T he Roxburghe is nestled in the rolling Borders hills just south of Kelso, on the banks of the river Teviot, and you just need to spend five minutes in the hotel's snug little whisky bar to know that the place is a sporting person’s paradise. In one corner was a party of golfers, in another a husband and wife from Boston, visiting for the shooting, and next to the fire were a couple of Englishmen, up to fish on the famous Junction Pool.
This beautiful little country hotel, set in rolling parkland, is owned by the Duke of Roxburghe, as are all the venues for shooting, fishing and golfing, as well as the other two main attractions you find locally, racing and Floors Castle. This is important because the hotel's position, at the centre of the 54,000-acre Floors Estate, is also crucial to its food offering, with the majority of ingredients used in the kitchens coming from the estate.
It was this that attracted the recently installed head chef, Neville Merrin, a young Cumbrian with a burgeoning reputation. Most herbs come from the estate’s walled garden, the lamb hails from its hill farms and the game from its famously productive Lammermuir moors. Even in these days of catch and release, there is a steady stream of proud anglers presenting their salmon to be cooked by the chef.
Anything that cannot be found on the estate itself is sourced locally: the roe deer are stalked on a neighbouring estate, Mellerstain, and most of the fish come from nearby Eyemouth.
Merrin's familiarity with the provenance of most of the main ingredients is reflected in a menu that proudly lists the origin of virtually every dish and, as you would expect, the menu is heavily skewed towards the seasonal and the local. Virtually every option listed on both the market menu and the à la carte started with descriptions like “Borders-shot” or “estate-reared”.
The opening salvo in what turned out to be an extremely good meal was, predictably enough, an amuse bouche that was the product of the area, a liquidy and surprisingly subtle cauliflower velouté with sauce ceviche and chestnuts. I felt that the flavours could have been more intense, but Ben thought the balance was just right.
This was followed in short order by our starters. I had opted for dishes from the market menu, while Ben roamed around the more expensive à la carte section, so I kicked off with the pan-fried Eyemouth brill with langoustines, chick weed and fennel while Ben chose the grouse breast with beetroot, balsamic and vinegar.
My brill and langoustines was excellent, the delicate flavours of this beautifully white fish teased out by the slightly bitter, aniseed notes of the fennel. If I had any reservations about the whole ensemble – and this is the most minor quibble – it was whether it really needed the chick weed, which has a slightly stringy texture that momentarily distracted me from the plate's main event.
Ben, though, had no such misgivings about his grouse starter. One of the country's leading game dealers and a man who takes his food very seriously, Ben eats more than his fair share of grouse at this time of year, in the line of duty, and knows a good bird from a bad one. This, he confidently told me, was not only top-notch meat, it was prepared well and paired imaginatively with a combination that gave it a zesty freshness he loved.
The big man – I'm 6ft 5in and Ben dwarfs me – was similarly taken with his main course of Dover sole with a vermouth velouté, wilted spinach and a flotilla of marble-sized new potatoes. Priced at £36, it needed to be good – and it was perfect, although Ben did quibble about its size. With that price tag, he would rightly expect the whole fish rather than a fillet. This, though, was a minor caveat: from a perfectly judged sauce to fish that was beautifully succulent, this dish was a class act.
My loin of roe venison was equally impressive, even if the cider apples did lend a slightly sour edge that took a while to identify. Again, the meat was cooked to perfection and enlivened by the presence of legions of tiny girolles, surely the last of the year.
My meal was rounded off with a disappointingly bland baked walnut tart with a pear poached in white wine and accompanied by pear sorbet, a combination that didn't do justice to the excellence of the dishes that had preceded it.
As we weren't far removed from Jedburgh, which was once famous for its pear orchards, Ben had also chosen the pear poached in white wine with black cardamom and quark. He was less underwhelmed than I was, but would still choose a different option were he to dine there again.
Despite these points, this was a meal of great quality and one prepared with verve and imagination. Merrin has a sure touch, and with his access to such excellent ingredients he created a meal worthy of the elegant but comfortable surroundings. The price puts eating at the Roxburghe in the realms of a special-occasion meal, but fortunately the food lives up to that star billing. n