Eat: Mull

Get back to basics on the second-largest island of the Inner Hebrides, whose charming restaurants and farm shops showcase the region's extensive natural larder, offering sweet lobster and crab, cheese and wild strawberries.

By Audrey Gillan
Published 21 Mar 2014, 11:59 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 18:01 BST

It's muddy underfoot as we pick our way through a wood off the shores of Loch Scridain in the south of Mull. It's coming to the end of the season but Craig Ferguson knows this spot well and says there'll be a few wild mushrooms still growing here.

The chef-cum-forager heads to a clearing and finds what he's looking for among some beech tree roots — hedgehog mushrooms, orange in hue and easily identified by tooth-like spines on their underside. We uncover at least a dozen of them but Craig won't pick them today because he wants to leave the scattered specimens to propagate and spread. "We need to let the mycelium [fungus spores, which germinate] produce more mushrooms," he explains. "I've found at least 10 different types of mushrooms here on Mull, including girolles, trompettes, ceps, winter chanterelles and amethyst deceivers. On the south of the island there's less rain and a more temperate climate — so, for mushrooms, it's ideal and they go fantastically well with Highland beef or Hebridean lamb."

Craig's passion for Mull's flora and fauna finds its way onto the plates of diners at Tiroran House Hotel, where he works as head chef, sourcing the best produce from local suppliers and supplementing it with what he can forage. "It starts early in the spring with wild garlic and moves through to late autumn with berries and mushrooms," he says. "I favour a simple, honest country-house style of cooking and I have the best of ingredients on my doorstep."

Further south, near Fionnphort ('Port of the White Sands'), on the Ross of Mull, I'm greeted by lobster fisherman Johnny Lamont. We off-road in his truck through the disused Tormore granite quarry, towards his mooring.

"The quarry went bust in 1908," Johnny tells me. "The red granite had been used for pillars in Blackfriars Bridge and Holborn Viaduct in London and buildings in New York. The order came in for the Albert Memorial, but when they carved the needle they found a flaw in it and the whole thing was cancelled. It ruined the quarry."

Johnny, who's been fishing these bountiful waters for 30 years, opened Ninth Wave Restaurant with his chef wife, Carla, six seasons ago. "I was fed up with folk asking, 'Where can I get a cooked lobster on a plate, and having to tell them Madrid. Much of the seafood and fish caught on Mull is quickly frozen and exported to Spain," he says, ruefully.

We clamber down the red granite rocks to board Johnny's wee boat, the Sonsie, and pooter out into the Sound of Mull; first into the sheltered bay that is the Bull Hole — the Isle of Iona and its abbey is just across the water. Johnny looks for the pink buoys marking the spots where he laid his creels, then winches them up. His hands are a blur as he empties the traps — mending holes in the mesh with cord and attaching fresh saithe (coley) bait as he goes. Today, there are only brown crabs — which Johnny measures for size, keeping the larger ones and throwing the immature specimens back into the water — and velvet and blue crabs (the vast, unprofitable, bulk of most catches; the latter really only used for stock). One crustacean is notably absent from today's haul. "I'd be happy as Larry and dancing up this boat if we caught a lobster," says Johnny.

Ninth Wave Restaurant is housed in a 200-year-old bothy, on a working croft, where Carla harvests vegetables, herbs and flowers. "I grow celtus, an ancient form of celery, and use it in my venison loin dish," she explains. "Then there's sweet woodruff and bergamot leaves in my chocolates and my courgette blossoms will be stuffed with lobster mousse."

I head next to the far north of the island to Sgriob-ruadh Farm, in the capital, Tobermory (made famous by children's television show Balamory, which features its candy-coloured terraced houses). It's here some of the best, tongue-stinging, mature cheddar you'll ever taste is made. The Reades milk their own cows, as well as making their own cheese. Brendan, who's taken over the running of the farm from mum Christine, says: "People can use the same methods to make cheese, but depending on their environment or terroir, it'll be very different. Our climate is obviously damp and green and we have a short growing season — all this contributes to our special flavour."

