(james benedict brown) on the road

Apples and onions

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 24 August, 2008

Imperial unit of length, four letters.

Damned imperial measurement system. I am a metric child, born late enough to have only ever been taught millimetres and metres but early enough to still have bought fresh produce in pounds and ounces. I don’t object so much to the transition to metric or the lingering half-status of the imperial system, but being raised exclusively with one means I’m usually stumped if an older butcher or grocer asks me how much of something I want. And this kind of crossword clue reminds me of one of minor annoyances of the imperial system – a four letter crossword entry with the clue “unit of length” could be “inch”, “foot”, or “yard”. I’m not bothered about the inconsistency of the imperial system (twelve inches to a foot but three feet in a yard… I had to look that last one up), but I am frustrated that the three primary length measurements of the system all have four letters in them. It simply doesn’t help with crosswords.

Looking up from my paper (crossword doomed to be no more than eighty percent completed, I can feel it) I observe the scene. I’m in Broadford, one of the less defined, less attractive and frankly straggly towns of Skye, and I’m waiting for a bus. Beneath grey skies, light rain is falling, and I’ve retreated to a Beinn Na Cailligh, a café on the outskirts of the village. There are three buses a day from the principal towns and villages of Skye to Glasgow, and I tried to catch the first one. Although the ticket I bought was flexible, the driver refused to let me board the earliest serviceon a technicality. Flexible ticket or not, mobile tickets have to be checked against the driver’s manifest, so they’re actually only valid on the booked bus.

The driver did give me a lift though, picking me up from the cloud of midges beside the road where I hailed the bus and bringing me a few kilometers down the road to Broadford. There was, at least, more chance of me passing two and a half hours here than where I’d tried to board the bus.

My walking tour of Broadford was concluded in about five minutes. The main road from the Skye Bridge up to the island’s de facto “capital” of Portree passes through it, and there are a handful of minor streets on either side. For a brief stretch the road passes alongside what could have once been an attractive harbour, but just to cement the town’s aesthetic mediocrity, a petrol station and aircraft-hangar of a supermarket were built between the road and the water. A handful of attempts at town beautification have produced some delicately designed parks, but the town’s entire density is too low and the buildings are notable only for the functionality and weather resistance. Of all the towns to be stranded in the Hebredes, Broadford is not my choice destination.

But there are at least some retail opportunities, so I buy a paper and send a postcard, and once Beinn Na Cailligh has opened at nine o’clock, I saunter in for a cooked breakfast. I’m already damp and shivering, and the prospect of a meaty breakfast (black and white pudding included) cheers me. The coffee isn’t bad either. There’s an actual espresso machine, which probably tells you all about the expectations of modern holiday makers who visit Skye. I’d previously be told by a resident that amongst English tourists, Skye is a firm favourite with lower income groups (my interpretation of his words), a fact that seemed to be born out by the conversations I overheard in the café and the types of cars parked outside. There were others, however, with bemused Spaniards peering at the desert cabinet and an American woman flying in to get three cappucinos “to go”.

Outside I spy some middle aged men who’ve pulled up in a silver car and who have stepped out to photograph a pair of buses that have pulled up at the stop outside. They snap a few pictures and then drive off, perhaps to catch the same bus further down the line. During the hour and a half that I spend in the café, I count almost twenty buses coming and going. Skye is phenomenally well served by public transport. Locals rub shoulders with tourists on most of the routes that connect the towns and villages of the island with the railway station at the other end of the Skye Bridge in Kyle of Localsh, and the ferry terminal at Armadale.

I clear my plate, finding black pudding much more digestable with brown sauce. The sauces come in small plastic sachets that are kept in little bowls on the table. I remember that it was around this time last year, on a Caledonian Macbrayne ferry not far from Skye, that I noticed something on the very same design of sauce sachets.

Each sauce packet was a little double sided envelope. One side, in white against the appropriate colour, was the written name of the contents. On the back was a photograph of the principal ingredient. So on the back of the tomato ketchup sachet were tomatoes. On the back of the mayoinnaise sachet were hard boiled eggs, de-shelled and cut in halves. What surprised me a year before, and what I remembered again that day, was the illustration on the back of the brown sauce sachet.

What would you expect to see on the brown sauce sachet? What are the primary ingredients of brown sauce?

When I first picked up one of these little brown packets, I was quite surprised by the illustration. I may be devoted consumer of brown sauce, but only because I find tomato sauce a little too tart and dull. I’d never really thought about what might actually give brown sauce its flavour.

