Fort William has carved out a new role for itself by becoming a destination for lovers of good food…
Locals and visitors alike have been taking advantage of the town’s refreshed eating out scene, which has benefitted from the opening of two venues one wouldn’t normally associate with good food – a soap factory, and a cinema.
Situated on the edge of the town, just off the A82, is the family-run Highland Soap Company’s new factory, visitor centre, larder shop and cafe/restaurant.
Highland Soap Company cafe
The business was founded by Emma Parton, who began making organic soaps in her kitchen but now employs 50 staff and sells her products to stockists in Scotland, Europe and North America.
Visitors can enjoy tours of the factory and have a go at making soap themselves, but just as many are drawn here because of the restaurant.
The tastefully decorated eatery has a cathedral-style ceiling and big windows looking offering fine views of Ben Nevis, along with a stylish outdoor eating area.
Emma and director, Archie MacDonald, were keen to put as much local food and drink on the menu as possible.
The result is a first-class selection of dishes, ranging from mouth-watering cakes and warming soups, to seafood and charcuterie boards.
Local suppliers include, Great Glen Charcuterie, a family run business based in Roy Bridge; Lochaber Larder and fishmonger Iain Stewart, both located less than a mile away from the cafe; patisseries from Stiff Peaks, fresh fruit and vegetables from Breckenridge and Craigdhu Croft; and daily fresh bread from Scotbake in Inverness.
I attended an evening event organised for the media at the Soap Factory entitled, ‘A Taste of Fort William’, which showcased a selection of local products and was truly impressed by the fare on offer.
Top notch charcuterie
Particularly by the Great Glen Charcuterie board – a lovely selection of venison salamis and chorizo paired with Orkney Cheddar and Strathdon Blue Cheese with accompanying grapes and sourdough crackers.
Dutch couple, Anja Baak (corr) and Jan Jacob, founded the charcuterie business 15 years ago.
Anja, from Spean Bridge, attended the tasting event and explained: “I moved to Scotland with my husband and family from the Netherlands in 2000 as he got a job managing a small country estate.
“Part of his work involves deer management – deer have no natural predators so they need to be managed.
“It’s a sustainable meat source but the price the estates got at that time for venison was quite low and eating venison wasn’t as mainstream as it is now.
“He thought we should try and find a way that extended the shelf life of the meat and made something of value, and that’s how we started.
“In the Netherlands we have a huge heritage of smoking meats, so he built a box in the garden and began smoking the meat. We then developed different salamis, chorizo, pepperoni which are all made with local wild venison from the area.
“We buy direct from the local estates who manage the deer, and sell into independent retailers across the country, and selected restaurants.”
Glen Spean Brewery
Their salamis are delicious and go well with some of the beers produced by Glen Spean Brewery, another local company named “best premium lager in Scotland” at the 2020 Society of Independent Brewers Business Awards.
But if it’s a tasty alcohol-free tipple you’re after, why not try a cocktail made with Feragaia, a handcrafted, small batch alcohol-free spirit distilled from 14 land and sea botanicals in a pot still.
Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy cakes made by Stiff Peaks, founded by Lyndsay (corr) Michie, a patisserie based in Ballachulish who trained with Michel Roux and Andrew Fairlie in two Michelin Star restaurants.
Cinema with a restaurant
Across town, the good food – and family theme – continues on Cameron Square where Archie’s father, Angus MacDonald, has created The Highland Cinema, a venue with a mission to be a vibrant hub of film, creativity and excellence in Lochaber.
Angus said: “I had a great business career and wanted to do something for my home town.
“Several years ago I read an article which said the best way to bring life into a small town was to have an independent bookshop and a cinema.”
Two years ago he opened a bookshop on the High Street, then set his eyes on a semi-derelict building on Cameron Square as the venue for a new two-screen independent cinema with bar/restaurant.
“There was a really horrible building here, which had at one time been the town hall, then latterly a cinema which closed in 2005,” said Angus.
“I approached the owner and he agreed to sell it to me. We then demolished the whole building and set out to create the most photographed building in town.”
The result is an outstanding building, designed to look like a modern version of a traditional Highland bothy, complete with local stone walls and red roof.
Both the cinema and restaurant are top end, and a great place for visitors and locals to spend time.
The restaurant is super stylish, with a cathedral-style ceiling complete with stunning antler chandeliers, massive wood-burning stove, large screen showing clips of old movies and big windows overlooking the square.
There’s a cracking cocktail menu, while the food menu is all about provenance, with numerous local suppliers featuring.
For sheer spectacle, it’s hard to beat the sharing platters.
The Stalker features venison charcuterie, pork salami, cheddar, smoky brie and blue cheese served with chutney, pickles olives and salad, while seafood fans will love The Ghillie, which I really enjoyed
It is piled high with hot and cold Mowi salmon that was packed with flavour and had a delicious texture, smoked mussels, smoked mackerel pate and a selection of Highland fish served with horseradish cream, capers and salad.
The menu also features a selection of 12-inch pizzas and small, tapas-style dishes.
Among them, a Mowi hot smoked salmon and artichoke salad, fajita sizzle, tomato and mozzarella salad and a fondue-style beer cheese – a melting pot of cheddar in Glen Spean Highbridge beer with dipping breadsticks.
The restaurant is, quite simply, one you should not miss if visiting Fort William.
While Emma, Archie and Angus are working hard to bring new offerings to the Fort William food table, they’re also delighted to see other food related businesses opening up locally.
These include Rain Bakery, a new venture on the High Street offering breads, pastries, lunch coffee and gifts, while close by, a new pop-up Asian restaurant, Tiger on the Wall, a sister restaurant to the popular one of the same name in Inverness, has opened.