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Travel

Travel

Of the 120 or so single malt whiskies offered by the Century Bar at Gleneagles (pic), I’d like to think that one of them is The Glenturret. That was the name inside the second ‘surprise’ envelope of the day: a visit to what claims to be Scotland’s oldest working distillery - ‘making whisky by hand and by heart since 1775’.

The distillery is located just outside Crieff and is home to The Famous Grouse Experience, where the general manager, Stuart Cassells was Visitor Attraction Manager of the Year at Whisky Magazine’s ‘Icons of Whisky Scotland’ 2016. If you’ve never seen a grouse, pull into the car park at Glenturret. You certainly won’t miss the bronze statue of one.

It took us about 30 minutes from Gleneagles, so we arrived in time for lunch: oak smoked salmon sandwiches and salad in the Wilde Thyme at Glenturret cafe/restaurant. Part of the room was festively laid up for a wedding at 4pm but by then we’d done the guided tour and bought the whisky.

It was an excellent tour, just the two of us being walked and talked through the process of making whisky, half of the annual production here being peated, half non-peated. There was a distinctly low-tech feel about the place, what with the 120 year old milling machinery, the hand stirring (rousing) of grist and water in the mash tun, the washbacks made of Douglas Fir and, of course, the old stone buildings themselves.

Some of the finished article joins other whiskies in creating The Famous Grouse, the biggest selling whisky in Scotland. Because production of The Glenturret is pretty small, its main retail outlet is here where the full range, including the 10 and 16 year olds, is available. So too is The Famous Grouse. You can bottle your own as well, as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge did when they opened the new visitor experience in May 2014.

We had a short lesson in nosing and drinking whisky (complete with scratch and sniff cards) and then a little tasting. I got a ‘driver’s dram’ to take away and savour later. And just as we were figuring out the notes of vanilla, orange and sultanas, we heard the sound of a bagpiper tuning up for the bride’s arrival. Perfect timing.

Darkness was already descending at 4pm when we left Glenturret, drove through the town of Crieff and headed south down the A822 towards Stirling. Behind us lay the Perthshire Hills, ahead the conservation village of Muthill, known for its high number of listed buildings and the ruins of an ancient church. This was the location for surprise number 3: Barley Bree.

Once the village inn, Barley Bree is now a restaurant with rooms, run for the last ten years by chef Fabrice Bouteloup and his Scottish wife Alison (Alison aiming one day to become a Master of Wine). They’re a great and skilful team, with an obvious love for what they do.

And here’s the proof: two AA Red Rosettes, entries in both the Good Food Guide 2017 and Good Hotel Guide 2017 and, as we read in the Scottish Field that day, the place where Andrew Fairlie - the two Michelin star chef at Gleneagles - comes for Sunday lunch sometimes.

Upstairs at Barley Bree are six comfortable bedrooms, downstairs a smallish bar and a very cosy restaurant, with the work of marine wildlife sculptor Sam MacDonald on the stone walls. From a choice of three starters, four mains and three desserts we opted for ham hock terrine and hand dived scallops (starters), Dexter rib-eye steaks and a shared apple Tarte Tatin, Fabrice’s signature dish.

It was a hugely enjoyable meal, full of flavour and served by friendly and knowledgeable staff. Dexter is the smallest British breed of cattle, the beef favoured by many top chefs because of its outstanding quality.

Afterwards Fabrice took us into the kitchen and showed us the Athanor cooking range. On the hob was a pan with over 20 litres of stock (beef bones and vegetables), slowly being reduced by half and then, once wine had been added, reduced again. ‘When we’re busy we’ll do this four times a week,’ he said.

The next morning after a full Scottish breakfast we headed home. But not before we spotted Fabrice, carrying a tray of his freshly baked crusty bread. We’d already savoured the bread at breakfast, with lovely butter from Katy Rodger’s Knockraich Farm.

Barley Bree is closed for a short break until Wednesday, January 11.

You may have heard a lot about hygge this year. After cool design, foraged food and rather bleak TV drama, hygge has become the next big Scandi thing, although in truth it’s been around for a very long time indeed. Hygge (pronounced hooga) is a Danish word which roughly translates into cosiness and conviviality and evokes lots of other warm, simple pleasures as well: chilling out with friends in a small café, lighting candles on winter evenings, that sort of thing.

There are plenty of books on the subject - quite a number out this year - but if you want a serious handle on hygge, head for Denmark at Christmas time and savour the real joy of cosy. Its capital, Copenhagen, is a good place to start, a small, hyggelig kind of city with plenty of 18th and 19th century buildings (and bang up to date ones as well), narrow cobbled streets, stretches of waterway (canals, lakes and the sea), small squares and elegant copper spires. It’s friendly, relaxed, easily walkable, easily cycleable (cycle paths everywhere) and almost everyone speaks English.

