Glenapp Castle ~ Press Reviews
The Scotsman (Sunday 4 May 2008)
Master of Ballantrae
There are extravagant surroundings and glorious views, but the king of this castle is the magnificent food.
GLENAPP CASTLE may be one of the country's best-known luxury destinations and the proud possessor of one of the three Michelin stars in south-west Scotland, but it wasn't so long ago that the place was on the verge of collapse.
The tale of how Fay and Graham Cowan bought a dangerously unstable ruin 14 years ago and then, over six long years, transformed it into a breathtaking destination hotel is one that sticks in the mind, if only for its extraordinary triumph of romantic hope over financial reality.
A Japanese billionaire had, after decades of ignoring his estranged daughter, finally agreed to recognise her. As an act of contrition, in the mid-1980s he gave her a fund of millions of pounds to buy up prestige properties around the world – Glenapp among them. Having set about the task with some gusto, she then had what turned out to be an irreconcilable breach with her father, at which stage all of the buildings were promptly mothballed, with many stripped of their fixtures and fittings. Unused for several years, Glenapp fell into a damaging state of disrepair until the Cowans turned up in 1990.
Fay is a scion of the MacMillans, a well-known family of hoteliers from Stranraer, but Glenapp is unlike anything else in the clan's portfolio. A member of the Relais & Chateaux organisation, it is a five-star slice of luxury perched high above the Ayrshire coast between Turnberry and Stranraer. With its baronial turrets and towers outside, and wood panelling and maze of corridors inside, it is a perfect example of the mid-19th century piles thrown up in all corners of the country by industrialists keen to show off their new-found wealth.
Through the process of restoration, the Cowans have done their best to recreate the opulence and luxury with which its former owners, the Inchcape family, sought to surround themselves. By and large, they have succeeded, and nowhere is that dedication to low-key, tasteful extravagance more obvious than in the dining-room from which you can look out over Ailsa Craig and the Mull of Kintyre.
Although the environment undoubtedly helps, you don't get a Michelin star for an iconic view or tasty furnishings. What you do get them for became increasingly obvious as our evening wore on: all six courses on the set menu were based on local ingredients expertly produced by a chef with a real mastery of his craft. In fact, it wouldn't be overstating the case to say that each of the six courses was exceptional.
We sensed that it had the potential to be a truly remarkable meal when the enormous grilled langoustines arrived accompanied by a pungent poivrade artichoke and truffle sauce, and our suspicions were confirmed when a beautifully textured mosaic of guinea fowl, braised ham, veal and foie gras was served with an apple sauce.
This is usually where I choose whatever else is on the menu, but with no options I dived in and was rewarded with a superbly nuanced dish in which the foie gras had been skilfully interwoven between the three different types of meat. It showed an attention to detail that elevated what could easily have been a run-of-the-mill course into something utterly memorable.
By now our expectations had been raised to a ridiculously high level, yet they were amply fulfilled by a melt-in-the-mouth fillet of sea bass which came with a dark, rich cep purée and Madeira jus that beautifully complemented the fish's subtle flavour.
I was ready to be underwhelmed by the roasted grouse with braised salsify and blackberries – I've seen enough good meals ruined by dry and tasteless grouse to give this option a miss whenever I see it. But, left with no choice but to tuck in, I was again pleasantly surprised by tender, moist meat – if chef Matt Weedon (who has departed to be replaced by Adam Stokes) could make grouse not just palatable but a genuine delight, he's worth Michelin's much-sought-after bauble.
After a very decent cheeseboard (try the rosemary-and-raisin bread), I rounded off with a praline mousse in walnut croquant with sherry-soaked jelly and prune ice-cream, while Bea opted for the mix of ice-creams and sorbets.
These were the only dishes that didn't have us in raptures: the ice-creams and sorbets were good, and the prune ice-cream exquisite, but the praline was the wrong side of the line that separates subtlety from blandness. Perhaps the rest of the meal was so good that any slight drop in standards was magnified.
A Michelin star is no guarantee of excellence (as I found out to my cost at one hotel, which produced dishes that looked like works of art but were also unbearably bland), but Glenapp is genuinely worth travelling to, even if you do need to remember that excellence comes at a price.