredient to be found worldwide, unfortunately! The same is true for the distillery yeast, which explains the impressive 4oz required for 2¾ lbs of flour!). In France, we would buy 'baker's yeast' at the baker's and use about 25g (1oz) for the quantity of flour given in the recipe. Regarding the grist, Jackie Thompson has kindly said she will be delighted to provide visitors who would like to try the recipe with a small pack of the 'magic powder'. The distinctive peaty aroma of Ardbeg milled malted barley gives the rolls a delightful smoky flavour. Try this delicious bread with a seafood platter or a strong cheddar... and a good dram of Ardbeg 10-year-old, of course.