Ancrum’s Cross Keys raises game for troubled Scottish pubs

John Henderson owner of the Cross Keys Inn, Ancrum and chef David Malcolm  in the dining room.
John Henderson owner of the Cross Keys Inn, Ancrum and chef David Malcolm in the dining room.

As pubs close across the country, Ancrum’s thriving Cross Keys is bucking the trend with a new menu devised by Michelin chef David Malcolm.

The owner of the pub (and Scottish Borders Brewery), John Henderson, told TheSouthern: “We’re trying to realise people’s idea of a perfect, dream pub. Whether for beer or food, we want it to be everybody’s ideal of a good pub.”

While John’s in charge of the real ale, the pub grub is the domain of David Malcolm, a former chef at Michelin-starred London restaurants The Greenhouse in Mayfair, and Gordon Ramsay’s La Noisette on Sloane Street, where he was head chef.

The Australian, who most recently cooked in Aberdeen’s Fusion restaurant to be near his wife Nadine, described his new Ancrum menu as “a fusion of two worlds”, featuring dishes “grounded in pub style”, but created using his experience in Michelin-starred restaurants, and their emphasis on presentation and sourcing local – even foraged – produce.

The “approachable” lunch menu of classics featured a lemon sole fish finger sandwich: a breadcrumbed fresh fillet of lemon sole between toasted sourdough bread (sourced from the Great Northumberland Bread Company), garnished with a punchy gerkin and caper tartare sauce.

The “more adventurous” dinner menu, David said, “uses local food that doesn’t feature on menus elsewhere”, such as a starter of local pheasant eggs with Peelham air-dried ham, and picked pea flowers, or larch-cured salmon, beetroot, apple and thyme.

Mains range from smoked duck yolk, cheese, rye risotto and mushrooms, to Tamworth pork belly, kohlrabi, onion and black pudding crumble – and even the Scotch broth has a fresh twist.

“We’re taking something with history, and giving a modern edge to it,” David said.

“It’s got the usual really great lamb and barley, but we include ox tongue, lamb shanks and chicken for a really balanced stock. We serve the broth in a cafetiere with herbs, which introduces a theatre element.

“It’s been going really well, considering it’s early days,” he added, “we’ve had great feedback” – which makes the story of Ancrum’s trend-setting and trend-bucking pub all the more remarkable.

Research by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) published in May suggested six bars closed in Scotland each week in the previous six months as pubs struggled against the recession, cheap supermarket prices and the smoking ban. The figures showed 147 Scottish pubs calling time during that period.

The Ancrum pub, one of the region’s oldest, built up a reputation for good food and conviviality under its previous owners, Mike and Michelle Ludgate, but it closed for business in June 2010 after the couple struggled to keep it afloat for several months.

Two years later, in July 2012, Scottish Borders Brewery owner John added the pub to his growing portfolio of businesses (including a range of foraged flavour beers, as we reported last month), with plans to turn the establishment into a mecca for real ale enthusiasts.

“The pub is a key feature of the village and I want to build the Cross Keys into a real community hub – a place you can go to enjoy good company and great beer,” he said.

His ‘plough-to-pint’ microbrewery, based nearby at his 1,800-acre Chesters Estate, was set up in January 2011, where it brews cask and bottled ales such as Game Bird, Foxy Blond, Dark Horse, Holy Cow and Wee Beastie, created using the brewery’s own home-grown barley and artesian spring water (which the Cross Keys pub also serves and sells as bottled ‘Ale Water’).

While canny Mr Henderson’s first focus was on “growing the Cross Keys’ reputation as a relaxed, friendly pub that serves an excellent pint where locals can expect to see familiar, friendly faces behind the bar”, his long-term plans are to introduce food and accommodation to the historic, traditional country inn.

The old village pub, which he says still boasts “character and characters”, now has a bistro and courtyard furnished with reclaimed furniture “to make it feel like it’s always been”, with more plans over the summer to create a new terrace at the front overlooking Ancrum’s village green, and a beer garden running down to the Ale Water behind.

“Pubs have fallen on hard times. They’ve sat on their laurels too long,” he told us, “but we’re raising the game for pubs in Scotland.

“We don’t want to throw out the rule book, but just reinvent it.”