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Writer Caitlin Moran recalls a meal of crabs, clams and the Scottish coast...
February was so boring, we just got in the car, and drove north. It was 1995; I was 19, he was 25: we’d both suddenly realised we were adults, and could do that kind of thing.
We headed for the north-west coast of Scotland because I’d had one, awful, caravanning holiday there as a child – but I thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. I figured going back there with a strong anorak, a genial boyfriend and total autonomy might lay the bad memories to rest.
Scotland in winter is one of the great holiday secrets: we just rocked up at the Summer Isles Hotel, in Achiltibuie. In the summer, you book months in advance, but in the winter there was a double available with a view of seals on the beach.
The whole building reeked of Stargazer lilies in massive vases. It was the first posh hotel we’d ever stayed in: the kind of hotel where you come down for drinks and amuse-bouches at 7pm, to ‘peruse’ the menu. And so it was the first time I’d ever had Champagne. I saw how the other guests held it by the stem, to keep it cold. I copied them.
The amuse-bouches had black truffles in them – I’d never had them before, either. Everything was new. Everything was amazing. I loved the truffles. I loved the Champagne. Everyone else there was at least 20 years older than us and dressed country-casual in cashmere. We looked like the scruffy infant music journalists we were – but the place was so friendly, and so Champagne-y, and remote, there was a sense of camaraderie because we all knew what was coming: three courses and a cheeseboard. It’s rare you have a day where you do so many things for the first time.
Now, in quick succession, I had my first-ever crab, first razor-clams, first pea-shoot salad, first little wholemeal rolls still warm from the oven.
The crab was whole: it looked like a spider going to war, and came with implements to torture the meat out of its mad hands. Turns out that a creature that looks like a couple of pliers nailed together is absolutely delicious. It has been wise to plate itself in armour to try and defend its dementingly delicious body from passers-by. Similarly revelatory were the razor clams, presented on a white plate, cooked in butter, garlic and their own, panicking juices. I loved how alien they felt in the mouth – almost crunchy, almost rubbery. We thought the meal had peaked, right there, but the older hands in the room looked expectant, for they knew of the final glory: the cheese trolley.
I had no idea humanity had invented a car full of artisan dairy products, whose life stories would be told to you by a man wielding a selection of cheese knives. This cheese lived in a cave; this cheese got rolled in ash; the sheep who made this cheese racket around, eating seaweed. I would put having your first Shropshire Blue, Brie De Meaux and Yarg up there with the first time you hear The Beatles – you suddenly know this is the best stuff, and it’s going to now be in your life, making it infinitely better, until you die.
You cry a little at all the years you spent without it. You eat so much you are rolled up stairs, like a barrel, to digest on your bed, listening to the sea on the shingle below. In later years, you think: this is the meal where you became an adult, finally adroit enough for crabs, clams and cheese wrapped in nettles. The weirder stuff. The better stuff.
Caitlin's latest book is How To Be Famous (Ebury Press, £14.99).