AS REGULAR readers may know, the fitful efforts of the nation’s publicans to overcome the historic lack of establishments serving decent pub grub has been a staple of this column over the years.
Blue Coo Bistrot, The Green, St Boswells, Melrose
Main courses £11.50-£15.95 (steaks £16-£22.50)
Puddings £4.95-£5.50 (cheeseboard £6.95)
The silver lining of this obsession is the fact that each new rant on the paucity of gastropubs inevitably leads to an influx of suggestions from readers, some of which are even printable and don’t involve me doing things that are anatomically inadvisable and/or impossible. Of late, many of these more positive suggestions have mentioned the Blue Coo Bistrot at the Buccleuch Arms in St Boswells as a classic example of a pub which now serves outstanding food in impressive surroundings.
If ever there was an area that should be home to good food-peddling pubs, it’s the sparsely populated and predominantly rural Borders. But with a few exceptions such as the Wheatsheaf in Swinton, the Black Bull in Lauder and the Allanton Inn near Duns, there are relatively few pubs in the Borders that have really grasped the nettle. The litany of readers who think the Buccleuch Arms should be added to that list, in addition to the pub winning the title of Scottish Inn of the Year in 2013, resulted in a recent and long overdue trip to visit the St Boswells pub and its Blue Coo Bistrot (most pubs with the name “Buccleuch” in the title are known locally as the Blue Coo).
We arrived in St Boswells on a gloriously sunny evening to find a game of cricket under way next to the pub; a thoroughly bucolic rural scene. As for the pub, which is right on the A68, originally a Victorian hunting lodge built at the behest of the Duke of Buccleuch, it has undergone a thorough overhaul under the ownership of Billy and Rachael Hamilton, with a bar at the front and the Blue Coo Bistrot – which was opened in summer 2012 and is a restaurant in all but name – to the rear of the building.
Stripped back and bare with wooden floors and oil paintings lining the walls, the place has a reassuringly simple, contemporary yet rustic decor in which everyday objects have been used in an interesting way – antlers painted white, for example – by someone with an acute creative eye to produce an environment that is disarmingly comfortable. A lot of effort has gone into making the place look as if it has all been thrown together, when on closer inspection it’s apparent that considerable thought has gone into creating the overall effect.
The same degree of consideration has clearly been given to the menu, which is as interesting as it is long. As well as nibbles such as haggis bon bons, chorizo in cider and char-grilled marinated peppers, there are nine starters and a specials board, plus an even greater number of main courses.
There’s a strong emphasis on showcasing the main ingredient (hence the stress on its provenance), along with extensive but classic accompaniments (the pork main course, for instance, comes with “smoked sausage meat stuffing wrapped with prosciutto ham, cauliflower and sorrel purée, savoy cabbage and Hasselback potatoes”), but the language is straightforward and unpretentious.
Faced with a menu in which I would have happily chosen just about any dish, I decided against the pigeon breast and the smoked potted mackerel mousse and instead started with a fricassée of mushrooms on toasted brioche, topped with truffle oil and watercress, while Bea went for the carpaccio with peppercorns, endive, radish, toasted almonds and a berry caper dressing. She certainly had the better of the deal, with half a dozen gloriously succulent, moist slices of home-made crimson-tinged carpaccio from Hardiesmill Aberdeen Angus fillet, with the dish proving to be the perfect starter for a warm summer’s evening. I was more lukewarm when it came to my starter, which seemed more than a little parsimonious, even if the dreamy combination of fresh chanterelles with truffle oil lent the dish a really gutsy quality.
Our main courses were equally intriguing and impressive. My four thick slices of deep red roe venison loin came from the 50,000 acres surrounding the pub and were unusually gamey for roe venison, not to mention cooked rare when I’d been informed all venison would leave the kitchen medium-rare. Still, those are minor quibbles because both the taste and texture of the meat were perfect.
I could also mention that the accompanying Stilton purée barely tasted of Stilton at all, but what sounds like a quibble was actually a blessing because it allowed the venison to take centre stage, aided and abetted by a marvellously intense red wine reduction, sautéed mushrooms and an interesting rosti, which seemed devoid of the promised pine nuts.
Bea’s choice of salmon with lemon, hollandaise and asparagus from the specials board was less thought provoking: a simple, classic dish produced with aplomb.
If my main course was the pick of the pair, as soon as Bea’s pudding arrived I wanted to swap. A huge sundae comprising cranachan ice-cream, raspberry coulis, lashings of cream, toasted oats and shortbread, this was the stuff of Billy Bunter’s dreams: a huge, creamy, calorific heart attack on a plate, which made Bea grin from beginning to end. My rather bitter poached rhubarb with ground granola and lumpy custard wasn’t a pudding I’ll revisit, even though it was almost saved by a scoop of wonderfully creamy double ginger ice-cream.
All in all, this was a strong meal produced by a husband and wife team who clearly care passionately about what they do. The environment is understated yet impressive, while the prices are extremely reasonable. Sure the portions are a little on the small side, but maybe that’s just me, because Bea seemed to think they were perfect (although whether the average Borders farmer will agree with her is a moot point). This was consistently enjoyable fare – and another step towards a Scotland full of pubs serving food worth travelling for.
• Blue Coo Bistrot, The Green, St Boswells, Melrose, Scottish Borders TD6 0EW (01835 822 243, www.buccleucharms.com)