Sunday, July 25, 2004
"How can you look a cow in the eye?" demands Lady Claire Macdonald, leaning over her work table and brandishing a spoon at us. "Skim milk! Semi-skim milk! An abomination . . . truly a tragedy!" She picks up the container of double cream and streams it into the rice pudding she's making as part of a two-hour cooking demonstration at her 400-year-old home, Kinloch Lodge, in Scotland.
"I think 'cholesterol' is a very rude word," she continues. "If you're concerned about cream consumption, don't be. The label will tell you how much cholesterol is in something -- but one person doesn't eat the whole lot, do they?" Again, the direct stare, almost a challenge. Who would think to contradict her? Someone, she tells us, once criticized her effusive endorsement of the benefits of salt -- and lots of it -- on food, but she wrote him an "impassioned letter," and that was the end of that.
Lady Macdonald is nothing if not impassioned as she holds forth on food in a large, bright room -- combination kitchen, dining room, family room and lecture hall -- overlooking the blue waters of Loch na Dal on the Isle of Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. I am attending one of the many cooking demonstrations she gives throughout the year. She is a blond, young-looking 55, neatly tailored and coiffed, with a trim but full figure and a choker of pearls at her neck.
Her husband, Godfrey, the Right Honourable Lord Macdonald of Macdonald, is High Chief of Clan Macdonald, the largest of the Highland clans and a major force in the area for nearly 1,000 years. Its fortunes have waxed and waned through the centuries of rebellion, power struggles and territorial expansion that have molded the lives of every Highlander. Before the cooking demonstration began, he wandered in to greet us -- 10 women and two men -- with several greyhounds at his heels. Tall and slender, he has the congenial nature and comfortably rumpled look of a retired professor.
For 30 years, Lord and Lady Macdonald have run their home -- a former shooting lodge for nearby Armadale Castle, once a Macdonald stronghold, now the Clan Donald Centre -- as a small private hotel. "We want our guests," says Lady Macdonald, "to feel . . . as much like private house guests as possible."
The house and its 60 acres are open to all, and the food is mostly homemade or gathered from the nearby hills (sheep, beef, venison), sea (salmon, cod, herring) and lochs (brown trout). The 14 guest rooms are available year-round except for four days around Christmas. One can come to Kinloch Lodge for a quiet weekend or a more extended stay (a self-catering cottage attached to the lodge can be rented during part of the year) abounding in wild activity. From the lodge, fishing, photography, deer stalking, walking, rock climbing, riding and pony trekking are available. And cooking, Lady Macdonald's passion. She has 16 cookbooks to her credit.
"I can't bear people who say they never eat sugar, never touch salt, stay away from fat. I say . . . " She swells defiantly. "Whenever possible, eat fat -- cheese -- double cream! Never buy anything reduced in its fat content. Just don't eat it three times a day. Isn't that right, Minty?"
"Absolutely," agrees Araminta Dallmeyer, the quiet, slender, local woman who is the "straight woman" in this entertaining duo.
In fact, Lady Macdonald's demonstrations are less cooking than high entertainment. She started off demurely enough this morning, every inch the well-bred, well-groomed lady of the manor, gazing over a recipe card in preparation. But the demo soon dissolved into asides and tangents as she extolled the merits of a particular paring knife; how awful Athens is; how her aunt in Connecticut has, sadly, "kippered her taste buds" by smoking; how Scotland is the last wilderness area in Europe; how she couldn't live without her 14-year-old pepper mill; the benefit of stirring egg whites with a metal spoon versus a wooden one; how lobster must be eaten directly from the sea; how, despite generally preferring dogs to children, she finds her first grandchild, Billy, to be "quite delicious."
"I'm not known for my gardening prowess," she says, snipping tarragon into her homemade mayonnaise -- commercial mayonnaise tasting like "shaving soap," we are informed. "All I have to do is look at a plant and it withers and dies."
Lady Macdonald espouses eating what's local and what's in season. "Now we're emerging into spring and I'm looking for a new twist on chicken salad." She looks over the recipe, silent for a minute, giving me time to look around at the family portraits gazing down at us from their heavy frames, and the prints of vegetables and fruits on the walls. The room is a mix of very old and very new, but it's a mix that works, exuding the warmth of a country kitchen without the kitsch.
Outside, the still-leafless trees, whipped by a wind off the water, are flailing the roiling sky in a bleak display of winter. Small, restless waves slap the shore. In the distance are Skye's famous Cuillin Mountains, their jagged 3,000-foot peaks like broken teeth gnashing at the clouds.