Food and drink writer Murray Chalmers takes a trip to Pillars of Hercules cafe and farm shop in Falkland, Fife.
I’ve eaten there many times, although I often have trouble remembering the name Pillars of Hercules – that wonderful healthy haven just outside Falkland in Fife.
Part of this could be impending senility but I hope not – while I can still remember my national insurance information and my T Rex fan club membership number from 1972 (10,382, since you ask), I persist in clinging to the notion of youth, admittedly vintage youth with a corkscrew Marc Bolan perm, a glitter tear and a beard of stars.
I mean, Pillars of Hercules isn’t exactly a name that trips off the tongue when you just fancy a latte, is it? A quick Google to update myself on essential Greek mythology left me none the wiser.
It did inform about the derivation of the name but explained nothing about why someone would call a business something so stridently obtuse – especially in current times when enlightenment is provided by Gogglebox, Little Mix, Emily In Paris on Netflix and Douglas “branch referee on a U turn” Ross.
Plato placed the fictional island of Atlantis beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar) and tradition says the pillars bore the warning “ne plus ultra”(“nothing further beyond”) which served as a warning to sailors to go no further. On this dreich November day perhaps we too should have listened to Plato.
Trapped in mud
Our arrival into the newish and authentically rustic car park at Pillars of Hercules might have served an equally important warning to us turmeric latte seekers – because the first thing we saw was a poor woman trapped in the mud.
Well, thankfully she herself wasn’t trapped but her car was, and unfortunately she was in it. It was a very British scene in that she was sitting there very quietly doing nothing while people around her wondered whether to, you know, speak and offer help, or just pretend they hadn’t noticed and go off and weave a macrame nut roast or something.
But the human spirit of kinship did not disappoint. A kindly woman was already running around with carrier bags in her arms, asking anyone close enough whether, for once, plastic bags could form a useful adjunct to the environment by providing a barrier between the car wheels and the mud – in a similar way that they do to the respiratory system of whales in our oceans, but with more obviously catastrophic consequences.
Suddenly lunch became a quiet drama. My first thought was to imagine what Danny Dyer would do; this led to me and another guy trying to out-bristle each other with testosterone while unsuccessfully attempting to push the car out of the swamp.
One pair of ruined Ralph Lauren trainers and a bruised ego later, I had to admit defeat. This came just after I’d apologised to anyone nearby for the profanity that emerged from my mouth when the aforementioned expensive trainers sunk into the quagmire, adding trench foot to the list of ailments courted by we modern gladiators trying to go about our day-to-day business and find a bowl of hummus for lunch.
Meantime, the woman in the car could be heard muttering that her husband would divorce her, although we had to hope an intervention by the AA might reach the parts that a relationship counsellor couldn’t ameliorate.
We wished her good luck with her car and her marriage and went in search of good karma, organic carrots and kindling.
Pillars of Hercules is an intriguing place because it seems so out of time which, ironically, makes it very much ahead of its time. I have no idea of their business model but the fact that the former rather ramshackle parking at the side of a dirt track has been supplemented by an expansive, albeit occasionally muddy, car park must mean that they are doing something right.
Needless to say, I preferred it when it seemed a bit undiscovered and I could sit outside at one of the rustic wooden tables and pretend to be Ernest Hemingway.
Many a time I would suggest going to “the hippy place” for a light lunch and it was always delightful, especially on a sunny day when the world would slow to a contented purr.
The whole look and ethos of Pillars seems very Californian, especially if you stand by the reductive notion of California as a land of health, wealth and hippie ideals.
This is the terrain, conjured up by hundreds of songs, images and films where the answer is blowing in the wind, you’re dreamin’ of California and all vibrations are good.
If going to Auchtermuchty with flowers in your hair doesn’t have quite the same emotional resonance as a journey up the Pacific Coast highway to San Francisco, I always feel that Pillars of Hercules unleashes my inner flower child anyway and that must be a good thing in these troubled times.
