A tremendous culinary change has swept through an
idyllic Scottish isle thanks to a couple's first foray into
the gastro-pub scene. Alice Whitehead reports
In the 1950s Port Bannatyne, on the Isle of Bute, was a handy holiday resort for Glaswegians in need of a spot of sea and shoreline (but without the Mediterranean sun).
Crouched in the shadow of the Cowal Hills, hugging the shore of Kames Bay a mile or so beyond Rothesay, the scenery
was undeniably magnificent, but tourists were sorely disappointed by the lack of dining options.
They'd have been lucky to get anything beyond burgers and cheese toasties from the chippies and grubby cafés dotted along Marine Road.
Up until 2001, not much had changed. But then Russian Olga Crawford and her Norwegian-born husband Dag bought the Port Royal hotel and transformed the culinary landscape of the bay with their gastro pub - the Russian Tavern. But not only
that, they also introduced Russian food inspired by the Tsarist kitchen archives in St Petersburg.
"There was nothing here before," says Olga, a former palaeobiologist and now head chef at the pub. "You could get tea cakes and toasties, and deep-fried Mars Bars, but nobody was serving actual meals. "It's strange how a lot of people here see what we are doing as exotic," she continues,
"as if Russian food was somehow 'adventurous'. The food we offer is the food that has been eaten and cooked by peasants for centuries. There's nothing special about using local ingredients but it seems special here. Fresh produce is so abundant here and yet no one was using it. I feel we've started the movement for real food on the Isle."
Though Russian in theme, everything is determinedly local. Ivan the fisherman lands shellfish at the door, neighbour Bob grows salad veg, such as lollo rosso and rocket, meat comes from McCaskies in Wemyss Bay and herbs, berries and
mushrooms are all collected from the wild by hand.
Olga and Dag's differing backgrounds (he was a former presenter of the BBC's Farming Today programme) and extensive travelling (more than four languages are spoken between them) have resulted in a menu that fuses French, Russian and Scottish cuisine.
Dag has a whole host of anecdotes about food shortages in Russia but there is no fear of not finding a wealth of different foods here.
There's aromatic borsch (beetroot soup) and blinis with garlic mushrooms and spicy apple (£5.50) for starters, as well as manty (steamed filo pastry parcels) with a spicy mixture of lamb, beef and blueberries (£5.50) and a pickled pepper (of which Peter Piper would be proud).
"They are originally a Siberian dish," says Olga. "But we have adapted them for the Scottish audience with more meaty fillings." For lunch, customers can choose a "bocata" (a rustic baguette using strong flour, olive oil and a mix of fresh herbs) accompanied by smoked trout or stuffed with a spicy sausage made up of 10% venison and 90% pork - all organic. Or there are salty smoked sprats - served with one
of Olga's lavish salads.
There's a whole host of mains to choose from, but no main dish is complete without Olga's sauerkraut (straight out of her grandmother's recipe book), which offsets meats such as spicy Russian sausage with latkas (a potato, coriander and onion cake), quite wonderfully.
The mains menu also includes Russian beef and onion pie with latkas, red cabbage and sauerkraut (£16), beef stroganoff with latkas, red cabbage and sauerkraut (£18) and a plate of langoustines with garlic mayonnaise (£18), as well as Highland ox steak with red cabbage, or tartlets filled with a spicy mixture of buckwheat, beans and sundried tomatoes, baked in the oven with Emmental cheese.
Their signature dish, beef stroganoff, uses free-range Orkney beef, while wrigglingly - fresh fish - be it halibut, plaice or langoustines - are brought to the customers' table for viewing before cooking.
Of course, no Russian menu would be complete without Pavlova, made the traditional way with meringue, fresh fruit, cream and ice cream, as well as Russian chocolate gateau with brandy and ice cream (£5).
Moreover, Olga and Dag have imported a frozen yogurt maker from the US, and taught themselves how to use it, to cash in
on the summer trade at Port Bannatyne.
"We know they're building a yachting quay just up the road and we foresee a lot more trade coming this summer. What better than a frozen yogurt ice cream while lying on your boat deck!"
Even the wines are that little bit unusual - sourced from Moldovia - and sporting the tag line "Wine of the Tsars!" and there's also a range of Russian bottled beers, Russian Cognacs and imported vodkas on offer. Other wines are imported from the Vaucluse in France and sold with no mark-up, at £5 a bottle.
So, three years after they opened, tourists no longer stumble upon the Russian Tavern by happy accident, now it's on the radar of real-ale afiçionados (it's won a Campaign
for Real Ale regional award) and gourmets alike (Les Routiers listed it as a pub of the year in 2003 and it is included in Peter Irvine's Scotland the Best guide).
Couple this with the fact that Olga and Dag (who combines second cheffing with front of house and bartending) are some of the friendliest pub/hotel-owners around, and it's hard to believe this is their first foray into hospitality.
The Russian theme doesn't stop at food and drink, either, as there are also entertainment nights, with visiting Russian musicians, and the Port Royal hotel also has five rooms available to guests.
Manty - "This has always been the most popular dish here - steamed pastry parcels stuffed with lamb, beef and blueberries and served with mint yogurt."
Langoustines - "Simply prepared with garlic mayonnaise and caught by our friend Ivan only a couple of hours before they're served."
Blinis - "This is a well-known Russian favourite. Here, we serve it with garlic mushrooms and spicy apple, or marinated
herring, smoked sprats, caviar and a smoked razor clam."
Beef Stroganoff - "We consider this the Tsar's cuisine! We use a portion of free-range Highland beef from Orkney, smoked Spanish paprika, wild mushrooms and sour cream."
Fish of the Day - "Halibut steak in a cream and white wine sauce is popular, with new potatoes, mushrooms and artichokes."
Facts 'n' stats
Covers per week: 175-210
Wet-dry percentage split: 25:75
Money spent on property: £90,000
Average spend: £15 lunch, £30 dinner
Famous faces: Count Nikolai Tolstoy and Lord Richard Attenborough
Business-boosting idea: "Providing food that you couldn't get elsewhere on the island"
Beers: Houston Peter's Well, Arran Blonde, Loch Fyne Highlander and Maverick
No of wines on list: Five reds, four whites
Wine list: The list includes unusual Moldavian "Wines of the Tsars" including Legenda Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001, and Pinot Grigio, 2003, as well as white red and rosé wines direct from Vaucluse in France. There's no mark up,
with a glass for £2 and a bottle for £5.