Murray Chalmers heads north in search for a taste of the finer things in the most opulent of surroundings in Braemar.
The arrival of an exceedingly swanky invitation to a party in Margate took me by surprise this week. True, I’d known about the party from a save the date message I’d received previously but this properly old-school invite seemed to confirm so much more than just the fact that actor/art collector/curator Russell Tovey and the Carl Freedman Gallery were celebrating the launch of their new show.
Rather, it served as a reminder that there’s a big world out there and I’ve missed being part of it. Summer is here and laughter, art, music, food and wine might finally dispel some of the gloom of the last 18 months – even if it’s just a temporary respite, it’s finally party time!
Future plans became even more exciting when I received a second invitation to a different party – this time a celebration of the artist Tracey Emin, who I’ve known for a long time and who is the only person to call me “Murray Mint” whilst charming me into believing she’s the first person to have thought of it.
When we first met I used to get letters from Tracey addressed just to Murray Mint, EMI Records, London and they would always find me, like an arty equivalent of Santa Claus, Lapland. I still have those early notes, which are like little works of art themselves.
I’ve known Tracey since I was seated next to her at the dinner celebrating the publication of Andy Warhol photographer Billy Name’s book ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ in 1997, the year her fame eclipsed every other contemporary UK artist.
It felt then like she was on the cusp of notoriety and 1997 was to be pivotal and transformative; I asked her to sign my Billy Name book, convinced that her name would soon become better known than his, which of course turned out to be true.
1997 was the year when Tracey’s seminal work ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995’ was shown at Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. It was also the year she appeared stupendously drunk on live TV, subsequently staggering off the show in mid broadcast saying she’d rather be with her friends and her mum.
1997 really was something else and I have to admit that I too was probably drunk through most of it.
The 1990s was a cataclysmic decade, even if you were somehow impervious to the whizz and pop of Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia. For many, myself included, London was indeed swinging and I was swinging wildly with it – already well established in my PR job, with an expense account and my own office to hide in should the hangovers prove too great. This happened more often than not.
What I do recall from then is the hard work and the harder play. It was a time of great hedonism, when Philippe Starck designing a new hotel in New York would merit a press trip over the Atlantic, flying on a whim and a Virgin Atlantic gold card. Fine dining, art, music and fashion all regularly collided in a happy blur. Happy days!
Fife Arms, Braemar
I was reminded of the intoxicating fusion of art, fashion, money and glamour when we recently stayed in the Fife Arms in Braemar, a hotel steeped in the history of art due to the wonderful selection of paintings on show in the public spaces (the hotel is owned by international gallerists Hauser and Wirth).
Here it’s possible to breakfast with Brueghel, lunch with Louise Bourgeois and feast over dinner with Freud. Picasso peering over our heads heralded afternoon tea and scones in that most wonderful lounge, just part of this perfectly realised pleasure-dome which is easily the best hotel in the UK right now.
This is the most wonderful environment to relax in – ideal for me as I’d had a minor operation two days before so the idea of luxury, sloth and having your bed turned down was vastly appealing. Only a sedan chair waiting to transport me from the car to my room could have made this a more sybaritic experience.
Braemar is so perfect for a day trip from Tayside because the A93 is such a spectacular road that the journey becomes as much an event as the destination.
But first, commerce! Starting in Blairgowrie, we trawled the charity shops for books and records, my best find being a mint copy of a beautiful 2007 book ‘The Painter, the Cook and L’arte di Sacla’’ by Anna Del Conte and Val Archer.
What a charming book this is! Part travelogue, part cookbook and part art tome this is a volume to lose yourself in, a love letter to regional Italian food by a family from Piedmont (the Sacla’ family) who had previously been instrumental in encouraging artisans and food lovers to form a cooperative to champion local produce.
Focusing on six regions of Italy, the book features the wonderful recipes of Anna Del Conte, the iconic food writer who Nigella Lawson and many others hold in such esteem. In a book of such celebratory joy the quite beautiful illustrations by still life artist Val Archer are worth the price of admission alone.
