Short Break - The Horseshoe Inn, Eddleston, Peebles
PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 May 2014
He's always loved Scotland's scenery, but until this visit our reviewer's enthusiasm for the nation's cuisine was limited to Edinburgh rock...
We must declare an interest straight away: we love Scotland.
We love the wildness, the mountains, the space, the lochs, the glens, the Borders, the Trossachs, the whisky, Edinburgh rock and the Scots themselves. Jings, we love it so much that the present Mrs Castle and I married there, secretly, a quarter of a century ago.
But Scottish food...ah, well. In all our many visits we can remember only one occasion when we had eaten especially well, Edinburgh rock notwithstanding. So the idea of a gourmet weekend at a small establishment near the Borders town of Peebles piqued interest. Could this old pub, now a restaurant with rooms, alter our rather jaded view of Scots cuisine?
Early signs were good; we were met by the ever-courteous Mario at the airport, offered a little refresher from a hamper in the boot and chauffeured to our weekend retreat.
The Horseshoe Inn has been a fixture in Eddleston for a century or more. In recent years it has been a successful enough restaurant, garnering a clutch of awards.
A little over 18 months ago it was sold and a new broom swept in, in the elegant form of expert hotelier Mark Slaney, a man with hospitality in his DNA, with a brief to turn the Horseshoe into a real gastronomic destination magnet able to attract diners looking for something special.
An ambitious young chef, Alistair Craig, was recruited from a Michelin-starred kitchen, the dining areas and bar refurbished and residential rooms in the adjacent old Victorian village school given a new look, all delightful, understatedly smart, without being self-consciously ‘designer’.
To ensure that what is known nowadays as the ‘customer experience’ is always positive, the ratio of staff to customers has been kept high with the consequence that the service is exemplary, attentive without being intrusive.
At the appointed hour the gustatory treats began; champagne and canapés, little mouthfuls of joy, airy biscuits dissolving on the tongue in an aromatic puff of cheese, crispy little crackers with morsels of crab mayonnaise and bright, fresh olives.We lazily opted out of choosing from the à la carte and instead took the tasting courses, with wine, naturally.
At a stroke all past disappointments in Scottish dining rooms were consigned to the bin. From the amuse bouche of celeriac cream with tiny pickled fungi, through a perfectly cooked scallop to a prime piece of venison we were treated to a procession of food as epicurean jewellery, exquisitely cooked and presented. Each course was accompanied by a wine chosen by Mr Slaney, bringing his 30-odd years in the wine trade to bear with delicious effect. The casual onlooker could be forgiven for thinking we were re-enacting that scene from When Harry Met Sally, all stifled moans, squeals and exhalations of pleasure. Most of the produce used by the sorcerer in his kitchen is local and there is much good Scots provender to be had. But if chef says something from outside the parish tastes better, then that is what chef gets, which is to be applauded.
The next day, after an excellent breakfast, we joined Mr Slaney for the next part of this gourmet weekend, the grand tour. Even on a wild winter’s day the Borders have an austere beauty and sense of space which gives the lie to the ‘crowded islands’ line. You might be elbow to armpit in the Home Counties, but there is plenty of room up there. Mr Slaney was an engaging guide, his love of his adopted home shining through his easy commentary on the rich history, fauna and flora of this beautiful place.
Lunchtime took us to Ettrick Valley Smokehouse, where Mike Roberts takes wild rod or net-caught fish and turns it into the most divine smoked salmon. We worked our way through a platter of silky smoked and hot smoked salmon, plus well-chosen wine, a log fire keeping the chills at bay. And then it was time to meander back to the Horseshoe, carrying a Burns’ Night haggis, carefully smoked by Mike, for another fine evening at the table. The food – the whole experience - was superb and any chef who can persuade Mrs C that haggis can be good to eat clearly is a man with powers to be reckoned with.
This weekend was a delight; luxurious without being grand, relaxed but still special. The ghosts of our duff Scottish meals of the past have been laid to rest. n
We were guests of The Horseshoe Inn, Eddleston, Peebles, EH45 8QP Tel: 01721 730225. Gourmet weekends £350 per person, including chauffeur-driven collection from Edinburgh airport or station. www.horseshoeinn.co.uk
Ettrick Valley Smokehouse does mail order