The changing landscape of the world today has made me question my thoughts on future travel and what ideas it might hold.
Personally, I will be looking for the path less travelled. Those hidden gems outside the big cities which make you feel like you somehow belong there, coupled with the thrill of hiring a car and driving on new roads. There are three places that immediately spring to mind, all in remarkably different settings yet sharing a common thread.
To start with lets head to bonnie Scotland, in winter it can be a hairy drive through the snowfields of the Scottish Highlands but you will be so happy once you’re in front of the crackling fire at The Fife Arms in Braemar. Secondly, the romantic country B & B Casa Maria Luigia owned by celebrated chef Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore. The restored palazzo feels like home and its only two hours from Malpensa, Milan. Finally we take a short drive out of Paris into rural Normandy and you’ll find D’une île, Septime’s country house owned by famed Parisian restaurateurs in the small hamlet of L’Aunay. Beyond their beautiful rural settings and thoughtful design they all have strong gastronomic offerings and are a short drive from the airport.
It was January this year when we visited The Fife Arms. Excited for a taste of the Highlands we ventured from Edinburgh where we landed and headed north east up into the Cairngorms. It’s spectacular country in the Highlands. But driving through the snowfields as the sun was setting on roads laden with ice was suspenseful to say the least. I was happy I upgraded my rental to Range Rover, it felt right being so close to Balmoral, it was worth every goddam cent. I always think certain cars suit certain situations and countries and this was perfect. We arrived safely and we were elated to be sitting in front of a crackling fire with a dram of whisky all intact. The Flying Stag, which is the hotels very own pub was still open so we nabbed last orders of fish and chips.
The first thing you notice about the eccentric beauty which is The Fife Arms is its history, built in the 19th century, 1856 to be precise, a time when Queen Victoria used to visit. The current owners are world renowned Swiss gallerists Hauser and Wirth, they originally came to Braemar to hunt grouse and deer. Iwan and Manuela Wirth fell in love with the area and bought the The Fife Arms, restoring it and reclaiming the hotels beauty, putting Braemar back on the map.
The hotels design pays tribute to Scottish heritage with a vast collection of taxidermy of native birds and animals and Victorian themes. The Fife commissioned its own Tartan which adorns carpets and wall trimmings coupled with an art collection beyond imagination. You could say it’s over the top but never novel. The rooms all hark back to yesteryear named after Kings and Queens, Lairds, Scottish barbarians and Explorers. The four posted beds are decadent, the pillows and throws are of the highest comfort, lavish with a royal touch, the claw baths are romantic and the antiques scattered through the rooms and hotel are unique.
Hauser and Wirth have not spared a cent with this refurbishment, everything has been carefully curated. The Art collection consists of great painters like Picasso, Lucian Freud and contemporaries such as Louise Bourgeois sculpture, Spider (1994). A ground level drawing room with very high ceilings has a stunning ceiling mural by Chinese artist Zhang Enli it is a wildly colourful depiction of rock formations and Cairngorms crystal from the surrounding landscape. With spaces and rooms throughout the hotel dedicated solely to art it is truly a feast for the eyes.
During our stay we got to meet some of the locals, many of whom have links to the hotel. We spent the afternoon with local Steven Rennie, a photographer and game stalker. Steven knows the Cairngorms National Park like the back of his hand. He drove us into the hills in the hotel’s custom built Land Rover replete with the Fife’s tartan. It’s a truely off road experience as you pass through the clouds by heather, grouse, salmon streams, deer, and rocky outcrops. We shared a dram of Lochnagar whisky from a near by distillery on the banks of a loch looking over the stunning landscape with a small piece of shortbread. These moors are a favourite stalking ground for the Royal family during game season.
Breakfast at The Fife Arms is a true Scottish affair and not to be missed. The menu embodies the countries heritage with wood-fired kippers and parsley butter being a firm favourite. Scottish drop scones (Scotch pancakes), Kedgeree, Smoked Haddock, Stornoway black pudding complete your traditional Scottish breakfast alongside the usual continental menu. Forget ‘The Full English’ I’m all about ‘The Full Scottish’ from now on. Beyond breakfast The Flying Stag public bar has a great all day menu with an excellent Sunday roast, rarebit, game terrines and a local venison & ale pie. The hotel’s Clunie Dining Room offers a more formal option for dinner with plenty of local produce and some deft wood-fired cooking.
The Fife Arms is a wild experience think Baz Luhman meets Braveheart. This is a place where worlds collide, Victoriana and Scottish culture intertwined with one of the planets most enviable art collections.
The 12 room country palazzo in the region of Emilia-Romagna has been lovingly restored by its owners Chef Massimo Bottura and his wife and business partner Lara Gilmore - it has a lot on offer. The golden ticket here is the world renowned three Michelin starred Osteria Francescana which in 2018 was awarded ‘The best restaurant in the world’ at the 50 Best Restaurant Awards. It’s nearly impossible to get a reservation but if you stay at their country house you can experience exactly the same nine course feast matched with wines. There is a god! The only big difference is that you will be seated on communal tables in Casa Maria Luigia’s old carriage house next to guests from all over the world, it’s fun, the hosts really want you to enjoy yourself! Massimo and his team cooked while Lara told us the stories behind each dish, it's an intimate affair that will knock the socks off any gourmand alike.
