It is, as I know from painful experience, the way of things at all too many rural restaurants.
We could not have been more wrong. In fact, the ladies behind reception seemed mildly amused by our flushed, flustered manner, and showed us into a lounge with a roaring fire where we were force-fed gin and tonics, instructed to relax and had menus shoved into our hands. Take your time, we were told; so we did. This is my type of place.
That, I have to admit, was what I’d been told even before our extensive rally around the Borders’ lesser-known B-roads had finally brought us to the pretty little village of Swinton, complete with its English-style village green. I work with two former residents of the nearby metropolis of Duns – or ‘Dingers’ as they call themselves, although I’m convinced it’s a made-up moniker, even if everyone in the Borders, from the Pailmerks to the Soutars to the Terries, seems to have a nickname – and they were in no doubt that I’d like The Wheatsheaf. “They cover everything in rich sauces made of cream and booze, the portions are farmer-sized and half the menu is made up of stuff you can shoot or catch – you’ll love it,” Morag The Dinger had told me. And I had to admit it didn’t sound half bad.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget there are only 100,000 people in the Borders, so while The Wheatsheaf is one of the most popular eating-out venues in the area, it’s also dependent upon tourists. The evening we ate out in the Sun Room overlooking Swinton Green (there’s also a more homely dining room for the winter nights), it was stowed out, partly with a party of businessmen, but also with several visiting fishermen. The place is a classic fishing hotel: it’s comfortable; within easy reach of the Tweed, Whiteadder and Till rivers; it has a snug with fishing print wallpaper, plus maps of Tweed beats and hunting prints on the walls. It’s the sort of place where the chef wouldn’t even pause to draw breath if you brought in a fish to cook for dinner.
Not that we needed to bring anything because the fruits of the surrounding countryside were all too evident on the menu and on the lengthy specials board of fish and seafood dishes. French chef John Forrestier hails from Nancy, so he is used to cooking the sort of simple, rustic fare that makes up much of Lorraine’s cuisine. Although that wouldn’t traditionally include fish and seafood, daily trips to nearby Eyemouth harbour ensure he has access to quality fish, while the huge amount of shooting and fishing nearby means most of the game is locally sourced. The Borders also produce some of the best beef in Britain, so that all comes from local farmers too.
With that in mind, Fiona started with four slices of crimson and gorgeously succulent pan-seared pigeon breast, served with Stornoway black pudding purée, crispy apple and a commendably subtle and a light game jus which did nothing to obscure the surprisingly delicate flavours of the pigeon.
If that got an enthusiastic response, my warm salad of rabbit filled with haggis and confit rabbit leg, served with candied beetroot, did not. Leaving aside the observation that there was no sense in which this was a salad, the four disks of rabbit and haggis disappointed on virtually every level. Although moist enough the blandness was interrupted only by the jarringly saccharine candied beetroot. Despite the fact I invariably order rabbit when I see it on the menu, I wouldn’t be choosing this again.
The same, however, was not the case with my main course of roast venison with celeriac purée, seared poached pears, rosti potatoes and a superb beetroot and chocolate sauce. Despite the fact the rosti potatoes were in fact boulangere potatoes, and although the (very good-quality) carrots and beans were unmistakeably over-cooked, the important aspects of this dish worked perfectly. The venison was beautifully tender, and the addition of beetroot to the chocolate sauce (the venison-chocolate combination was in vogue ten years ago but is rarely seen these days) counteracted its tendency to bitterness and ensured a top-quality end result.
Fiona was pretty happy with her main course of sea bream and crayfish with lime risotto, and no wonder. Not only were the fish and risotto cooked just right, but the two huge halibut fillets were enough to feed two normal people. Another hit there.
We rounded off with two functional but generally unremarkable dishes, Fiona opting for a well-produced vanilla crème brulee with a fruits of the forest compote, while I went for a rhubarb crumble which didn’t really taste of rhubarb but which was served with custard, which in my book atones for just about any culinary sin.
This was the point at which we noticed all the other diners were long gone, yet there was never any pressure on us to finish up from our impressively low-key waitress. That friendly, relaxed yet efficient manner certainly endeared the place to us, as did the huge selection of wines by the glass. It turns out that Morag got it right, after all – this is somewhere I’d happily spend another evening.
The Wheatsheaf Hotel
1 Main Street, Swinton, Duns (01890 860257, wheatsheaf-swinton.co.uk)
Starters £3.95-£10.95. Main courses £12.50-£21.95. Puddings £5.75-£6.26 Cheeseboard £7.50