Border spirit

28 January 2016

3:00 PM

28 January 2016

3:00 PM

There has been a gastronomic revolution in London. For some years, the Boisdale restaurants, often mentioned here, have featured Macsween’s haggis, made in Edinburgh. It is a good drop of haggis, and the various Boisdales were using around four-and-a-half tons a year. Ranald Macdonald decided that it was time to review the competition. There was a blind tasting, and Blackface haggis won easily.

Made from Dumfriesshire Blackfaces, slightly less granular than Macsween’s but somewhat more sheepy and peppery, it excited the judges in a way that Macsween’s failed to do. With it, we drank various varieties of St Cosme. The most eccentric and indeed truculent winemakers in Gigondas, they may well also be the best. Their wines can stand up to haggis.

There is a piquancy here, not only due to the pepper. Dr Johnson’s truism about Scotsmen, best prospects and England has long since become a cliché. But it is not just true of England. God made the British empire as a job-creation scheme for the Scots. It is only since the shutters fell on those imperial prospects that they have turned to girning, self-pity and nationalism.

For more than two centuries, lads o’pairts from humble circumstances had enjoyed an excellent education, often followed by further training on a counting-house stool. Thus equipped, they brought commerce to the colonies. The Borders were especially good at training financiers. Jardines, Mathesons, Patersons, Keswicks, Weatheralls: they held the glorious East in fee, and virtually created Hong Kong.

With success came its harvests; Eton replaced the village schoolroom. But any suavity was superficial. These were and are a tough race of men. Long before the empire, their forebears were Border reivers. It does not require much imagination to picture the present knights of the realm in steel bunnets on shaggy horses, hurry-ing home before retaliation could be mobilised, driving a haul of reallocated beasts whose previous owners were now prone in the glaur, throats cut.

In my beginning is my end, or at least my next phase. A few years ago, Ben Weatherall decided to return to his roots. He set up a food company, to market the produce of the Scottish Borders. His website passes a serious test. Read it after a good lunch, and you will immediately feel hungry.

Another friend has not exactly returned to his roots. But he has arrived at his destiny. Dan Jago was born in the wine trade: his father, Tom, is a distinguished oenophile. Dan tried to dodge the column by joining the Navy. Although he was tipped for gold braid, his eyesight let him down. About to be promoted to his first command, he failed his optical MoT. Appealing, he was interviewed by a very senior and unsympathetic naval medic. Dan pointed out that the days of pacing the quarterdeck and scrutinising the horizon through a telescope were long over. Besides, he had glasses. ‘What if a missile hit the quarterdeck, Mr Jago, and blew off your spectacles?’ ‘In that case, Sir, it would probably blow my head off as well.’ The charge of short-sightedness was almost supplemented by a charge of insubordination. Dan had to go ashore and hit the bottle.

He has thrived. Until recently, he ran Tesco’s wine operations. It was a tough environment in which success depended on quality, price and volume: a bit like driving a warship through tricky waters.

Then came a wonderful command. Berry Bros has been a magical wine merchant for three centuries. But in the past couple of years, it ran into storms. Far Eastern deals went pear-shaped (perhaps they should have summoned a reiver from Jardine Matheson). There was a feeling that financial controls had become obsolete: regulatory systems, a bit lax. Dan was summoned to steady the ship; to make changes, so that everything could stay the same. He must tighten where that is needed, while ensuring that those who cross the threshold into the garden of delights find nothing amiss. I confidently predict success.

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