the best of breakfasts (spicy edition)

This being the UK tradition generally dictates that breakfast at a B&B is equally important, if not more so, than the bed. To be considered proper it must be cooked, too: eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms and invariably some type of fried bread. But if you look at the small letters at the bottom of the breakfast menu at Harbour View B&B you can also opt for a Thai Breakfast, which turns out to be a mutable thing, dependent on the whims of the market and the chef for that matter. (This being an island off the coast of an island off the coast of continental Europe, creative substitutions for certain Thai ingredients must often be made) After expressing an interest in Thai food, however, my hostess, Swan Tomkinson, took a certain vested interest in me. “It’s spicy, you know,” she told me on the first morning, trying to warn me off a plate of scrambled eggs with rice and curried rashers. “I love Thai,” I countered. “The spicier the better.” And with that she recognized a kindred spirit: “I will cook you real Thai food.” Over the next five days a challenge ensued. Each day I would ask for something unattainable for breakfast the following morning - green papaya salad one day, pad prik king another – and she would counter with a pretty good approximation, for example substituting cucumbers in place of the green papaya and adding an extra dose of the Thai basil which grows prodigiously in her garden. On day four I was surprised with a plate of larb, the spicy ground pork salad popular in northeastern Thailand. “I’ve been craving larb but had nobody to share it with,” Swan confided, revealing a pang of longing every stranger in a strange land must eventually feel. “Cooking for people makes me happy,” she was quick to add. “Especially food that they like.” Like Thai, I gestured, pushing a plate of freshly picked herbs out of the way, inviting Swan to join me in the most unexpected – and tastiest –  breakfast of my life. “One time, a Russian couple came into the kitchen as I was cooking dinner for me and Alan,” she began. “I was making Beef Stroganoff and they said the smell reminded them of home. ‘Could we have the leftovers for breakfast,’ they asked me.” She laughed at the memory. “Yes, I said, I will make you Beef Stroganoff for breakfast.”

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squat & gobble

Have you ever heard of squat lobster? I hadn’t until today. Tiny little buggers the size of langoustines, they’re not lobsters at all. In fact, they’re more closely related to hermit crabs. At a small cafe on the ferry pier in Tobermory, however, a waitress assured me they were good and indeed, she was more than right:  poached then tossed in a light Marie Rose sauce and served on a warm baguette with a spritz of lemon, the sweet and tender squats made for the most satisfying sandwich I’ve had in recent memory. Later that evening I ventured back to visit the Cafe Fish directly upstairs and noticed razor clams featured on the specials board. Who could resist?

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bound for the treshnish

It seemed a propitious omen for the day that as soon as our boat sailed out of Tobermory harbor and past the lighthouse it was greeted by a pod of dolphins eager to swim along in our wake. Soon afterwards we saw seals, too, and the rare storm petrel which spends most of its life at sea. We were bound for the Treshnish, an archipelago of uninhabited volcanic islands and skerries west of Mull. The largest of the islands, Lunga, is known for the puffins that arrive each summer to breed en masse. In fact, shortly after making landfall on the rocky coast I was in the company of those adorable, torpedo-shaped seabirds, as well as eider ducks, cormorants, and crested shags. I had expected to see a few other nesting birds as well, yet nothing quite prepared me for the sight of thousands upon thousands of razorbills, guillemots, and gulls nesting up the coast in the crags of a guano-drenched pinnacle of rock. It was like a scene from a horror film: half of the birds nesting, the other half circling the sky, and all of them cawing at a collectively deafening pitch. The puffins were docile by comparison. In pairs they burrow underground to lay a single egg, in groups they sit together quietly and preen. I sat and chatted with a rook of about twenty puffins while I ate my lunch. They watched me and I watched them. We got along famously. I was sad when the time came to leave – for the record, they didn’t seem to take any notice –  but other islands and other adventures called.