According to these packets, the primary ingredients of brown sauce are apples and onions.

Whether or not this commercially prepared and packed brown sauce had ever come into contact with an apple or onion is open to debate. For all I know, it is quite possible it was just “red” sauce with extra vinegar and colourings. But the idea that once upon a time, brown sauce was freshly prepared with green apples and brown onions amused me, because it’s only when I’m in the Scottish islands that I consider the origins of brown sauce.


Le Pain Quotidien

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 4 March, 2008

My trip to London had to end soon after it had begun. Just two nights in the big smoke, this time, but they were two that were entirely well spent. Leaving Hackney early on Saturday morning, I caught a glimpse of the windswept point of interaction between two days. I watched the moon set over the buildings of Mare Street, firmly declining the offer made by an old man in a hat of a slightly used pair of headphones.

The number 30 bus took me towards the city, and on the Euston Road I alighted for St. Pancras International. This weekend had been my first chance to see the station after its multi-million pound refurbishment and reopening as London’s terminal of the Eurostar high speed train. A new dedicated line carries passengers at almost 300km/h from London to the continent, avoiding the tortuously congested and slow local lines over which the trains used to run into London Waterloo. Twenty minutes has been shaved off most journeys, but passengers arriving in London no longer enjoy the cityscape of the capital offered by the old route: ‘high speed one’ as it is optimistically named (I’m not a pessimist, but I doubt the UK will see a ‘high speed two’ for many years) now routes the trains underground for many of the final miles into the city.

The old station shed looks a treat. Years of idling diesel trains had turned the steelwork of the roof to black, and an intensive period of restoration has returned train shed structure to magnificent glory, with clean translucent glass mounted between thousands of light blue spandrels. The platforms have had to be extended to accommodate the Eurostar, and an unfortunately functional extension now covers the ends of those trains and the domestic intercity trains that operate up the Midland Mainline to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield.

I first saw the interior of St. Pancras several years before I moved to Sheffield. Seeking a bite to eat early one weekend morning with my father, we ventured across the road from our normal London terminus at Kings Cross (for our trains from Cambridge and west Norfolk) into St. Pancras. At the time, perhaps almost ten years ago, St. Pancras was in a sorry state. The grand station was barely being used to fifty percent of its capacity, with just a handful of platforms being used by shabby IC125 and piddling Turbostar trains. We ate a moderately mediocre pair of full Englishes and admired the scale and potential of the run down station.

Almost a decade on, and I returned for breakfast. With time to spare before my 07h25 departure to Sheffield, I explored the new lower level passenger concourse. The space occupied by two platforms within the train shed has been sacrificed to open up the lower level of the station. Eurostar check-in, customs, immigration and the usual obligatory retail fits in here, with largely transparent modern structures sliding in between the original cast iron columns that support the train tracks above. The tracks into St. Pancras are significantly higher than those at the neighbouring King’s Cross; the Midland Mainline leaves the station and passes over the Regent’s Canal while those of the East Coast Mainline from King’s Cross pass beneath it. At St. Pancras this height change between platform and street was used to the advantage of a midlands brewery, who used the station’s undercroft to store barrels of beer that had been delivered by rail from the Trent valley.

The ever expanding empire of M&S’ Simply Food chain continues, although in this case with little consideration for the early morning delivery processes. Countless delivery carts carrying fresh produce had been pushed up against the glass façade, concealing the interior and tempting early morning customers in with promise of on-board snacks that were ready for the taking.

But no pre-packed sandwich or greasy fry could distract me this morning. Under the beautiful brick arches on the outside edge of the new passenger concourse, I had a pleasant surprise. Le Pain Quotidien, a Franco-Belgian I first discovered in Marseille, has opened branch of their delightful café.

The last time I tasted the wonderful fresh bread selection of Le Pain Quotidien I had just arrived in the south of France after an overnight sleeper train ride from Strasbourg. In the brilliant February sunshine I ordered a perfect bowl of coffee and spread thick sugary tartines over slices of various gorgeous breads. The barrel vault of the St. Pancras branch recalls that of the Marseille outlet, in a tastefully restored warehouse on the city’s Place Huiles, just next to the Old Port.

The view leaves something to be desired: generic coffee shops, Eurostar check-in and departing trains, but it’s still by far the best place in eat breakfast in an English railway station. Be sure to make a diversion next time you have a hunger in St. Pancras International.