A haven of warmth and good food on a stark Scottish island
Although the Scottish island of Harris is most famous for its beautiful, sturdy tweeds, this stark and wind-blown island also offers some of the finest food on the British Isles. One spot where a visitor can find some of this delicious Scottish fare is at Scarista House, a restored early 19th-century stone manse that was originally the local minister's parsonage.
The house seems an oasis on a moonscape, looking out on a promontory across the Sound of Taransay. Indeed, Scarista House faces a beach so majestic and untouched that a visitor who leaves his footprints in the sand feels akin to the first man who walked on the moon.
Andrew and Alison Johnson came to the island to teach 10 years ago. Both had advanced degrees from Oxford University, he in metallurgy and she in English.
The special rugged beauty of Harris immediately appealed to Mrs. Johnson, who hails from Aberdeen, Scotland, and Mr. Johnson felt right at home as the terrain reminded him of his native Cornwall, England.
In 1978, after restoring the old house themselves, the Johnsons began taking in guests. Soon they received kudos in Britain's Good Food Guide, and on his tour of the Scottish Highlands and islands, Prince Charles lunched there.
This does not mean the place is now overrun with tourists. Harris is an island in the Outer Hebrides for the person who likes to watch the birds, hike, and perhaps do some fishing.
There is no night life to speak of, but eating one of Alison Johnson's five-course dinners, properly paced to the setting of the sun over the sound, provides a most satisfying evening.
In the small dining room under the low, timbered ceiling we began dinner with a rich cream of onion soup with thickly sliced homemade whole-wheat bread and sweet butter.
Halibut with mushrooms in a delicate cream sauce came flecked with tarragon from Alison's own herb garden. Then followed the main course, a choice of tender, braised venison steaks from deer shot in the Harris hills, or roast lamb with apricot stuffing and rosemary jelly.
The latter is a specialty of Scarista House and a memorable combination. ``I created the apricot stuffing,'' explained Mrs. Johnson, a self-taught cook, who invited us into the kitchen after dessert. ``I like the combination of apricots with fresh marjoram or oregano, and I add a bit of lemon juice and rind to cut the sweetness of the fruit.
``The rosemary jelly is an invention of my mother-in-law,'' she continued. ``You simply add a few sprigs of fresh rosemary to stewing apples. It couldn't be easier.'' Or more delicious, I thought.
After the main course Mr. Johnson, who serves as ma^itre d'h^otel, brought a fine selection of Highland cheese, including a ``crowdie and cream,'' a soft, fresh cheese enriched with ``double'' cream.
There was also hramsa, a full-fat soft cheese flavored with garlic, and caboc, a double-cream cheese rolled in toasted pinhead oatmeal.
After this feast we climbed the stairs that led to the second-floor parlor, a blazing fire, books, and copies of Country Life.
Reservations for dinner or overnight stays may be made by writing to Scarista House, Scarista, Harris, Western Isles PA85 3HX, Scotland. The complete dinner is $17; bed and breakfast, $28. Scarista Vegetable Soup 2 large carrots 2 large onions, about 14 ounces 3 stalks celery 1 large leek 3 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup rolled oats 5 cups rich stock Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 cup milk 1/4 cup finely minced parsley
Chop carrots, onions, and celery finely. Clean leek thoroughly of sand and chop white part finely. Reserve greens.
In a large soup pot, melt butter and cook chopped vegetables over medium heat 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in rolled oats, leek greens, and stock.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste and stir in milk. Remove leek greens.
Just before serving, stir in parsley or sprinkle it on top. Serves 6 to 8. Alison's Oatmeal Ice Cream 1/3 cup rolled oats 3 large eggs 1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar 1 cup heavy cream
Toast oatmeal in a skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly. Watch closely as it can turn black quickly. When it is a nice golden color, remove immediately from skillet and set aside to cool.
With an electric mixer, beat eggs with sugar until mixture is pale lemon color, about 4 to 5 minutes.
In a separate bowl, whip cream until it just begins to hold its shape. Fold into egg mixture. Pour into bowl of an ice cream machine and proceed according to manufacturer's instructions.
After about 15 minutes, stir in oatmeal and continue ice cream-making process. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.
This is a simple and rich vanilla ice cream given a nutty taste and crunchy texture by the toasted oatmeal.