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mishdish at the mishnish

A contrast to the al fresco charms of the chippie is Mishdish, the local gastropub inside The Mishnish, a boutique Tobermory hotel. Situated as the far end of the harbor, Mishdish is fitted out in the contempo aesthetic of dark wood and crisp linens and is as inviting as it is mellifluous. It’s also as locavore a dining experience as one could hope for: locally caught, locally sourced, locally distilled, locally prepared, and locally served, the menu bursts with local pride. And rightfully so, I might add. (To save myself from excessive repetition, please assume the modifier “local” before all further nouns unless otherwise noted.) Fishcakes of salmon and haddock are lovely and light with mixed greens and a piquant splash of non-local chili. It’s about as far as you can get from the potato-laden belly bombers I remember as a child and I could easily takedown a second portion without blinking. A bowl of sweet langoustines brings out the skull-sucking carnivore in me. Split-grilled and drizzled in chive butter they come with a crusty hunk of baguette to soak up every last drop of buttery brine. My only regret is that I ordered an appetizer portion and not an entrée. There’s no getting away from Sticky Toffee Pudding, gluten be damned. Interestingly enough it’s square, not a dome, yet geometry does nothing to diminish the criminal pleasure of what is essentially a steamed piece of cake soaked through with buttery toffee and topped with vanilla ice cream. The coffee is good, too – if imported – and strong. It comes with a small chocolate bon-bon that’s as you’d expect, handmade just down the road.

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chippie les routiers

Since it was first seen in Paris in 1935, the famous blue-and-red Les Routiers symbol has traditionally identified restaurants and bars of individual character – mainly owner managed – offering excellent food and good value for money. In an age of uniformity, fast food and charmless chains, the members of Les Routiers are not only passionate about what they do, they are the best of their kind, too, whether it is a small cafe serving exceptional sandwiches or a table d’hote laid out with silver and fine china in a luxe hotel or a food truck parked at the side of the road. Tobermory is lucky to have all of these options within easy reach, but it’s the last one that keeps drawing me back. Situated at the head of the pier in the exact center of town, Fisherman’s Pier chippie gets its fish and shellfish from the boats as they return each afternoon, so whatever’s the catch of the day is what you’ll find battered alongside handcut chips that evening, be it haddock, pollack, scrod, scallops or lobsters. (The cod is lovely, too, but there’s no way it’s come off a lone dayboat.) In this rare stretch of sunny Scottish weather, it’s a most pleasant meal and at 7 pounds, a fair bargain, too. Feet dangling off the end of the dock, the only thing I’d add would be a chilled glass of rose to take the edge off the setting sun.

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a room with a view

As I’m sure you can gather, I don’t frequent too many bed and breakfasts. I’m much more of a five-star hotel kind of guy. Yet in a small town or village what often passes for the local hotel is invariably dark, dingy, and disappointing. Much better to take the B&B route as I discovered on this trip, where the proprietors are actually homeowners who keep up a certain standard. It is, after all, their house in which you and they are both sleeping. The trick is finding a B&B that jives with your particular standards. I lucked out with Alan and Swan Tomkinson’s Harbour View, which proved the perfect match for me: clean, quiet, a view to die for, and only five minutes hike from the center of town. Swan also happens to cook one of the most delicious breakfasts I’ve ever had – but more on that later.

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painting the harbour

I’m starting to get a little obsessed by the views across Tobermory’s perfect little harbour. Influenced by the tide, the light, and the shifting cloud cover, they are ever-changing. Tonight as the sun starts its slow evening descent the rippling surface of the water mottled into an impressionistic seascape.

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to the lighthouse

A pleasant half hour hike out of the port side of Tobermory harbor led me through woods worthy of the Cottingley fairies before emerging onto the headland and a lighthouse built by the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson who, apparently, built a lot of the lighthouses still operating across the Scottish highlands. I feel like I need to make a point of saying that these photos are unadulterated. At 10 o’clock in the evening the sky still glowed with a diffuse, rosy light. I’d always supposed the UK as being on a parallel plane with New York, yet once I’d traced the lines of longitude I discovered that, in fact, I am currently in line with exact center of Canada’s Hudson Bay. That would explain why it has yet to get truly dark here: by the time the backlight dissolves over one horizon, the sun is rising on the opposite one. That’s going to make for some wonderful post-prandial strolls.

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local brews

All the salt air in Tobermory is making me thirsty. Good thing there are plenty of beverages within easy reach.

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how are things in tobermory?

Pretty as a picture, it turns out. The main street of the largest village on the island of Mull hugs the perimeter of the harbor and is lined with both colorfully painted buildings and all the accoutrement of the local day-fisherman that keep the restaurants stocked with spectacular seafood. If Tobermory looks a bit like a film set, well, that’s because it is. The esplanade appears in the opening credits of the children’s television program, Balamory. This is home for the next week.  Now all I have to do is find the chip van and I’m all sorted.

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