An arts and crafts breakfast to savour

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Taking the gamble out of choosing somewhere to stay is always tricky. You might look up Trip Advisor (I never do) or take advice from a friend (not always reliable) or turn to one of the many hotel guides, some of which have hidden agendas.

I nearly always thumb through the Relais & Chateaux guide to see if there is anything listed in the area I intend to travel. Most of the properties are small and very beautiful. What’s more they are run by dedicated owners who offer the highest level of service, amenities and furnishings.

There are no R&C establishments in the Borders. Nothing in Northumberland either; but there are a couple in Cumbria and one or two further north in Scotland. But when Linda Chapman and her daughter stepped into our coffee shop for the first time, and we got talking about food and her ideas on hospitality, we sensed she had something special to offer.

Perhaps it was the fact that she looked remarkably like a younger Delia Smith that intrigued us. Anyway, the following Monday afternoon we drove up the Tweed valley to Galashiels, looking for a large arts & crafts house on the outskirts of town. As if by magic we came straight to it, turned into the meandering driveway and drew to a stop in front of an oak front door gleaming with leaded glass.

Linda’s husband Derek had been a chicken farmer in Aberdeenshire while she worked in a health food shop in the Shetlands. Neither of them had a clue about the hospitality business. It was love that brought them together and a feeling that they wanted to do something different with their lives that made them do what a million others had done before them – open a guest house.

So they came south and found Maplehurst, a neat villa built a hundred years ago by a local mill owner dripping with money. The result is a fabulous arts & crafts house dotted with oak furniture and copper, some of which Linda and Derek have picked up here and there to complement the lovely rooms and windows. Then came the hard part. Turning it all into a welcoming home they could be enormously proud of while at the same time creating a viable business.

Three-and-a-half years down the line and the house has come alive with their personality and passion, which Linda channels every morning into her breakfasts while Derek plays front of house in his own inimitable way.

We slept like babies in our large, comfortable bed and revelled in the original design features – handsome tall doors, oak floors and windows full of coloured glass.

At last it was time for breakfast. Linda’s speciality is compotes, lovely fruity concoctions such as her apricot with vanilla compote. She lays them out in the oak-panelled dining room on a buffet sideboard. You don’t need to taste them to know they’ll be delicious! I also have a thing about porridge. And how do I like my porridge, Linda wondered. “Exactly how you make it,” I replied. It came with just the right thickness and smoothness.

This was followed by a Maplehurst fry-up made on, and in, Linda’s Aga, the like of which I have rarely experienced. Scrambled eggs are a good test of any cook. More often than not they are served like a chopped-up omelette. The secret is to cook them slowly and gently, perhaps in a bain-marie, but a shallow heavy pan or saucepan with a generous knob of butter is easier.

They should be stirred gently and continuously with a wooden spoon for 3-4 minutes (a lot longer in a bain-marie) and when the eggs are silky smooth and done to your liking, add a little cream and season with salt and pepper and waste no time in serving them. I needn’t have worried. They came in a neat circle on the plate, perfectly cooked, along with tender bacon, black pudding from Stornoway and Linda’s home- made sausages.

My wife had French toast with maple syrup and thinly-sliced, crispy pancetta with a pot or two of excellent coffee, brown, nutty toast and comb honey.

A so-called English or Scottish breakfast is not easy to get right. Pushing it on to a higher plane calls for even more ability, not to say dedication, and the fact that the Chapmans rise with the lark every morning to do just that should be celebrated to the high heavens.

www.maplehurstguesthouse.; tel: 01896 754050.

Keith and Lynne Allan run a country store and coffee shop at The Old Dairy in Ford (01890 820325/01289 302658)