In the morning there is always a few sore heads at breakfast, new friends have been made and lots of chatter about last night. Some may have made a beeline for the music room where Massimo lets you play from his jazz collection, there are hundreds of records to flick through in the strictly vinyl music room. I was like a kid in a candy shop, I admit it may have been me who turned the music up too loud last night, as I sip on my espresso with my shades on.
Breakfast is honestly one of the best breakfasts in Italy. A selection of regional dishes that are so beautifully executed. The flakey rounds of Erbazzone Reggiano a staple in the region is something like a spinach and parmesan pie with a delicious buttery pastry. The local cotechino sausage is steamed and then baked, it’s great with eggs. Gnocco Fritto - those fluffy little pillows with prosciutto from nearby Parma, there’s a plethora of choice with the frittata and still warm crostata the other standouts.
The 12 rooms are beautifully decorated like a home away from home. The communal areas of this stunning boutique hotel are filled with the owners personal collection of antiques and art. On the walls are the likes of Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin. There are interesting books in the rooms to read plus a stash of lambrusco and a healthy chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano if you wish to retire early. The 12 acres of grounds consist of a tennis court, pool and vegetable garden. As there is only 12 rooms it never feels too crowded. The pool area is multo tranquillo, a lovely spot to sip on chilled lambrusco and read a book.
There is also a communal kitchen available for guests that has a fridge stocked daily with some of the delights of Casa Maria’s vegetable garden made by the Francescana chefs, all complimentary. Glass jars filled with roasted cherry tomatoes and ricotta, roasted peppers, roast zucchini, tiramasu. Whatever is in season from the garden. Cold lambrusco, olives, cheese, bread sticks laid out all ready for Aperitivo. The cocktail room is open to mix up cocktails to your hearts content. There is genuine excitement for those who have not yet experienced Massimo’s show in the old carriage house. You can read the anticipation in their eyes.
A wonderful three days were spent, it was hard to leave. We were so touched by the ever so friendly and charismatic Lara and her staff were brilliant. I can’t wait to return.
I have arrived at Paris Orly airport to meet an old friend who is handy with a camera. We are to go in search of a country escape I have been longing to experience for some time. Setting off on a road trip to Normandy but not the more favoured northern part with the lush rolling pastures, apple orchards, Calvados and Camembert cheese but the South. To the Basse Normandie in the Perche National Park, a part of France that is favoured by Parisians in search of country escapes, off the beaten track, if you could in France.
En route to D’une île we go, a two hour drive, it’s the perfect amount of time to build a hunger and a thirst. D’une île is Septime’s country house, owned by Bertrand Grébaut and his friend Théophile Pourriat, together they own Septime, Clamato and Septime la Cave all in in Paris 11th arrondissement. So you can start to imagine the food offerings in this rustic country hamlet. On arrival we are lucky to meet the man himself, Bertand, he is standing over some freshly foraged mushrooms a local had brought into sell. An impressive stash of wild Ceps and Chanterelles from the nearby forests. They will be starring on the menu tonight no doubt.
D’une île is similar to Casa Maria Luigia with the same amount of rooms and a garden to table ethos. The interiors are paired back French country farm house with a few eclectic contemporary pieces. The grounds are approximately eight hectares of garden and forest .The hotel is set within a hamlet from the 17th century, a cluster of stone buildings, beautified and made very private. This is about escaping the rat race and chilling out, long walks, long lunches, saunas overlooking the garden, drinking rare bottles of wine in front of an old fireplace.
The day evolves around the kitchen with homemade brioche, breads, cheeses, and a natural wine selection from the cellar. Well this is living I think to myself! The cooking is old school, traditional, very French - something that makes a former French culinary school student like myself extremely excited. The kitchen is creative and it has to be, as they are working only with what’s available in the garden or brought in by local farmers and producers. The team of young hip chefs from Paris are preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner around the clock. Knocking out seasonal dishes with great flair in a country style paired back to fit on the small decorative plates.
Some of the dishes whilst we there were fried rabbit with the sauce Paloise something similar to a béarnaise but with mint and those Ceps we saw on arrival were lightly sautéed to perfection and placed on top of a savoury style pancake with red currants. The perfection and simplicity of the just picked garden radishes with hand churned butter was noted and loved. The wine list at D’Une île is thoughtfully concise, based around their Parisian establishments cellars, a selection of great French natural wine producers. If you ask the sommelier they have a lot of gems off the list which are worth exploring. My husband who is a sommelier found it hard to wait for midday to come around to visit their Cave. Great wine drinking to be had here.
D’une île is the quintessential country escape run by chic Parisian restaurateurs, talented young chefs and a phenomenal wine list. The casual rural setting amplifies the dining experience, and the hotel is warm and romantic. A truly gorgeous escape outside Paris.
These are a few places I look forward to returning to as the world opens up again. In the meantime, I will share a few recipes inspired by these places and also my travels on @foodwinetravelcook.