The House of the Northern Gate – the site of my culinary revelation – stands on the cliffs at Dunnet Head, the northernmost point of the British Isles: further north than the better known John O’Groats. It looks out over Pentland Firth, towards the Orkneys, across some of the wildest and most unpredictable of seas that surround the British Isles.
Below lies Dunnet Bay, with a beach from which only the most skilful and knowledgeable fishermen launch their tiny boats, checking their pots for crabs and lobsters, maybe throwing a line over the side if the weather’s not too rough.
Nearby lies the town of Thurso, and a little further west, the atomic reactor at Dounreay, at this date (the 1970s) still operational. Local people speak with gratitude of the “atomic jobs” the reactor brought to this remote, bleak, impoverished place; of atomic homes built for atomic workers; atomic buses to ferry them to work; atomic schools for their children.
The cottage we have rented is a renovated croft, a basic stone box on a concrete slab, large enough for a couple of parking spaces and a stand for a caravan.
There’s a firmly locked door in the middle of the house. In winter the owner occupies the whole building, but when holidaymakers come, he retreats to the right hand half. If one large or two small parties turn up, he decamps to the caravan. And if even more should arrive, well, he makes shift with a bunk on his boat.
The owner, a weatherbeaten but handsome bloke in his sixties, works the “charming Scottish rogue” act to the hilt, spinning yarns as rough and full of holes as his fisherman’s jersey, in an accent thicker than porridge. Hints of wartime black market derring-do, military missions behind enemy lines, even, with a sly sidelong look, questionably legal adventures we might like to undertake: stalking, shooting or fishing. Offers of salmon, or crab, or venison, should we be requiring it, forbye.
One rather effete young man, one very English woman with a firm manner, handshake and accent, and a very charming, slight, elderly lady who long since mastered the art of twisting men like him round her charming little finger, are not promising customers for wild adventures, but the fruits therefrom will be very welcome, Mrs Pitcher gushes. Our host preens. Negotiations proceed while Sue and I unpack.
Not for the first time I wonder quite what I am doing here. Sue, as usual, had taken charge. After some tumultuous times together in gay liberation politics, she wanted a holiday, somewhere remote. She saw advertisements in the Telegraph for cheap holiday lets in Scotland, and here we were. With her mother.
Mother was something of an afterthought, a reluctantly accepted necessity. The cottage was remote, so we would need a car, but Sue could not drive, and I had only a learners permit. Mrs Pitcher, on the other hand, had held a full licence since 1927.
I joked that she must have been rather a fast woman back then.
“Oh no, Douglas, dear, I was never fast,” she corrected, with sweetly smiling emphasis, “never fast, though I was quite a speedy driver! Ha, ha, ha!”
The fact that she had not actually driven a car since shortly after the Second World War, almost thirty years ago, was airily dismissed. She was quite sure it would come back to her in no time at all. Especially with Dear Doug to help.
Her daughter Sue, a bisexual feminist with a taste for intellectual women and rugger-playing, mountain-climbing, role-playing men, was continually irritated by her mother’s old fashioned femininity, and happy to let Dear Doug play the demilitarised zone.
The very long and tedious rail journey from London to Thurso was made even longer by an American Professor of English who shared our carriage as far as Edinburgh. He had a mania for collective nouns, and when he ran out of real ones, invited us to invent some – “a block of streetwalkers, or, as Shakespeare might have said, a flourish of strumpets!”
“A tray of tarts, perhaps?” giggled Mrs Pitcher.
Matters improved when he was replaced by an RAF pilot returning from leave, not at all fazed by the barrage of attention from a rather shy slim young man, a slightly older dominatrix, and an elderly lady with oodles of old-fashioned charm.He regaled us with tales of steam cleaning a fuel tank of his Vulcan bomber before filling it with Cyprus sherry, of shredding an entire consignment of cigarettes when he was forced to switch on the radar in the nosecone where they were stashed, and, most tragic of all, dropping an entire Swedish three piece suite out of the bomb bay into the North Sea, after his flight was diverted to another base. After he left us at Caithness, we wondered just how much of it could be true.
Collecting the car in Thurso, Mrs Pitcher proved a careful driver. A very careful driver. We left the car yard at a sedate 15mph, in second gear, where we remained for some little while. Eventually I said, rather diffidently, “Perhaps we might try third gear now, Mrs Pitcher?”
“Dear Doug!” she beamed at me, “What a good idea! Thank you!”
She looked down, grasped the gear stick, successfully made the change, smiled up at me, and finally returned her eyes to the road, beaming happily.
A little while later I lit up a beam of my own, “I do believe there’s a fourth gear as well, Mrs Pitcher. What say we give that a go now?”
“Oh, do you think it would be alright?”
“I’m sure of it, Mrs Pitcher.”
