WITH notable exceptions such as the Robxburghe and Edenwater House in Kelso, or the Wheatsheaf Inn at Swinton and Burt’s in Melrose, the Borders isn’t what you would call the nation’s culinary hotbed.
Tweed Valley, Walkerburn, Borders
Four-course set menu £46 (including coffee and petit fours)
Indeed, the biggest concentration of decent places to eat – which includes the quartet of the Horseshoe Inn, Cringletie House Hotel, Osso and Coltman’s – is in and around Peebles, which most right-thinking Borderers dismiss as being an effete Edinburgh commuter dormitory rather than a real dyed-in-the-wool Borders toun.
Nevertheless, Peebles – a famously geriatric town whose main claim to fame is that it has the highest ratio of shoe shops per head of population in Britain – continues to flourish as a gastronomic centre. This is partly because of the amount of cash sloshing around the place, partly because it’s within easy reach of Edinburgh and Glasgow for a night out, and partly because of the seasonal influx of fishermen visiting the Tweed and mountain-bikers using the facilities at Glentress and Innerleithen.
One particularly welcome addition to the area’s culinary tapestry is a boutique hotel that combines all those factors: it’s a destination hotel that brings in visitors from Glasgow, Newcastle and Edinburgh; it’s a sporting hotel that still attracts a huge amount of repeat visitors among the fishermen who visit the Upper Tweed each year, and a few of those who like mountain biking; and it’s popular among the well-heeled commuters who live in this corner of the Tweed Valley.
That Windlestraw Lodge is quietly becoming a modest success has been a triumph against the odds. Less than ten years ago, the place was closed, semi-derelict and in desperate need of some TLC. The old ten-room annexe that once housed fishermen had burned down while the rest of the place had hideous old pink carpets and the smell of decay hanging from the rafters. It was a classic case of one of those old hotels that had grown old with its customers, who only kept coming out of habit. And then that habit was broken by the hotel’s closure.
For Alan and Julie Reid, however, this was the project of a lifetime. Borderers from Chirnside, they had already worked all over the area, making a success of the Horseshoe and the Wheatsheaf Inn, among others, and now they were looking for a small hotel and restaurant they could run almost on their own. They stripped back the knackered carpets to find the original oak flooring underneath, gave the decor the thorough overhaul it so badly needed and resuscitated this grand old dame of the Tweed Valley.
After taking over nine years ago, they not only restored the oak panelling and the ornate cornicing, recreating an impressive country house hotel, but they gradually established a reputation for decent top-end food, mainly thanks to Alan’s skill in the kitchen. That said, we were surprised to find there was only one other couple dining on a mid-March Friday evening, but our attention soon switched to a set menu that fused country house hotel staples with an eclectic enough selection of accompaniments to whet our appetites.
The meal started with an organic leek, potato and coriander espresso, which mixed a rich, intense flavour with a slightly slick, oily texture. Not unpleasant, it nevertheless wasn’t a dish I would rush to eat again. The same didn’t go for our starters, though, and particularly Bea’s. This consisted of perfectly cooked slices of Gressingham duck breast accompanied by beautifully moist Stornoway black pudding and a nicely judged roasted pear and Calvados jus, which lent a gorgeously sweet edge to the dish.
My starter consisted of the other option – one of the simplest but least-used comfort foods, sautéed mushrooms, which were mixed with Tamworth bacon and served in a filo pastry basket under a topping of melted Isle of Mull cheddar cheese. Although this is a variation on one of my favourite home-alone dishes (try it slathered in a pepper sauce topping with a smoked cheese and toasted ciabatta base), I have to admit I was a bit surprised to find quite such an inexpensive and simple dish on a £46 set menu.
Still, it started well, although as I progressed I found my large portion becoming harder and harder going. The Mull cheddar was as mature as it was rich, while the bacon was formidably salty and the mushrooms dauntingly meaty; so a dish that started with a big grin as I took the first mouthful ended with me flopping over the finishing line, my palate begging for time off for good behaviour. In truth, I’m still not quite sure what to make of this dish.
The same doesn’t go for my main course of Thai spiced salmon fillet in prawn and ginger butter with vine tomato, lime and parsley salsa. Once again, this was a riot of competing and often clashing ingredients, but it somehow worked far better than my starter, with the subtle flavours of the succulent salmon in no way obscured by a cacophony of other tastes – indeed, the ginger and lime in particular drew out the tones of the fish.
Alan certainly knows how to cook game, and Bea’s main course of a fillet of pan-roasted local roe venison really hit the spot. Delicate and subtle, the venison had been cooked beautifully and came with a jus of plum, juniper and white truffle that I was convinced would be overwhelming, but which to my surprise seemed to complement the roe venison very well. Roe deer will have been one of Alan’s staple ingredients during his years in the Borders, and he certainly knows how to cook it well.
We rounded of with an unexpectedly ordinary bramley apple and raspberry crème brûlée, which came with a fantastically palate-cleansing rhubarb and ginger sorbet, plus one of the best dark chocolate fondant puddings I’ve ever had, which was accompanied by a dollop of vanilla pod ice-cream.
Overall, despite specific misgivings on aspects of the food, Windlestraw Lodge passes the most crucial test of them all: would I go back? Its pleasant, grown-up service, impressive wine list, gorgeously comfortable fin de siècle ambience and good food don’t come cheap, but there’s so much to like about this phoenix from the ashes that we’d be back in a shot.
Windlestraw Lodge, Tweed Valley, Walkerburn, Borders; 01896 870636, www.windlestraw.co.uk