Tom Parker Bowles: Tàrmachan Cafe review

Tom tucks into the taste of the Highlands at a Scottish cafe with serious food credentials.

Review: Tàrmachan Cafe

It sits just off the main Ballater road, a mere caber’s toss from Crathie church, barely bigger than a crofter’s hut. OK, so the Tàrmachan Cafe is hardly a tumbledown hovel, rather a sleek, single-storey wooden building, melding elegantly into the Cairngorm hills, designed by architects who have the office next door.

There’s a clean, modern simplicity to the place, from the font of the ‘CAFE’ sign outside, to the discreetly blonde wooden tables, gleaming concrete floor and pristine white walls. You can get the excellent Williams & Johnson coffee to take away, along with serious homemade cakes, and a mighty venison, apple and fennel sausage roll. Pies come from nearby Wark Farm: small, handheld and heavenly. They change according to the seasons, but are consistent in their brilliance. Today, it’s lamb and apple, enclosed in that peerless pastry tasting of rolling hills, heather-covered moors and a life very well lived.

Tàrmachan Cafe
The food at Tàrmachan Cafe ‘matches the glorious setting’. Image: Ben Addy

If you are going to sit down – and I strongly recommend you do – there’s a daily stew and soup, chalked up on the blackboard. Ingredients are mainly local, yet this is never rammed down your maw. Flavour always comes first. We eat a rich, tomatoey lentil stew, gently spiced with harissa and dotted with blobs of wild garlic pesto. Simple, but deeply satisfying. A sharp, bright ginger and lime coleslaw provides merry crunch.

Toasted cheese sandwiches, made with their own sourdough bread, are barely able to contain molten rivers of Connage Highland, which ooze from thin, crisp, burnished crusts. To make things better still, there’s a subtle layer of kimchi, adding a quiet, vinegary heat that not only tempers, but cossets, soothes and flatters all that delectable dairy excess. Oh, Great Chieftain o’ the Sandwid’ race! It’s the sort of dish that could make an Englishman climb astride the table, fork held triumphantly aloft, roaring ‘they may take our lives… but they’ll NEVER take our freedom.’ This, though, is a civilised sort of place. And they’re all out of woad.

Tàrmachan Cafe is owned by Caitlin Donald, from just down the road in Kincardine O’Neil. And her husband, Tom Checkley, from, well, England. But they make a mighty pair. Not so much the Auld Enemy as the blessed union, with food to match the glorious Highland setting. If only all cafes were this good.

About £15 per head. Tàrmachan Cafe, Crathie, Aberdeenshire; tarmachancafe.com