The unpasteurised cheddar they make at Sgriob-ruadh Farm is aged onsite in cellars for between a year and 18 months, during which time it's regularly turned by hand. The cheese is wrapped in muslin and lard, which seals it and stops it from drying out while still allowing it to breathe. As it matures, it occasionally develops blue veins, which only add to its flavour.

Visitors to the farm shop are encouraged to help themselves if there's no one here to serve them. They simply write down what they've bought and leave the correct money. This 'honesty box' policy is one of the greatest charms of Mull. Up and down the single-track roads crisscrossing this large island, you can stop for wild strawberries, eggs, mussels, vegetables or whatever else is in season, take what you need and leave what you owe in a wee tin.

"It's what I love about this island," says Craig Ferguson. "It has so much brilliant food to offer and it still has a belief that people are, and will be, honest."

Five Mull food finds

1. The Crofters' Kitchen: Trust is the watchword at this spectacularly remote, rarely tended family croft. You help yourself to home-grown fruit, vegetables and herbs, as well as make-it-yourself tea, coffee and soup.  

2. Isle of Mull Cheese: Fabulous mature cheddar from Sgriob-ruadh Farm, on the outskirts of Tobermory. Help yourself to cheese and meat from the farm shop, write it in the ledger, then pay (notes are left in wooden box; coins are kept in a decorative hen). 

3. Inverlussa Mussel Farm: Fresh mussels (2 kilos for £2) from Loch Spelve are left at the roadside outside the grading shed in a cool box, along with an honesty box for payment. 

4. Island Bakery Organics: Small-batch, hand-baked organic biscuits, including shortbread, chocolate gingers, and oat crumbles from this Tobermory bakery. 

5. Fish & Chip Van: This Les Routiers-approved van on Fisherman's Pier, Tobermory Harbour, sells uber-fresh fish and chips.

Four places for a taste of Mull

Tiroran House Hotel
Award-winning head chef Craig Ferguson sources the best of Mull's natural larder, supplementing his staples with mushrooms, berries, and other flora and fauna, all foraged with his own hands. With a daily-changing menu, dishes include pan-seared venison saddle with sauteed wild mushrooms. Off the beaten track, the Tiroran House Hotel overlooks the shores of Loch Scridain, halfway between Tobermory in the north and the Isle of Iona to the south.
How much: Six courses, including canapes, coffee and petit fours, £48 per person. Non-guests are advised to book in advance. Rooms from £185 for two, including full Scottish breakfast. 

Ninth Wave Restaurant
Lobster fisherman Johnny Lamont brings his catch to the kitchen of wife Carla at this small restaurant housed in a 200-year-old bothy, sited on a croft with a kitchen garden. In the evenings, having swapped his oilskins for a kilt, Johnny is waiter and wine expert at Ninth Wave, which, according to Celtic sea mythology, is the place where the land of other-worldly eccentricities begins. Dishes include a cheesecake made with Johnny's crab combined with smoked Applewood cheese and served with Carla's garden greens.
How much: Three or four courses plus Carla's handmade chocolates and coffee, from £42 per person. 

The Boathouse
Head to Ulva Ferry, on the pier, and change the wooden sign to 'red'. It's ferryman Donald Munro's signal to make the two-minute crossing from the Isle of Ulva in his boat and take you back, for just £5 return. The Boathouse tea room is just a stone's throw from the jetty. Emma McKie and Rebecca Munro grow their own oysters in Soriby Bay, use creel-caught shellfish supplied by their family members and bake their own bread and cakes in a former ferryman's house located on the shore of the Sound of Ulva.
How much: Half a dozen Ulva Soriby Bay oysters and homemade bread, £7.50. Fisherman's Catch (a selection of fish and shellfish, served with bread and salad), £18.50. 

Cafe Fish
Head to Mull's capital, Tobermory, and you'll find Cafe Fish on the upper floor of a ferry building. Simple fresh seafood and fish is the order of the day here; much of it caught by the family fishing boat, The Highlander. The cafe's website warns, 'Don't expect frills or finesse', but the place is splendid and, what's more, there's an outside terrace from which to watch the sun set over Tobermory Bay — and Calve island and the Sound of Mull beyond.
How much: Creel-caught langoustine with garlic and herb butter and bread, £9. 

Published in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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