Once again she transferred her gaze to the gear stick while she successfully negotiated the change, beamed “Dear Doug!” happily at me, and finally returned her attention to the road. After a while she decided to take the initiative.
“Do you know, dearest Doug, I think perhaps I should change down before we attempt this hill, don’t you agree?”
“I’m absolutely certain of it, Mrs Pitcher.”
“Dear Doug! You know, I’m really quite enjoying myself!”
“So am I, Mrs Pitcher, so am I!”
And thus we made our smiling way to our destination.
Sue, who had absolutely no patience with anyone’s winsome feminine ways, least of all her mother’s, found the whole game – which continued for the entire two weeks of our stay – highly amusing.
Against the odds, we made a happy little party. After all the overheated battles around GLF, Gay News and Harrow Gay Unity, nothing could have been more different. Or more refreshing.
We caught a glimpse of the Castle of Mey, but the Queen Mother was, regrettably, not at home.
I successfully resisted Sue’s attempts to bully me into climbing one of the many towering stacks of rocks along the coast with her.
One unexpectedly sunny day we called at the only pub for miles, only to find that it would not open for another hour, “But just sit yourselves down at the table outside and I’ll bring you a drink while you’re waiting.”
And growing tired of catering for ourselves, we asked around for a local eatery. Somewhere a bit special.
“Well,” said the lady in the butchers (where I stocked up on Scottish delicacies: black pudding, white pudding and even fruit pudding), in a doubtful tone, “there’s The House of The Northern Gate. But it’s terribly expensive.”
I was instantly in love with the name. We had to go.
“When you say expensive….”
“Aye, well, it’s five pounds,” she said, and when we didn’t appear adequately scandalised, added, “Each!”
“And there’s no menu, mind, you have to eat what they give you.”
At current prices that’s about £35 a head, or A$65, for a full four-course meal. Seemed OK to us. We booked.
The appointed night arrived, wet and blustery. Mrs Pitcher drove cautiously along the narrow unlit road. There were no signs.
Suddenly we came to a set of gates, and in the distance, at the end of a long and unlit drive, alone on the clifftop, stood The House of The Northern Gate, gleaming white in the moonlight. We bumped along in the dark, eventually parking behind a bit of tumbledown wall, next to a couple of elderly but well-kept saloons.
“I think you’ll find there’s a reverse gear, Mrs Pitcher. Just push hard left and back and… there you go.”
“Oh, thank you Doug!”
I understood why the house had once been a horror movie backdrop. No other building in sight, nor any tree. Just a big white house on acres of bare clifftop, the moon hanging high over the bay, the muffled sound of the surf crashing on the rocks far below.
No signage of any kind, only a single dim bulb over a very ordinary door at the top of a short staircase. I pushed it open and found myself in a scruffy hallway. Mud on the floor. Damp overcoats hung on hooks. Wet Wellington boots. No reception desk. A low murmur of voices somewhere ahead. I pushed through another door, and found myself in a very small bar, with a few of the local gentry.
Conversation stopped. We were scrutinised. A couple of men got up, said their goodbyes and left, with the suspicion of a nod as they passed. Conversation resumed.
The clichés were piling up thick and fast.
Right on cue a flustered middle-aged woman in an apron appeared behind the bar, beaming and chattering. She ushered us through yet another door into a dining room packed with half a dozen large round tables, each seating around a dozen. Introductions were made, small talk was exchanged, the meal began. And still I had no inkling of what lay ahead.
I remember nothing of the others there that night. I don’t even remember everything we ate. I think we began with herring fried in oatmeal, but after that… Because all memory was instantly obliterated with the arrival of the desert.
In the middle of the table appeared a vast blue and white china bowl, filled almost to the brim with a thick shining rosy liquid, in which reclined a huge silver ladle. For the first time in my life I heard the words “Damson Fool.”
I’d never heard of it. Until now, I had only encountered thick rich cream as something to be poured in small amounts, over canned fruit, perhaps, or a sweet pie, and then only on special occasions. At Christmas it might appear, whipped, as one layer in a trifle.
During my childhood we mostly made do with carefully-harvested top of the milk, or a can of Carnation. Distributed in carefully rationed portions from a terribly nice – but not terribly large – fancy glass jug.
Now for the first time in my life, here was a dish composed almost entirely of cream. Cream poured again and again from a great ladle into my proffered bowl, as, like Oliver Twist, I asked for more. And more. And unlike Oliver, received it.
That moment of bliss – actually several moments, because I devoured several bowls -has lain forgotten as a dream, only recently recalled by a simple question.
Chrys Stevenson asked, “What are your “OMG” food moments? That time you ate something and the world changed?”
At first I thought, “Don’t have any.”
And then a great bowl of Damson Fool – along with Mrs Pitcher and her daughter Sue, and a long forgotten Scottish holiday – rose from the depths to be savoured again.