The Hunter-Gatherer Chef of the Scottish Highlands

Foraging, butchering, and cooking a meal with chef Tom Lewis of Monachyle Mhor in the Scottish Highlands.

Sung Han

“Want to know the easiest way to find mushrooms?” Tom Lewis says, rhetorically. “Put your knife back in your pocket. As soon as you put your knife away you start seeing more bloody mushrooms.” I’ve only known this guy for a day but it’s long enough to know that he’s not really frustrated. He’s buoyancy incarnate, bald headed, weighing just enough to let you know he’s enjoying life’s pleasures in his middle age, grinning as he tends to his business as owner, chef, butcher, handyman and welcome committee of Monachyle Mhor, his 14-room hotel and farm on 2,000 acres in Balquhidder, a town in the Trossachs National Park in the Scottish Highlands.

“This is one of those little spots you keep for emergencies”, he says, hunched over on hand and knee, digging into the soft, rich, wet earth with a knife. His two dogs, a Jack Russell terrier named Tinker and a black lab named Betty, trample about in the leaves excitedly. An “emergency” for Lewis would be a dinner service in which he runs out of cepes, or the chanterelles that accompany the main course of Blairgowrie Scotch beef. He keeps a motorbike in the courtyard for situations like this.

This is no emergency, though: we’re just hanging out with Lewis on a misty day down in the valley just west of Loch Doine, getting a sense of Scotland’s natural bounty. There are snow-capped Munros rising 3,500 feet in the distance, visible in several directions. Blackface sheep and Highland cattle roam lower, down in the hills. A ray of sunshine peeks through the cloud cover and illuminates the autumn colors.



Tom Lewis’s recipe for venison loin with mushrooms and greens couldn’t be easier. Since all of the ingredients come from his property in Balquhidder, consider substituting similar ingredients from wherever your home is. Serves one.

1 piece of venison loin
1 small handful of thyme, chopped
1 handful of chanterelles and cepes (porcinis), sliced
A few leaves each of Russian kale, mustard greens, American land cress and nasturtium, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 2. Season venison with salt, pepper and thyme. 3. Sear on medium-high heat in butter until browned, then put in the oven on medium for a few minutes, until medium rare. 4. In a separate pan, cook mushrooms in butter until browned. Season to taste. 5. In a third pan, cook the greens with a splash of water (and butter, what the hell). Season to taste. 6. Slice venison and place on top of the greens and mushrooms.

Lewis, who’s wearing jeans, Wellies, a t-shirt and a Barbour vest, is down on his hands and knees digging amongst the moss and leaves. He starts turning up mango-colored chanterelles by the small handful, a patch here, a few more there. He brushes the dirt off them gently and brings one to his nose for a good sniff: mossy, autumnal, earthy and with a sweet apricot smell.

“The thing about living here, it’s about making the effort”, he says. “And if you make an effort in life the rewards are tenfold, aren’t they?”

That’d seem like a string of cliches if I weren’t right here with Lewis and the dogs and a bin full of fresh mushrooms in a Middle Earth-like setting. Nor is he overly sentimental about the whole thing, like you might expect from some of the crunchier elements of the farm-to-table or forager set. He’s more of an operator, doing what he knows and understands — raising, hunting, butchering, growing or foraging a good portion of what he serves to guests, cooking what you might call “Slow Food” — not to make an example, but simply to do it. And if his frequent cackle, a baby’s joy mixed with Teddy Roosevelt-like swagger, is any indication, he’s having a good time doing it.

His efforts have been rewarded in the industry: he won Taste of Scotland’s Best Out-of-Town Restaurant in 2001, a Scottish Chef Awards nod for Best Hotel Chef in 2007, and a Michelin mention (though not a star) in 2009. In 2006 he also appeared on the BBC 2 program The Great British Menu to battle against another chef for a chance to cook at the Queen’s 80th birthday. All of it without much formal training in cooking, except from his mother, who he says went blind in her 30s and taught him to cook by taste and to taste food with his eyes closed.

“The thing about living here, it’s about making the effort”, he says. “And if you make an effort in life the rewards are tenfold, aren’t they?”

Lewis is Welsh. (That, and his level of energy, explain his impossible accent.) He came here with his family when his parents moved them from Abergavenny in 1983 to the 2,000 acre estate and farmhouse that would become Monachyle Mhor. At the beginning it was a sheep- and cattle-farming operation; they started taking guests in the late 1990s, and in 2002 Lewis took over and expanded the business with his wife and brother. Today the boutique hotel is the jewel in an operation that also includes a more modest seven-room hotel nearby at the head of Balquhidder Glen, a fish and chips shop and fishmonger a short drive south on A84 in Callander, and an artisan bakery, also in Callander.


