A Food Lovers Holiday to the Southern Hebrides - Islay, Jura and Colonsay
You can fly to Islay but the most satisfying way to arrive is by ferry. This gives you the perfect opportunity to book an early sailing to enjoy the legendary Calmac breakfast of champions! What better way to prepare for Islay known for its whisky distilleries? In the Mariners Cafeteria, you can build your own plate from local produce including Argyll free range eggs from the happy hens at Balvicar Farm. You can choose fried or scrambled in the breakfast choice along with freshly made toast and a brew of coffee or tea. It will set you up for the day ahead and the sailing allows enough time to digest before you disembark.
If you arrive at Port Ellen, you will have already spotted three of the distilleries that this whisky isle boasts. Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig all cling to the rugged coastline, their names are proudly painted on their white walls. These iconic distilleries sit within a few miles of each other and the spirit they each produce have their own personality but share one defining characteristic: peat.
It is well worth going to the ancient Kildalton cross which nestles within the crumbling ruins of the church and weathered graves 'Cakes at the cross' is a self serving selection of fresh baking and flasks of hot water for drinks. There is a honesty box but remember to take some change!
The Old Kiln Cafe at Ardbeg is a fantastic place to be if you are hungry. And even better if you like whisky too. The guides are all expert advocates and explain the processes that make this especially peaty spirit which runs off their copper stills. This new make spirit has all the DNA of Ardbeg, but isn't yet whisky. It will be filled into barrels, or casks, as they are known and matured in one of the warehouses on site. The casks are made from oak which allow the spirit to breath while it matures - sadly this means they lose some over time known romantically as the angels share. What the angels don't claim will emerge from the cask years later and the aromas and flavours from the spirit will have become softer and sweeter thanks to the oak barrel working its magic. The tour ends with a dram allowing you to appreciate the final chapter.
Whisky enthusiasts Sarah and Brian Geraghty timed their lunchtime to perfection.
'We had an early start this morning as we flew over so breakfast seems a long time ago. We both had the local seafood chowder, and we shared the langoustines. We were tempted by the Ardbeg Blasda white chocolate cheesecake but we were too full!'
A great way to make your way around the island is with local expert, Christine Logan, known as The Lady of the Isles. Her distinctive silver vehicle can often be seen around the island delivering tourists to various locations along with a running commentary on any given subject about Islay.
'Visiting people to Islay are treated like family and I am sure they feel the warm welcome when they arrive! I know everyone on the island and if I don't, then I'll find out!'
As you travel north you'll see the traditional cutting of peat by the roadside. You will notice the distinctive aroma of burning peat all over the island, not least when you arrive in Bowmore which unsurprisingly has a distillery in the centre of the town. Bowmore is a central hub for the island providing and excellent selection of produce that the island is proud of. One of the by products of the whisky making process is called draff which local farmers feed their cattle making the beef on Islay world class. Don't worry - there isn't any alcohol in the draff but good protein for the animals!
The McFarlane Family Butchers will help to serve you the perfect cut of steak, and have a wonderful range of local lamb, venison and pork with advice and recipe suggestions for free. The shores around the island are abundant with fish and seafood but much of the stock is exported to Europe. Thankfully you can buy it at Jean's Fresh Fish Van with local scallops, crab, lobster along with the catch of the day. The Nippy Chippy fish van beetles around the island too!
As you continue on your travels you'll no doubt be feeling peckish and the cafe at Kilchoman makes for a good pit stop. The distillery only started production in 2005 but has established an ever growing audience thanks to the global appeal for Islay whiskies. The distillery tour is a great way to appreciate the production on a small scale and visitors can talk the one operator on duty as they work. The smells of the distillery are distinctive and if your stomach wasn't already rumbling it will be after the tour. The cafe is well catered for with delicious fresh meals and homemade baking being served throughout the day.
Jane Mitchell also harnesses the local spirit to add rich flavours to her tablet.
'Islay and it's neighbouring island of Jura have inspired our range of gourmet tablet. An Gleann tablet is handmade to a traditional Scottish recipe. We use the finest quality and, where possible, locally sourced ingredients - notably Islay gin and Islay and Jura single malts - creating tablet with a twist!'
Over on neighbouring Jura, Andrew and Claire Fletcher run their venison business from their estate at Ardlussa. Andrew explained:
'There are over 6000 red deer on Jura and they're completely wild. At the end of last year we set up 'Isle of Jura Venison' and we're now processing a few carcasses ourselves and selling to our local community shop. Our venison burgers are our best seller - made to a secret recipe with herbs from the polytunnel.'
Nearby Colonsay is home to stunning beaches and also the smallest island in the world with its own brewery. The IPA has a delicate grassy flavours with lemon which make it the perfect partner with the local white fish or shellfish. The Colonsay Brewery head brewer and director, Chris Nisbet loves the 80/ Ale which is richer with dark chocolate and toasted malt flavours.
The beers are available on board the Calmac ferries so you can take a taste of the isles home with you. Along with that last dram...
Timetable for Islay and Colonsay
Timetable for Jura