Blimey, it’s wet here. The 40-minute drive from Aberdeen airport to Banchory is through overhanging woods and rain-dark farmland, as unseen elves chuck endless buckets of rainwater at me.
Aberdeenshire is no stranger to wet weather. A year ago this month, incessant rain and unseasonal snowmelt resulted in the county’s worst floods for 200 years. At Ballater the river Dee burst its banks and in minutes the main street was under water. Local holidaymaker Prince Charles has joined the villagers’ valiant rebuilding efforts by repurposing an ex Co-op as a restaurant. It opened last month, shining the spotlight on the region’s excellent fresh and wild ingredients. These I’m game to discover, together with the rest of Deeside’s foodie scene.
Banchory is the biggest town in Royal Deeside; Ballater (for Balmoral) and Braemar lie further west towards the river’s salmony source. The Dee here is joined by the peaty, foamy river Feugh, and the cold, soft waters gush and tumble to the North Sea.
Banchory Lodge Hotel (doubles from £120 B&B) is toasty warm and blissfully dry, a place to unwind with an excellent whisky. At 23, head chef Fraser Rodman has already earned his Scotch Beef Club grill stripes. He serves impeccable local ingredients in caber-tossing portions: my steak and ale suet pudding (£12.50) all but sunk me. The town is a staid, stone-and-mortar place. “When our serving staff started wearing jeans there was local outrage,” says Rodman.
Notwithstanding this devotion to tradition, Banchory also has two other great, modern places to eat. The Cowshed has a chic chip shop attached and a grown-up menu: special mention to the lamb’s liver with oatmeal potatoes and salted onion marmalade (£10.50), and the huge, dive-in wine glasses. And Buchanans Green Bistro is joined to a wonderful arts centre. Val and Callum Buchanan are fuss-free food lovers whose thriving, airy place serves delightful snacks and handsome meals, with their own-baked cakes and brilliant breads. They ferment their own yoghurt, brew beers and pick from their fertile allotment. Gail and Rita forage mushrooms and herbs, and the place oozes hospitality.
The A93 to Ballater tracks the Dee west. I nip off at Finzean for the Farm Shop, a shining example of how to remain relevant, even when rural and remote. From dawn, local farmers roll up for the papers and bacon rolls. Parents meet and shop here after the village school drop-off; by lunchtime there’s a throng of incomers gorging on muscular venison burgers (£10.95), followed by gargantuan Tipsy Laird’s cake. Followed by a lie down.
Like many of the region’s estates, Finzean offers cottages and country pursuits, from dragonfly spotting to full-on deer stalking. These are also bookable at the nearby Glen Tanar near Aboyne, whose wild and wonderful Victorian ballroom is hung with hundreds of pairs of antlers dating from the estate’s time as a pleasure lodge for the likes of Lillie Langtry and her set.
Hard by the fast river and its Victorian suspension pedestrian bridge is the Cambus o’May creamery, a drop-in working dairy where cheesemaker Scott Sutherland-Thomson makes me welcome with nibbles of their unpasteurised, umami-rich cheeses.
On to Ballater, the granite village near Balmoral Castle, where most shops seem to hold a royal warrant for every service, from picture framing to haggis stuffing. Half of the premises along Bridge Street are boarded up – the flood sent some struggling businesses under – but I sensed a gritty community driving ahead.
Prince Charles’ Rothesay Rooms is dressed in dark greens, tartans and antler candelabra. Chef Guy Fenton has sourced fine local ingredients: organic beef, for his short ribs with neeps (£20), is from Wark Farm in nearby Alford, and fish is fresh off the Peterhead boats. Guy’s cullen skink (£7) has Arbroath smokies gussied up with quail’s egg, crème fraîche and an up-from-London foam touch. Next door is a Highgrove shop filled with biscuits and tourists.
Any Ballater post-flood dampness is further washed away at Rocksalt and Snails, with gallons of tea and Davinia’s deerstalker pie. If there’s a better one, I’ll eat my wet hat.
Behind Balmoral is the Royal Lochnagar Distillery (tours from £7.50), surrounded by barley fields and ice-melt streams, rightly proud of its grassy-green, “lightly firm” whisky.
Braemar is a lovely village, famous for its highland gathering, and with a timber-eaved hall for Highland flings, Lamont Sporran shop, and NG Menzies Butchers – “Bag a brace of haggis”.
The Dee-side drive back to Banchory swings past dramatic glens and shrouded bens, the fat river flowing under tweedy hillsides and past Brigadoon castles. Sometimes the sun will break through the clouds, casting a filmy lightness over the mountainsides. There are immense stands of Scots pine, and lonely, glassy lochans with wild ducks.
Along the fern-lined road is Riverside Cottage, where there’s a tapas evening and music by local fiddler Paul Anderson. Paul is a master musician and a historian, proud – in a humble way – of his place. “Like those who played before me, I’m inspired by what I look at every day. The beauty…” he starts, before launching into “Some jigs from the 1700s” accompanied by a pal on the bagpipes. “I see the rain washed over us today,” he says to me over a brace of local Macbeth beers and inevitable whisky chasers. “Looks like Royal Deeside has baptised you, too.”