Mushrooms in hand, we hike back to the Land Rover 110 pickup. Betty leaps over a wire fence while Tinker stands there trembling and looking up at Lewis for help. “Don’t pick a dog up or you’ll do it for the rest of your life”, he says. Tinker trots briefly in place and then squishes his body against the brush and pedals himself with two rear legs under the fence. He gets a boost into the truck, though, and Betty jumps into the bed with the mushrooms for the ride back to the hotel.

It’s a rugged road in an area that you can imagine has been inhabited by hard people. One of them was Rob Roy MacGregor, a Scottish folk hero from the 18th century who’s remembered as a sort of Robin Hood like character, though his importance is sort of unclear beyond that he caused mischief for his oppressors, Lewis points out matter-of-factly. Roy lived across from the hotel.

We arrive back at the hotel’s barn to find a red deer hanging from a forklift, headless. The deer was shot nearby in the hills, as evidenced by the trauma in the front left haunch, and then dressed and hung up for 12 days with the skin on to age. Lewis explains that deer, unlike cows, get aged with the skin on because they don’t have much fat to protect the meat. Lewis ages almost all of the meat he hunts or raises and serves here, from pigs and mountain hare to partridge and cattle.

“We’re trying to get people back into game,” he says. “You want to age it just long enough to give it that flavor but you don’t want that ‘real men’ stuff”, he says, puffing out his chest in mock gesture. (“Germans love their meat well hung”, he says, as a point of comparison.)


We start cutting the skin around the ankles, avoiding nipping any of the the meat. I’m eye level with the rear haunches, the butt. The skin peels away easily around the mid-quarters, requires a bit more effort around the limbs, and sounds like tearing construction paper as it comes off. Lewis uses a small knife methodically and switches to the handle end in areas where he wants to be extra careful. He’s the son of a butcher, working the deer like an extension of his own body, identifying the parts and where he likes to use them: The neck is braised and served in a sort of gravy; the venison loin, which I’d eaten the night before, gets served on the same gravy; lean meat goes into mince or in a burger with pork fat (also from the property) to feed the 35 staff present for lunch. Now with our hands on the meat, Lewis compels me to smell the deer; it smells good and fresh.

“This time of year they can be a bit stronger because of the rut”, he says. “This is young deer so it’s fine. You can smell it; no smell to it. You can imagine you get a big old stag, full rut, he’s stinkin’. He’s off to Germany. Hah!”

The deer, raised up as it is on the forklift, feels more like an object of worship than a piece of meat. It’s well known but not insignificant to mention that taking part in the death or dismemberment of an animal you’re going to eat changes the way you look at it. Some people claim a deeper connection to the animal or a reverence for life and the environment. I’m not overly sentimental, but what resonates is the value of the meat and the relative scarcity of it. One tenderloin, one neck, one heart. Not an aisle of bright red meat the size of a city block. Resting my hand on this freshly skinned carcass, it’s mass consumption that seems barbaric. It’s the people who get grossed out by touching raw chicken but don’t mind eating it who seem provincial.


Lewis cuts the loin out of the back, alongside the spine. He turns the rest of the butchery over to a member of his kitchen staff and then hustles us off to the garden where a quick sweep turns up runner beans, American land cress, Russian kale, mustard greens and nasturtium. There is a common grace and integrity between picking mushrooms and garden vegetables and picking meat from bone. And if you look at it this way there’s nothing to be especially proud of in the killing any more than there is in harvesting a vegetable. You certainly wouldn’t go out and uproot some beets to mount on your living room wall.

Lewis’s kitchen is a humble but very well-appointed place with a big butcher block island and beautiful Aga, a cast iron heat storage stove that burns continuously. This type of stove has no knobs or dials. It was introduced in 1929 by Gustaf Dalen, who was blind like Lewis’s mother. It’s a fitting choice for a guy who seems to always be in motion. Lewis is going to make us a simple dish with the bounty of Balquhidder: venison loin served with chanterelles, cepes, greens and a dash of Scottish pinhead oatmeal for good measure and texture. He rattles off how it’s made, then yells out the window at one of his staff, laughing, “Which one of you thieving bastards stole all the butter?” There’s seasoning, searing, sauteing and a quick assembly with nothing but pan drippings and a little butter cooked with the greens and mushrooms. The venison has the perfect amount of chewiness and a sweet flavor that works really well with the fruity chanterelles. The greens are fresh and bright and snappy.

You are what you eat, I’m thinking, and this guy has got some animal and plant in him. He’s not busy congratulating himself, though, or talking about food policy or any other agenda. He’s operating, and he’s already on to the next thing: He has a glass of Glengoyne raised high in the air.

“Boys, slàinte.”

Additional photos by Jeremy Berger and Chris Wright.


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