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Tarmachan Cafe’s adventurous takes on classic dishes rack up a lot of love in rural Aberdeenshire

You might not expect to find somewhere like Tarmachan as you drive through rural Aberdeenshire.

The Tarmachan Cafe team forages for mushrooms in the local area. Image: Sim Cannety Clarke
The Tarmachan Cafe team forages for mushrooms in the local area. Image: Sim Cannety Clarke

If you didn’t know it was there, you might just miss it.

Tarmachan Cafe is nestled in an old quarry in the heart of the Cairngorms at Crathie.

With its black exterior and modern architecture, it’s not necessarily the kind of place you’d expect to come across in rural Aberdeenshire.

But once you step through its doors you realise it’s everything the area needs, a space for the community to come together, a team who cares about showcasing local produce, and incredibly good food.

We sat down with Tom Checkley, one of the three creative minds behind Tarmachan, to find out more.

Tarmachan was designed by architect Ben Addy. Image: Sim Cannety Clarke

How did the cafe start?

The director of the architects who built our beautiful building is Ben Addy, he’s local to the area and was building a new spot for his practice on this site. He decided it would be nice to have the space open to the public and serve beautiful coffee, something reminiscent of what you could get in big cities like Glasgow or Edinburgh.

Ben didn’t have any background in hospitality but he had the building and the name. He came along to one of the supper clubs I ran with my wife Caitlin, was blown away by the food and asked if we could make coffee.

We served him what turned out to be the most important flat white we ever made and he asked us if we’d like to come and look at the space.

What happened next?

We knew the building because we had marvelled at it driving past, it’s this beautiful, sleek, industrial-looking black building.

The people behind Tarmachan: Ben Addy and Caitlin and Tom Checkley. Image: Tarmachan Cafe

We went along and it was a no-brainer, the partnership was forged there and then.

That was at the beginning of 2020, then of course Covid hit.

We kept in touch through lockdowns and had faith we had the skills to do it, then we opened in September.

Tell us about the supper clubs?

Caitlin and I met when we were both working in Whistler. We were both working in different sides of hospitality, I was front of house and she was back, she always had a passion for food.

We moved to Australia for a while, where we fell in love with their cafe culture. It’s incredible, they rejected a lot of chains so most of the coffee shops are independent, you get a really individual feel wherever you go.

It all started with a flat white. Image: Sim Cannety Clarke

We started thinking of ideas of our own to get more places like that over here, that’s why we started our supper clubs.

We ran our first few at Spider on a Bike in Aboyne after coming back from Australia and we still do them now, we try to provide something different.

What else does Tarmachan offer?

We give things what we call the Tarmachan twist, using relatively conventional ingredients but tweaking them to add a new dimension.

For example, we do a brioche roll – we make all our own bread – with a cheesy fried egg, venison salami and kimchi. It’s not your average breakfast roll, it’s better.

We also have a sourdough focaccia with a dill yoghurt, soft boiled eggs with Aleppo butter. That’s not too far detached from toast and eggs.

Caitlin is the driver of all our flavour profiles, she has an incredible knack for it. She’s one of those slightly frustrating people because recipes don’t always exist, it’s just a little touch of this or a pinch of that, but it always results in a beautiful plate of food.

Why are you keen to keep trying unique dishes?

We have a very small menu which puts some people off a bit, but by the time people try the food they warm to it.

Our pastry chef Celine, for example, is French and trained in France. She makes incredible things, but we used to have a lot of people turning up just asking for a scone.

The brioche roll is a crowd pleaser. Image: Ben Addy

We are fully aware that we are slightly detached from the other things you will find in the area, but ultimately we really believe in our food and the feedback is great.

People tend to be blown away by the fact we are here in the first place.

Who makes up the Tarmachan team?

We have four people who work full time.

Sophie is our barista and is now making a better coffee than me, I am a bit gutted about that. Our coffee is roasted in Leith by Williams & Johnson, who funnily enough are also attached to an architect’s practice.

Caitlin and Tom met in Canada and got married last year. Image: Sim Cannety Clarke

Ben has a lot on his professional plate but he is always around. He’s also technically our best customer.

We’re very lucky to have such a lovely team, it makes the cafe a very happy place to be.

How does your location impact the cafe?

We are so much at the mercy of the weather here.

I think there would always have been a seasonality to our food, but being here, the wonder of what is just 60ft away in the forest I am looking at right now is pretty cool.

At the moment for example foraging is very fruitful. Our car stinks of wild garlic because Caitlin went and picked some last night.

Tarmachan’s venison rolls are one of a kind. Image: Russell Hogg

Something we have noticed here is that people get really excited when it’s mushroom or garlic season, whether it’s locals who go out and forage on their dog walks or people here on holiday.

We do like the menu to be veg focused, but where we use meat it tends to be game.

One of our most popular products is our venison sausage roll and we set out to make it the best you could wish for, right in the place it would have been shot – either the Invercauld or Balmoral Estate.

What kind of place did you hope to create with Tarmachan?

Ultimately what we do wouldn’t be seen as particularly different in the heart of Edinburgh or London, that style of family style eating that is casual but packed full of flavour.

Caitlin is the brains behind Tarmachan’s menu. Image: Sim Cannety Clarke

We’ve sort of jumped on that band wagon, hosting regular supper clubs and using our rooftop space in summer to run events like barbeques where we can also showcase local musicians.

We just wanted to work with good local produce and serve it in a cool place that felt like a reflection of us.

What do you order at Tarmachan?

For breakfast it would have to be the brioche roll, that smashes it out the park every time.

Melty cheese? Yes please. Image: Sim Cannety Clarke

After that it’d be the venison sausage roll. We’ve had it on the menu since day one and if I could eat one every morning, I would.

Find out more about Tarmachan Cafe on Instagram and Facebook.