"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.
The island, 45 miles long and 25 miles at its widest, has a population of 8,000 and more sheep than people, more miles of stone wall than road. The houses outside the villages are few and far apart, as if the country had been recently colonized and was in need of more settlers. Kinloch Lodge sits alone at the foot of Kinloch Hill on the edge of the loch. From its windows, no other houses are visible, just that wild blend of mountains and moorlands and water that gives this western part of Scotland its majesty.
"I cooked the chicken yesterday and cooled it in its stock to keep it . . . ." Lady Macdonald's voice brings me back inside. She pauses. "Oh, I hate this word . . . moist." She frowns. "Ah!" The face lights up again. "Succulent. That's better, isn't it, Mint?"
"Much better," says Minty.
Lady Macdonald begins to shake chili powder over the chicken, then pauses, can suspended. "I love chili, don't you? It's addictive. I'm sure you all know this -- it releases endorphins in your brain. We can achieve that euphoric state of mind legally by adding a dash of chili to everything." A lavish smile.
She rustles around in a drawer. "What's my wrapping ribbon doing in this drawer, Minty?"
"I don't know," Minty replies, staring calmly down at the offending ribbon.
"I'm just as bound to find it in the fridge," says Lady Macdonald, laughing and closing the drawer with the ribbon still inside.
The chicken salad is finished and Lady Macdonald holds it aloft for all to see. "I've got it surrounded by a completely unfashionable hedge of curly-leafed parsley," she announces, looking thoroughly disgusted. "But I couldn't get flat-leafed anywhere. Not even in Inverness" -- the nearest city, 100 miles away.
Then it's back to the scallop salad with tarragon cream. "I only like to use the king or queen scallops," she says, showing us the biggest scallop I've ever seen, a good two inches across, that came from local waters. "But I'm aghast and appalled that one has trouble buying the scallops with their coral [the orange crescent of eggs along one side]. It's the best part! It gives a nice contrast of flavor."
She contemplates the scallop. "What do you suppose they do with all those corals?" she muses. "I'd like to know." She stares at us for a second as if we might magically provide the answer. We wouldn't dare!
Baked fillet of salmon en croute with lemon and shallot sauce is next. "This baking dish," declares Lady Macdonald, "revolutionized my life. It's non-stick." She eases the salmon, wrapped in puff pastry, gently into the pan as if tucking it in for a nap. She starts cutting out pastry fish, then frowns. "We've had a bit of a mishap here, Minty," she says. "With the pastry. Look at this pathetic little shoal of fish."
"Never mind," says Minty. "It's not your fault."
Lady Macdonald arranges them on the pastry-wrapped salmon. "There now," she gushes, spirits reviving. "They're all gaily swimming across the surface of the pastry."
Minty stares at the pan. "They look a bit static," she says.
Lady Macdonald looks at her, aghast. "What do you mean, 'static?' They're pastry, after all!"
Minty slips the dish into the oven. Lady Macdonald picks up her oven timer.
"There are pingers and there are pingers," she announces, waving the oven timer around. "This one has spirit. It knows when I leave the room. While I'm here it rings like a fire alarm. But, if I leave the room, it just goes" -- she lowers her voice -- "brrrrrrrrrrrr." She looks at it in disgust. "It's no good to me; I've burned too many dishes with it."
She plonks the offending timer emphatically down. "I won't throw it out, though," she says, winding up another timer. "I want it to sit here and know it's not being used."
It's getting close to noon and we haven't moved from our seats for almost two hours. Plus, I'm hungry. All this food and not so much as a beater to lick.
"Did you know, Mint, that the Madagascar vanilla crop failed this year?" says Lady Macdonald with an incensed look, as if the crop failed just to make her life more difficult.
"No," says Minty, picking up dirty bowls and spoons and whisking them into the back room.
"Tragic!" extols Lady Macdonald. "Of course, we can still get it from India, but I don't think it's quite as good."
She spoons marinated cherries into a bowl and places it beside the rice pudding, which sits next to the potato salad with sugar snap peas, asparagus, bacon, thyme and lemon dressing; which, in turn, is beside the scallop salad; with the chicken and avocado terrine beside that. The pinger pings and Minty pulls the salmon from the oven.
"I might be able to use this recipe for Easter," says Lady Macdonald, peering at the golden crust.
"The fish have risen," Minty reports. "How appropriate for Easter," says Lady Macdonald. They laugh.
Minty puts the salmon next to the rest of the offerings and Lady Macdonald surveys it with satisfaction before locking onto us again. "Anything I cook," she declares, "can be made by anyone else. But everything you cook must have variety of color. Once Godfrey and I went to a very formal event. Catered. It was beige from the first course through to the pudding. A tragedy!"
Finally, she offers us each a plastic spoon and a paper napkin and orders us to dig in. I head straight for the rice pudding and it is divine -- lemony and creamy. Double creamy!
"When I read about something being good for us," Lady Macdonald laments, "it makes me want to eat a Mars bar. Maybe two." She sighs. "But one must keep it in mind, I suppose."
Kinloch Lodge offers weekend packages with cooking instruction. The next session is Oct. 8-10, including accommodations, meals and two demos. Cost starts at $717 per person. For room only, rates start at $156 per person and include dinner and breakfast. Info: 011-441-471- 833333, www.kinloch-lodge.co.uk. For info about the Isle of Skye: www.skye.co.uk.
Sarah Clayton last wrote for Travel about Novembers in England.