We had a few days in Copenhagen a year ago - photographs from that time - and, as ever before Christmas, the combination of architecture, shop window dressing, street lighting, candles and beautiful (often natural) decorations made it a joy to walk around. Danes don’t have a monopoly on candles but they sure know how to burn them, with flickering lights in cafés, bars, shops and restaurants. Everywhere. As for the window dressing and decorations, you’ll quickly realise that Danish design doesn’t end with clothes, bridges, lamps and furniture.

We based ourselves at welcoming Hotel Alexandra (pics), known for its Danish mid-century designer furniture (Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, Verner Panton). The hotel is close to Radhusplasen, the city hall square, and a short walk from Strøget, the main pedestrian shopping street that links Radhusplasen with Kongens Nytorv. Allow about half an hour to walk its entire length, considerably more if you’re ducking in and out of the shops.

Tradition demands that the first thing we do on any visit to Copenhagen is to eat a pølse from what now appears to be a diminishing number of pølse vogns (sausage vans), dotted around the city streets. There’s something very Danish - almost hyggelig - about clustering around these food vans in winter.

And here’s another tradition. ‘Welcome to the world’s happiest nation. That calls for a Carlsberg,’ said the sign in the arrivals lounge of Kastrup Airport. Denmark, of course, is the home of Carlsberg and it is one of its brands, Tuborg, that every year produces a Christmas beer, Tuborg Julebryg.

Gløgg (spiced, mulled wine) is also a big thing at Christmas, one of the city’s oldest bars, Hviids Vinstue serving it every year from November 11. For a more contemporary bar try Lidkoeb or Brus.

Our first day was very much a wandering one, taking in the sights and lights along Strøget and its parallel streets, admiring the windows in stores like Illums Bolighus (centre of modern design with a little shop for Christmas decorations, pic), George Jensen, Royal Copenhagen Porcelain and the two department stores of Illum and Magasin du Nord (pic).

We had coffee and pastries at Conditoriet La Glace, then later broke for lunch at Sankt Annae. This is a delightful little place where the menu includes about 30 types of open sandwich (smørrebrød), a traditional food that Denmark is well known for. Danish schnapps are available too, a perfect accompaniment to the herring, gravadlax and smoked eel.

Although new Nordic cuisine has put Copenhagen on the food map, more ‘traditional’ restaurants like Sankt Annae are still much in evidence. Schønnemann, Restaurant Kronborg and L’Alsace are three others.

Heading back to Strøget we made our way up another pedestrianised street called Købmagergade, past the Round Tower (pic) to Nørreport station where just behind the station is the popular food market known as Torvehallerne KBH (pic). More than 50 stands are spread between two halls, with a few places to eat and drink as well.

A different type of food hall - Copenhagen Street Food (pic) - is located on Paper Island, so called because of the huge buildings there that once stored paper. To reach the collection of food stalls, trucks and containers (offering tastes from all over the world), we took a water taxi from Nyhavn, the 17th century harbour area where bars, cafes and restaurants line the canal. Nyhavn’s Faergekro is one of many.

From the street food building we could see the mightily impressive Copenhagen Opera House (pic) which opened in 2005. It was built in line with Amalienborg, home of the Danish royal family, and with the Marble Church, both on the other side of the water.

There were two other modern waterside buildings we wanted to look at too: the Royal Danish Playhouse (popped in for a quick cup of coffee) and the 1999 extension to the Royal Danish Library, known as the Black Diamond. Design, design: never far away.

A longer trip over the water, 35 minutes across that famous bridge, took us to Malmo in Sweden. But as the weather was so grim - grim enough for a Scandi Noir - we didn’t stay long. Thank goodness for the large lamp (pic) that lit up the day. Coffee and cake were welcome at Andersen Bakery (pic) near Copenhagen’s main station on our return.

Right beside the bakery is Tivoli, the famous amusement park and pleasure garden. Generations of families have come here for the walks and flowers, the rides and restaurants but what awaits them at Christmas is an experience even more magical and memorable.

We spent four hours there one evening, wandering through the grounds, marvelling at the lights and decorations (pic) sipping gløgg at an outside bar and then rounding off the evening at a lively restaurant called Grøften.

The occasion reminded me of a Christmas Eve many years ago when, once again, I found myself in Copenhagen. While their parents prepared roast duck, roast pork and rice pudding with a whole almond - a traditional Danish Christmas dinner - I was detailed to take my two little nephews for a walk around the city.

We popped into the Marble Church to hear the carol singing and stopped to speak to the bearskin-hatted soldiers on sentry duty outside Amalienborg Palace. And all the time the snow was falling softly and steadily from the dark Scandinavian sky. Hygge indeed.

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