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Nestled in the heart of Aberdeen, in the basement of a striking granite townhouse, my guide Calum Lockerbie introduces me to a fascinating revelation. As we anticipate our main courses at Amuse, the latest upscale restaurant helmed by Chef Kevin Dalgleish, Calum whispers a captivating truth, “All the patrons here are somehow linked to the oil industry.”
The food we’re partaking in could be described as opulent – prepared immaculately and bearing a hefty price tag – likely to be a regular indulgence only for those with significant disposable income. The offerings range from local delicacies such as east-coast crab and Orkney scallops, Aberdeenshire venison, and regional lamb to the iconic Aberdeen Angus.
Aberdeen and its broader Aberdeenshire region evoke images of the distinct Doric dialect, harsh winters, and indeed, oil. The discovery of massive oil reserves in the North Sea during the 1960s significantly influenced the region and its residents, bringing booms and busts and environmental implications. As the oil industry thrived, other industries – notably fishing – diminished or were displaced. Despite the massive wealth generated by the oil industry, much has been siphoned off, with only a fraction left behind to leave an imprint on Aberdeenshire.
Photo Caption: Braemar Chocolate Shop’s twist on the classic: Passion fruit and heather honey praline. Photographed by Cathy Anderson
In my three-day exploration of the county with tour company Bothies & Bannocks, I encounter various people, including guides and local food producers, with connections to the oil industry. Outside the city, in Royal Deeside, Alex Reid, a cheesemaker, stands as an example of those profiting from the oil industry while simultaneously investing in the local area.
According to Alex, “Cheese is the future.” Despite his oil industry background, he is part of a long lineage of cheesemakers – a trade he has returned to. His modern Cambus O’May establishment is set for expansion. “Although it may not happen this year, we plan to acquire 60 dairy cows next year and take over the complete process. This year, we’re focusing on expanding the cafe and restaurant, which wasn’t initially part of our business model, but it has become immensely popular with cyclists visiting this part of Deeside,” he shares.
His signature cheese – a two-day curd – matures on the racks in the back of the factory. After tasting a sample, Alex gives his approving nod. It boasts unique Scottish features, similar to the popular Auld Reekie, smoked over oak chips from old whisky barrels.
Aberdeenshire’s produce often showcases its origin. At the Braemar Chocolate Shop, twenty miles west, almost every chocolate infuses a Scottish element, such as Royal Lochnagar whisky or Blue Murder cheese from Connage Highland Dairy. The Braemar Brewing Company, a nano-brewery in the village center according to owner Dave Evans, only sells its brews in select nearby shops.
Ironically, Aberdeenshire’s farmlands are dominated by Scotland’s iconic Highland cattle rather than the region’s famous Aberdeen Angus cows.
Near Aberdeen, on the periphery of Banchory, Grace Noble of Aberdeenshire Highland Beef, although not directly involved in the oil industry, began by selling beef to the oil sector’s workforce. Today, she oversees a herd of 200 cattle. Surprisingly, she exclusively breeds Highland cattle instead of the globally recognized Aberdeen Angus. This surprises some visitors expecting to see the latter. However, witnessing the careful management and nurturing of these cattle reassures them.
Visitors to the nearby Lost Loch Spirits distillery often leave more relaxed than upon arrival. While gin schools are commonplace in Scotland, this facility on the outskirts of Aboyne offers more. “We assist in creating any spirit except whisky,” says co-founder Pete Dignan, whose company was the first in Scotland to produce absinthe in 2017. The facility offers courses, tastings, and even an opportunity to develop a spirit from inception to bottling. When asked about his background, Pete’s reply was predictable, “I’m still involved in oil and gas. But this is my exit strategy. I just need to execute it.”
This article was featured in the UK & Ireland supplement, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Aberdeenshire Culinary Tour
What is the main focus of this article?
This article focuses on the culinary scene in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, highlighting fine dining experiences, local cheesemakers, and unique distilleries in the region.
Who is Alex Reid?
Alex Reid is a cheesemaker in Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire. Despite his work in the oil industry, he’s part of a generational family of cheesemakers and has invested in expanding his cheese business.
What is unique about the cheese at Cambus O’May facility?
The cheese at the Cambus O’May facility is distinct for its Scottish characteristics. The signature cheese is a two-day curd that matures on racks at the back of the factory. There’s also the popular Auld Reekie cheese, which is smoked over oak chips from old whisky barrels.
What does the Braemar Chocolate Shop offer?
The Braemar Chocolate Shop offers a variety of chocolates that incorporate a Scottish twist, with ingredients like Royal Lochnagar whisky or Blue Murder cheese from Connage Highland Dairy.
What is unique about the Lost Loch Spirits distillery?
Lost Loch Spirits distillery is known for its gin school and for being the first facility in Scotland to produce absinthe in 2017. They offer the opportunity to develop a spirit from inception to bottling.
What kind of cattle does Grace Noble of Aberdeenshire Highland Beef breed?
Grace Noble of Aberdeenshire Highland Beef breeds Highland cattle, a breed that is iconic in Scotland, instead of the globally recognized Aberdeen Angus cows.
How has the oil industry influenced Aberdeenshire’s culinary scene?
The oil industry has had a significant influence on Aberdeenshire’s culinary scene, from shaping the demographics of fine dining patrons to influencing the career paths of individuals like Alex Reid and Pete Dignan, who have transitioned or are transitioning from the oil industry to local food and spirit production.