Pillars seems to have grown out of the land, which is very apt for a place that sets its stall very much on produce from the earth. The shop is a delight, featuring a fantastic selection of mainly seasonal vegetables, much of it grown on the farm.
Meanwhile, at Pillars, life goes on, but with some changes. The shop has expanded to give customers and staff more space…
I bought some chard, salad leaves, beetroot, kale and a huge bunch of chervil before venturing deeper into the shop to browse an excellent selection of produce – pretty much a greatest hits of healthy living.
I was very impressed by the quality and ethics of the brands on sale here and the fact that things like olive oil and laundry detergents are sold in refillable containers. Despite this I was tempted by a bottled olive oil called The Lesbian Donkey (£11.91), a fruity oil from the island of Lesbos.
I quote from the tin here: “In developed countries donkeys are under threat of extinction due to the mechanisation of farming. We work hard with ecologically friendly farming practices to bring you The Lesbian Donkey olive oil, using a method of cultivation that might soon vanish.
“Most of the farming labours are done manually on the steep slopes of the Plomarian region of Lesbos. Our company has strong social and regional commitments.”
The oil is quite rounded and fruity, much less throat-raspingly peppery than oils like the Spanish blended North and South by Brindisa (favoured by chef Alastair Little) or the wonderful but mega expensive Italian Capezzana, as used by the River Café.
While I prefer the heft of a grassy, peppery oil, The Lesbian Donkey will find its place when a less assertive hit is needed – perhaps for a salad of delicate leaves.
After the self-congratulatory euphoria of ethical shopping, including the purchase of the brilliant Dr Bronner’s peppermint hand sanitiser, it was time for lunch.
Here is where Pillars of Hercules have been clever because they have maximised their vast outdoor space to create a series of different al fresco seating options that mean we can all eat in safety.
A large marquee has been erected just a short walk away but, traditionalist that I am, I prefer the wooden benches and tables just outside the main Pillars building.
Here you can eat overlooking the fields and the gardens, protected from the elements by canopies and blankets.
The food on offer was a lot simpler and restricted than in pre-Covid times but was nonetheless delicious. Hearty lentil soup served with good bread was £4.75, while a salad bowl was £4.95.
David had a lovely vegetable curry (£5.75), one of the specials of the day, while I enjoyed a vegetable quiche (£4.95) that tasted great but really should have been served warm.
Sandwiches are £3.40. With drinks the whole bill came to £20.35. All in all, it was a thoroughly lovely experience.
After a visit to Pillars it would be remiss not to walk around the beautiful village of Falkland, the first conservation village in Scotland and a place which retains much of its traditional charm.
Falkland Palace is, of course, a treasure – one of the finest examples of French renaissance architecture in the UK and also home to the world’s oldest real tennis court.
Falkland has a disproportionate amount of foodie gems, especially considering its population is only around 1,200. Had we not just eaten I would have been tempted in by the festive windows of the Fayre Earth coffee and craft shop or the reliable Campbell’s for lunch.
But it was the newish Townhouse Deli and Bakery which enticed, not least because they stock the excellent Bad Gal kombucha, brewed in Ladybank and easily my favourite kombucha.
Other delights in the beautiful Townhouse were some delicious Scotch eggs, good bread and an interesting selection of spices and condiments.
Other shops to look out for in Falkland include the marvellous vintage store Vintage Quine and a nice little gift shop called Love Restored. Falkland is a real joy.
That night, in honour of the hippie vibes inspired by Pillars of Hercules, I cooked a very simple dal from The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook by Kate O’Donnell. Served over brown rice, I think there is actually no better supper – in fact, I know a hugely successful international popstar who maintains that dal with brown rice is his favourite meal on Earth.
Pillars of Hercules, Falkland, Fife. t: 01337 857749. w: pillars.co.uk
Town House Deli, High St, Falkland, Fife. KY15 7BZ. Facebook: Town House Deli & Bakery
The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook by Kate O’Donnell, Shambhala Publications, £25
Ayurveda Cooking For All by Amadea Morningstar, Lotus Press, £16.99