Outside Glasgow, Paul O'Malley is turning a medieval castle into a dining destination. Karen Peattie reports
Paul O'Malley is clearly at home in his kitchen at Culcreuch Castle, one of Scotland's oldest hotels and the ancestral seat of the Clan Galbraith for over 700 years.
As guests sit in front of a roaring log fire on a cold but dry day, many having been out for a brisk walk in the stunning grounds, O'Malley and his small team are serving lunches in the busy Dungeon Bar as well as prepping for dinner at the hotel's fine-dining restaurant.
O'Malley has gone from being a kitchen porter in the Braid Hills Hotel in Edinburgh to the man in charge of the kitchen at this stunning castle - with stints at Colette's at the Grove in Watford, the much-lamented Oloroso in Edinburgh with Tony Singh and Cameron House at Loch Lomond in between.
"I'd helped open and run a Russian restaurant in the Finnieston in Glasgow - Café Bayan - in 2008. I loved it," he says. "But I don't think the city was quite ready for it. It was before Finnieston exploded into the popular food destination it is now.
"After that, when I went to Culcreuch for my interview and found myself staring at this imposing castle, the main building of which dates from the 13th century, I'd already made my mind up that it wasn't for me."
Barra scallops with cock-a-leekie garnish
But that was before O'Malley met Rey- nolds and his wife Moira. "Robert made it clear that he wanted to develop Culcreuch as a food destination and attract local people as well as provide an amazing dining experience for guests," he explains. "We totally clicked and I knew this is where I wanted to be.
"It's only 20 miles from Glasgow, but it feels like you're in another world - it's such a stunning, romantic location, so it's no wonder we cater for over 60 weddings each year."
Indeed, O'Malley will have his own wedding at Culcreuch next August - a vote of confidence for the venue if ever there was one.
But back to the food. O'Malley talks passionately about the new Kitchen Taster menus he devised and introduced in January. "I'd describe my food as contemporary Scottish but also British - I believe you have to follow trends to a certain extent, but you can still put your own stamp on."
The three-course Kitchen Taster menu (£36) with tea or coffee and petit fours is striking a chord with diners who are keeping O'Malley and his team of three chefs gainfully occupied.
Having tasted one of the Kitchen Taster starters - hand-dived Barra scallops with cock-a-leekie garnish - it's not difficult to see why people are starting to talk about the food at Culcreuch Castle. The simply presented, perfectly juicy and sweet scallops are a heavenly match for flavoursome leeks in season.
Muscovy duck, cherries, salt-baked neeps, foie gras and gingerbread
Meanwhile, a main of melt-in-the-mouth Tweed Valley beef with pineapple, celeriac and blue cheese is certainly intriguing - a highly unusual combination that works exceptionally well. And to finish? A technical caramel chocolate sphere, pistachio and coconut creation.
Another challenging dish is a starter of pressed Ayrshire pig's head with Granny Smith, cornichon and Castle black pudding. "It's a 48-hour job because the pig's head has to be soaked, and there's also the element of homemade black pudding to factor in," he says. "It sounds scary, but it's packed full of amazing flavour and it's definitely one of the dishes I'm most proud of."
The menus, which change seasonally, like to tease the diner. "We keep the descriptions brief," says O'Malley, "but all staff are well-versed in the provenance of our food."
"We're also in the process of creating a vegetable and herb garden in an old, walled garden in the grounds," O'Malley explains. "We already use wild garlic from the estate and I'm hoping that next year we might see the fruits of our labour."
O'Malley makes no bones about it - he hopes, one day, to open his own restaurant. But before that he wants three AA rosettes at Culcreuch Castle and to reign over a happy kitchen; nurturing his young team and seeing diners enjoy his food.
Strawberry ripple panna cotta
Caramel chocolate sphere, pistachio and coconut
From the menu
- Pressed Ayrshire pig's head, Granny Smith, cornichon, Castle black pudding
- Hand-dived Barra scallops with cock-a-leekie garnish
- Muscovy duck, cherries, salt-baked neeps, foie gras and gingerbread
- Shetland salmon, chorizo, tenderstem broccoli, Jerusalem artichokes
- Tweed Valley beef, pineapple, celeriac, blue cheese
- Lemon parfait, smoked brioche, rhubarb and ginger
- Ragstone goats' cheese fondant, grilled figs, Cabernet Sauvignon
- Caramel chocolate sphere, pistachio and coconut
Kitchen Taster menu, £36 for three courses
Culcreuch Castle hotel
Kippen Road, Fintry, Lanarkshire G63 0LW
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