You know the Borders. It’s that part of southern Scotland that everyone seems to go past on their way to somewhere else.
Apart from the people that live there, that is, who already know that its rolling hills, hidden valleys, famous rivers – Tweed, Ettrick, Yarrow – provide a lush and almost secret counterpart to the grandeur of the Highlands further north.
It is partly that blend that has brought Mark Slaney and Alistair Craig to the Horseshoe Inn in Eddleston just north of Peebles on the Edinburgh road. That and the challenge of trying to turn the Horseshoe into the first Michelin starred eaterie in the Borders.
Slaney, a fourth generation hotelier, first came to the area in the 1980s after he and his father had toured the British Isles looking for the place they liked best. He was lured back last year by Bob Downie, who owns the Horseshoe (and the Plumed Horse in Edinburgh) but makes a handsome enough living from steel fabrication to bankroll his real interests, fine food and wine.
You may well have driven past The Horseshoe, with its curious Hobbiton-like round windows. It's on the main road from Edinburgh to Peebles - right on the road, in fact - and it has been there for close on 150 years. As its roadside position suggests, it was first a coaching inn, then a pub, then a road-house and recently a mixture of pub bistro and fine dining restaurant which never really quite convinced anyone of either.
Slaney arrived last summer, slimmed down the operation, turned the bistro into a comfortable lounge bar (reserved for diners and residents - although it’s the only pub in the village, you can’t just drop in for a drink) and retrained the staff to be attentive without being fussy. He is the front of house man.
Craig, originally from Worthing despite the authentically Scottish sounding name, only arrived as head chef in April after Slaney tracked him down to the New Forest.. Between them, he and Slaney have been sorting out more local suppliers (even the toiletries in the bathrooms), refining menus and generally getting their house in order. I’m no Michelin assessor but on the basis of their Tasting Menu, Craig certainly knows how to cook and Slaney certainly knows how to pick his wines, including a delicious Spanish white developed by that rarity, a Scottish wine-maker.
Star item for me was the roast lamb noisettes from nearby Peelham Farm and, earlier on, the intriguing beetroot and barley orzotto. They haven't quite got their own vegetable patch going yet – this cold summer hasn’t helped – but when they do I suspect they will have even more exotic accompaniments to add to the red vein sorrel leaves and the samphire.
Their target, stars apart, is the diners of Edinburgh, barely half an hour away, as well as the discreetly monied classes of the Borders. They have restyled the place as a restaurant with rooms – emphasising the food but discreetly offering a handful of nicely appointed rooms so that diners can sample the wine list without having to drive home. For city dwellers, explains Slaney, it turns going out to dinner into a mini-holiday.
And there are plenty of other attractions in the area from the Border hills to the great, if ruined, border Abbeys, to the historic houses of Traquair, Abbotsford (shortly to repoen after a major restroation), Mellerstain and the rest, not to mention a keen mountain bike culture in the area. I’d say they’re not completely up to speed yet with their team; it was odd to be offered a glass of Croft Original when we asked for a glass of dry sherry as an aperitif. But one thing is assured; when you go for Craig’s food, it will be Craig doing the cooking, not some substitute.
Tasting menu from £50. Rooms from £130.
Robert Dawson Scott was a guest of The Horseshoe Inn