CRAIGADAM has an enormous number of things to recommend it as a dining destination. There's the warm welcome of owners Richard and Celia Pickup, plus the fact that the majority of the food is organically grown by Richard and sold through their farm shop. Perhaps you might be lured by the fact that the price tag is by no means exorbitant, or by award-winning chef Celia's posh farmhouse comfort food. Or maybe you'll just like the traditional oak-panelled dining room, with its family paintings, views over the Dumfriesshire countryside
It's communal dining, with one huge mahogany table seating up to 20 people, just one sitting and no menu. If the setting was a bit grander than most houses, it was nevertheless a bit like going around to friends for dinner, with drinks and chat in front of the roaring log fire in the drawing room beforehand, and another hour and a half of convivial blether over the food. The only other place where I've come across this eating format is Alta, the self-consciously fusty ski-only resort in Utah, which successfully uses it as a ploy to get its stiff-lipped skiers to build bonds which ensure they come back year after year.
The downside is the possibility that you might find yourself seated next to someone fantastically boring or irritating. That wasn't my fate, though: as well as two friends who lived locally and had joined me for the evening, the other guests were: a fisherman and his wife, a Canadian over from Vancouver for some rough shooting, a couple just using Craigadam as a base for exploring the area and two Aussies from Brisbane who were tracing their ancestry through nearby churches. All were decent company, all had a tale or two of their day to tell. (Celia's comment - this is always the case, people often worry that they may sit next to someone dreadful, but find the opposite, that conversation is good and they share the most amazing experiences)
Just 20 minutes west of Dumfries, Craigadam is a classic Dumfriesshire farmhouse: square, Georgian and obviously put up during the period when money from Hong Kong and the Far East flooded into south-west Scotland. The grounds have a sweeping, Capability Brown style to them, with fields studded with Highland cows and hedgerows infested with partridge. Behind the house is a working farm and 20,000 acres of shooting and stalking, which at this time of year guarantees guests.
The farm and shooting have a huge influence on what appears on the plate in the evenings. As well as running the hotel and shoot, the Pickups have diversified into selling organic game and lamb, and have installed a smokery. The result is that virtually everything that's eaten comes from the farm and the shoot. This, in turn, means that the sort of dishes you're likely to be presented with include pheasant, partridge, pigeon, woodcock, venison, duck, rabbit and lamb, with pates and terrines a favourite. It is, in short, a genuine old-fashioned country house shooting hotel
We started off with four huge chunks each of hot-smoked salmon off the nearby Solway Firth, which got Walter the fisherman all worked up ahead of his trip to the river Nith the next day.The huge portrait in the dining room of Celia as a child out shooting with her father shows that she is no novice when it comes to working with game and lamb. She grew up at Craigadam and has been cooking its produce since she was in her teens, a fact which became obvious when a main of lamb shank arrived. This is one of the easiest dishes to cook, but the quality of the meat stood out, while the sauce was nicely understated and the vegetables perfectly al dente. This wasn't flashy fine dining, just a sensible portion of decent comfort food to resuscitate guests who've been sightseeing, fishing or on the hills all day.
We rounded off with that old farmhouse favourite of bread and butter pudding with a twist. Not only does Celia fry the bread in butter in old-school and dangerously calorific style, but rather than just using raisins or even soaking them in brandy, they're left overnight in a pot of rum. With either cream or proper home-made custard, the end result is a gloriously decadent and alcoholic version of my favourite pudding.
If the portion sizes had been very sensible, and the wine very good (you choose your own bottle from a small but impressive and surprisingly inexpensive selection), we were nevertheless too keen on sinking into the sofas in the drawing room with coffee and some dainty petit fours to contemplate the usual Craigadam post-dinner ritual of an hour in the snooker room, which is also the site of a substantial whisky bar and an honesty box. Safe to say I'll leave that pleasure until the next time - because the one thing that's for sure is that there will be a next time.