Most notable are the beautiful depictions of radicchio in the chapter on the Veneto – Val Archer makes the exquisite radicchio di Castelfranco look like magenta flecked jewels – ‘as if from the brush of Jackson Pollock’, as the artist herself says. What a fantastic find for £1 in a charity shop in Blairgowrie!
Wee House of Glenshee
Travelling up the A93 from Blair you really have to stop at the Wee House of Glenshee, quite the loveliest cafe, and all the better for seemingly being in the middle of nowhere.
The thing to have here is a scone, fresh out of the Aga, and served with good jam and cream. A pot of tea and a strawberry tart (unavailable this visit but I still remember ones we had last year) would make it a feast and one that would propel you towards Braemar with vastly increased vigour.
You can pick up six farm fresh eggs at an honesty box outside the café, and it’s also worth noting that this charming place (formerly the Glenshee pottery) has outdoor seating, a fantastic array of good quality stuff to buy, including a £12.99 Essence of Harris candle that smells just like Jo Malone’s Pomegranate Noir at £49 – and a tourist information point in the back. What a gem before that last incredibly scenic part of the journey to Braemar.
The Flying Stag
Food at the Fife Arms is split between the stunning Flying Stag pub (this is the grandest pub you will ever enter) and the more formal Clunie Dining Room, which currently serves breakfast perfection, afternoon tea and dinner.
I’ve eaten in the pub a lot since the hotel opened and really like the ambiance and the food – much simpler than that served in the restaurant and, to me, better value. I’ve explored the pub menu quite well now and can recommend most of it – which is just as well as this time most of our party chose the same thing.
I’m not sure why the idea of Flying Stag ale and Scottish cheese rarebit, served with a fried egg and rocket (£12) seemed so appealing on a hot day – but it did. Maybe it’s because Welsh rarebit seems such a quintessentially Saturday afternoon thing, especially now I’ve learned to make it the St John way (featuring Guinness) and not my mum’s way (which was basically like cheese sauce on toast).
Our highly efficient and personable waiter Lee had recommended the rarebit on our last visit – and he was right. Served with a side dish of chips and an excellent tomato salad (£9), this was a lovely, simple lunch. Other dishes we’ve enjoyed in the Fife Arms recently include a very nice vegetable and foraged herb broth, served with good sourdough (£8), some lovely grilled courgettes with Errington’s goats curd, mint and fennel (£11) and excellent fish and chips, the best I’ve had in a long, long time (£12 for the smaller portion, £19 for the one that requires a snooze and a remortgage right after).
Clunie Dining Room
Dinner that evening was in the more rarefied, spectacular surroundings of the Clunie Dining Room and proved so engaging that we were the last to leave – so late that we missed last orders in the hotel’s brilliant new whisky bar where the spectral figure of a life- sized Queen Victoria recently haunted the space.
I really enjoyed the food in the Clunie, with minor reservations. Much use here is made of the wood-fired oven – in truth, perhaps a little too much – since my Lunan Bay Farm asparagus with fresh curd, pickled wild garlic and rye crisp (£18) had a faintly acrid taste whilst my Isle of Gigha halibut (£30) was served on the bone but was slightly overcooked.
Our friends Tony and Sue Wadsworth loved their confit Inverurie chicken tortellini starter (£14) and a main course of Wark farm hogget loin with wild garlic potato boulangère, summer cabbage and radish (£28).
Eight hours later we would sit at that very same table for the most perfectly cooked breakfast. Service throughout our stay was the best I’ve ever experienced in a UK hotel.
The Fife Arms is magical, a transformative, exquisitely designed and curated space that truly enthrals. It’s about a 90- minute drive from Dundee but it’s a drive that shows you Scotland at its best – just like the hotel itself. Truly fabulous in every way.
- The Painter, The Cook and L’Arte di Sacla’. Anna del Conte and Val Archer. £18.50
- The Wee House of Glenshee. Spittal of Glenshee, Perthshire PH10 7LP. Tel 01250 882238
- Fife Arms Hotel Mar Road, Braemar AB35 5YN. Tel 01339 720200. www.thefifearms.com