A PAL of mine grew up near Ancrum, and when he was a single man he used to spend a good deal of his spare time in the Cross Keys, so it’s a pub I used to know well. Back then, it was a couthie local, full of larger-than-life characters who didn’t always know when it was time to go home. It was very much a man’s pub, the sort of place where the landlord might spend as much time in front of the bar as behind it, and frankly I wasn’t altogether surprised when I heard it was struggling a while back.
The Ancrum Cross Keys
Ancrum, Jedburgh TD8 6XH (01835 830 242, www.ancrumcrosskeys.com)
Starters £5-£8.50 Main courses £13-£17 Puddings £3-£6 Rating: 8/10
And then, two years ago, John Henderson bought it. The owner of Chesters, a local estate, he isn’t the sort of tweedy figure who has persuaded himself that dispatching whole armies of pheasants constitutes a full-time job. In fact, he’s a rather dynamic figure, and one who demonstrated an interest in beer when he launched the Scottish Borders Brewery, the country’s only plough-to-pint microbrewery, in nearby Jedburgh in 2011. Its two beers, Foxy Blonde and Game Bird, are made with barley and artesian spring water from his own farm and have been such a success that two more have followed, Holy Cow and Dark Horse.
The success of Henderson’s brewery project was based on local provenance allied to rich flavours, and both underpinned his thinking when the Cross Keys came up for sale. For exactly 200 years, the Cross Keys has been serving the bustling village of Ancrum, which is just off the A68 between Jedburgh and St Boswells. However, it was in danger of going the way of rural pubs throughout Scotland, where villages lost the heart of their community when the pub shut. So when Henderson bought the place he didn’t only rely on beer sales but also decided to ramp up the virtually nonexistent food offering.
Henderson revamped his new pub without changing its fundamentals. The tiny listed Front Bar, with its 1906 wooden gantry, has been retained and was full to bursting thanks to the presence of a folk band when we visited. A new side bar is planned (as is all-day opening), the terrace to the front has been relaid and the enormous garden to the rear, with its orchard and path down to the River Ale, has been completely revamped.
The main change, however, has been to the rear of the pub, where the back bar has been filled with tables and chairs, and the several smaller rooms have been knocked into one main dining room for the Cross Keys’ new restaurant.
This is a simple but gorgeous room with big, rustic wooden furniture, oak floorboards, an open fire, dark blue, Victorian-style walls adorned with roe deer heads, and period details like the old pulley for moving big barrels. The renovation was completed with an extension housing a new kitchen at the far end of the dining room and a huge hatch which lets diners watch the kitchen at work.
The chef is possibly the centrepiece of the whole organisation and is ultimately the man who has ensured that the place is now so popular that on a Sunday night in October we had to eat at 6.30 because the later sitting had been booked up more than a week in advance. Aussie David Malcolm has, amongst other posts, worked at the Michelin-starred Greenhouse in Mayfair, been head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-starred La Noisette, and (largely because he’s married to a Scot) run the kitchen at the Summer Isles Hotel.
Watching Malcolm work feverishly through the hatch was an education, and as soon as our amuse bouche of smoked salmon, hollandaise and brioche croutons arrived, playfully presented in a hollowed-out eggshell, it was immediately apparent that this is an establishment that aspires to far more than posh pub grub.
That impression was consolidated when our starters arrived. Bea’s huge, succulent hand-dived scallop came with braised ox cheek, clementine marmalade and buttery mash, with the bitterness of the clementine and the rich percussive beefiness of the ox cheek making for an impressively layered dish which was beautifully presented on a large black pottery plate. My enormous bowl of cream of cauliflower soup was even better, a tour de force (if soup can be such a thing) which included molten isle of Mull cheddar, crushed roast almonds and a duck egg yolk. Inventive, nuanced and skilfully executed, these were dishes that made us sit up and take notice.
My main course of roast saddle of venison with venison liver, salsify, roast shallot, chestnuts and kale provided further evidence of Malcolm’s ambition. Two discs of thick-cut venison were accompanied by an unexpected twist – a golf ball-sized orb of loosely minced venison wrapped in a cabbage leaf. My only issue was the use of kale, which seemed unnecessarily bitter, but that’s as much personal taste as a true gripe. Otherwise, this was a thoroughly competent job, while Bea’s veggie main course of black quinoa with roast muscade pumpkin, onion squash, Cotherstone cheese (a soft, crumbly slightly tangy and lemony cheese akin to Wensleydale) and granola was, in this devoted carnivore’s opinion, as good as non-meat dishes get.
Bea’s pudding of fragrantly melt-in-the-mouth violet macarons with bramble and lemon verbena salad and meringue was solid but not quite as exotic as its description. My pudding was by far the weakest dish, the dark chocolate tart proving prodigiously rich and cloying, while the malt parfait didn’t really work and the pumpkin seed marshmallow remained uneaten.
That, though is the most minor caveat to a top-quality meal served in pleasant surroundings. With attentive staff, sensible prices and a chef whose ambition pulses out of the kitchen, it’s little wonder that the Cross Keys has been transformed from an almost ex-pub into a local at the heart of the community once again.