Big Macs



"You can't look a cow in the eye if you drink milk adulterated with water: It's an abomination."

So states Lady Claire Macdonald, a blonde, 50ish vision in pearls and intense joie de vivre, whose cooking classes on Scotland's Isle of Skye in the Hebrides are heavily salted with strong opinions as she stirs, sautes, and chops.

Lady Claire doesn't so much teach cooking as stage a one-woman show at Kinloch Lodge, a former hunting lodge from the early 1600s.

On this island of dreamy, moody landscapes, jagged hills, and the omnipresent sea — no more than four miles away from anywhere on Skye — off Scotland's west coast, Kinloch Lodge, a few feet from the sea, is a country house/hotel run by Lady Claire and her husband, Lord Godfrey Macdonald, high chief of Clan Donald, for over 30 years.

A Scottish Martha Stewart minus the past financial scandals, Lady Claire is a whirlwind: the author of 16 cookbooks (from Scottish Highland Hospitality to Entertaining Solo), she sells her specialty foods line and calendars from her website; runs the hotel, cooking classes and a monthly menu club; and dispenses cooking tips with a dollop of humor as rich as real cream.

"I once had a testy correspondence with a Professor Macgregor, who wrote that I used too much salt," she declaimed from her demonstration kitchen.

"The well-being of eating a well-cooked meal can't compare with the virtue of people who don't eat salt, sugar, or fat," she said disapprovingly.

"If you're anxious about your cream consumption," she stated firmly as our hearts skipped a beat, "don't be. Reading all this nutritional information about food makes me want to eat a Mars bar — or possibly two."

This is no stern French male chef in a toque ready to rap your knuckles if you make a mistake in cooking class. Food should be fun, believes Lady Claire, whose ebullient approach to life and guilt-free cooking are contagious.

An unabashed champion of foods prepared Scottish-style — from salmon to lamb to cheese from sheep, goat and cow milk — she's a firm believer in fresh, seasonal ingredients.

"It's so important to remember the seasons: It puts the cook and eater in a perpetual state of anticipation."

And thoughts on well-seasoned food? "Pepper is the most wonderful spice in its own right. Twenty grounds of the pepper mill isn't going to make a dish taste of pepper."

Dishing Deliciously 
Lest you think Lady Claire dishes only great one-liners, she was hard at work preparing salmon en croute with lemon shallot sauce; lemon-cream rice; potato salad with sugar snap peas; and, last but not least, iced cappuccino parfait with toasted marshmallow meringue.

But what about accommodations at this lovely house?

The warmly done guest-bedrooms are styled with an appreciation for Skye's haunting landscape and the moodiness of the region.

Rooms abound with antiques and handsome paintings, offering stunning panoramic sightlines that bring home the beauty of the Na Dal Sea.

Not that modernity is denied here; indeed, in a way it is celebrated, with DVD players and flat-screen televisions affording a modern feel to go with the old-style warmth and coziness in each of the welcoming guest rooms.

The past meets the present very well here, indeed.

Before lunch in the antique-filled restaurant, surrounded by centuries of ancestral portraits of Macdonalds, I collared the present Lord Macdonald to ask how it felt to be chief of the Highlands' biggest and most powerful clan in days of yore.

Called "the Lords of the Isles," Clan Donald ruled Scotland's west coast and Hebrides Islands from the 11th through the 15th centuries.

He explained that clan members rallied to save the remains of the once-vast lands owned by Clan Donald after his father's 1971 death, and bought 20,000 acres to preserve them.

Ten miles from his hotel, Armadale, owned by the Clan Donald Lands Trust, houses a fascinating Museum of the Isles, the ruins of Armadale castle (the Macdonalds' castle), a 40-acre flower and tree garden warmed by the Gulf Stream, a gift shop, genealogy study center and rental cottages.

Skye is where Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Stewart) hid after his efforts to regain the British throne were crushed in 1746 at the Battle of Culloden.

After defeat, his clan supporters were brutally suppressed, the Gaelic language and wearing tartans — the distinctive plaids for different regions and clans in Scotland, worn by men, that evolved centuries ago — were banned, and many Scots immigrated to North America.

The Clan Donald tartan, dark and light green with white stripes, adorns Kinloch Lodge brochures. Traditionally, only Lord Macdonald and his family should wear the Macdonald tartan.

Interestingly, a Scottish rabbi helped design a Jewish tartan to honor over three centuries of Jewish history in Scotland — the first Jew was recorded in 1691 in Edinburgh — and a climate of tolerance.

Rabbi Mendel Jacobs, who is the outreach director of the Lubavitch of Scotland, helped create a tartan with symbolic colors in 2008 with the Scottish Tartans Authority.

The blue and white stand for the flags of Israel and Scotland. The gold, silver and red are for the Ark of the Covenant, adornment of the Talmud and red kiddush wine.

The Jewish tartan is 100 percent wool, and profits go to Chabad of Scotland.

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