Sunday, February 17, 2008

Good Places To Eat If You're Not Hungry

As regular readers will know, I've a bit of an ambivalent relationship (50/50 affection/exasperation) with the Land O'Cakes - and one of my major bugbears is eating out. Scotland invented portion control long before that Mr Forte learned it in Dundee.

Twenty-odd years back Laban was an impecunious trainee programmer in London when British Rail had one of their wonderful special railcard promotions - anywhere in the UK return for £2. It was February, cold even in London ('86 ? '87 ?) so off to the station "return to Mallaig, please" - about as far as you can get from London - grab the skis and boots and be at Euston for the Friday night sleeper. In those days the sleeper had a couple of additional seated carriages - that weekend full of walkers and skiers, all sleeping on the floor.

There's not much greater contrast than Friday night Euston, with its alkies, streetgirls, dossers and assorted ne'er-do-wells, and a crisp Saturday morning on Rannoch station, waiting for another train to pass on the single line, snow-covered hills around and everything sparkling in the frost. From Fort William a bus to Ballachulish, then a walk/hitch to the White Corries ski area at Glencoe.

I'd booked a room in the Clachaig, famed as a climbers pub. After a day skiing I knew I'd be starving, so pushed the boat out and ordered the evening meal, athough it was a bit beyond my budget. At least I'd be full.

I was starving. I don't remember what the evening meal was, but it was something with boiled potatoes. About two of them. I seem to remember wondering exactly how much a few spuds cost, and how much of a problem it would have been to have chucked a few more on. Surely a climbers pub should serve climbers food ? After the meal I was still starved and was forced to fill up on bridies in the bar.

On the Sunday after skiing I hitched down to Bridge of Orchy and had an excellent bar meal at the hotel before catching the overnight train back to London.

Come the summer and Susan and I decided to spend a week or two camping in the Highlands. As we tootled up the A82 I remembered the decent scoff I'd had at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. Why don't we stop there for lunch ?

To say that lunchtime was a culinary disaster was an understatement. With hindsight, staff must have been hard to come by. Susan had fish and boiled spud - a fairly difficult dish to ruin. But when it arrived the spuds were stone cold. Laban had, perhaps foolishly, ordered chilli. Doubtless Mr YTS chef had read the instructions on the Brake Bros packet, and the chilli and rice had been microwaved to eating temperature. But pitta bread had obviously not yet penetrated that far North (this was 1986/7) and was more of a poser. He solved it by taking the bread out of the packet - still frozen - and adding it to the plate. Laban, ever helpful, wrote "THIS IS COLD" in biro on the pitta bread and sent it back.

By the stir it was obvious that we weren't the only unfortunate diners. All over the room people were showing off their food like medieval beggars exhibiting their sores. Some were at the bar complaining, some were putting on their coats. When a young chap with a shaved head and a chef's jacket appeared in the bar he was greeted by booing and hisses. The punters were getting out of control. I've never seen anything like it before or since.

Soon after a couple of hotel functionaries came in and started moving from table to table. Eventually they got to us.

"Excuse me, did you order a meal ?"

"Yes" (thinks - he's going to offer a refund. Fair enough)

"Have you paid for it"

"Yes" (still thinks - he's going to offer a refund.)

"OK, thank you"

The so-and-sos were just checking who'd paid, due to the large numbers of non-payers/walkers out !

All this ancient history is because I'm smarting again. This week's absence of posts was caused by a last-minute decision to head for Speyside at half-term and get some skiing in. Apologies for the lack of warning, but I only booked the house on the Friday. Anyway, we did two days at the Lecht before they ran out of snow - the snow-cannon have since replenished the nursery areas - and four sunny days at Cairngorm - the first time I've been there when it wasn't windy, cloudy or both.

We had good food at the Boat Hotel in Boat of Garten five years back, and took the kids there this time after a couple of hefty days on the hill.

Alas, all was changed. What was 'bar meals' last time turned out to be the "Osprey Bistro" this time. The quality of the produce - the beef, the lamb, the fish - was fine - although they really need to ask any Chinese takeaway for advice on chips - how they can be simultaneously overdone yet not crisp defeats me. And yet again the portions were just not adequate for people who've been on a hill all day. In my old age and less impecunious state I don't mind paying the money. But I resent paying the money and still being hungry - and more do I resent the kids - eating adult meals - being hungry. It's a good place to eat - provided you're not hungry.


Anonymous said...

Ironic, given that Scotland is apparently the fattest country in Europe.

Tim Worstall said...

"Twenty-odd years back Laban was an impecunious trainee programmer in London when British Rail had one of their wonderful special railcard promotions - anywhere in the UK return for £2."

I remember it as £4 one year and £ 8 the next but still. One year London to Penzance, the next London to Inverness. (Must have been in the 84-87 time span).

"In those days the sleeper had a couple of additional seated carriages - that weekend full of walkers and skiers, all sleeping on the floor."

Nearly empty....just enough people in fact tobe able to join the 125 club.

Laban said...

Tsk tsk.

My carriage was full of medics from St Mary's - who proceeded to demolish the seats to make up beds on the floor. You could unclip the cushions and backs - but then they wouldn't clip back again, so those travelling back the following day would have had an uncomfortable journey. Laban, with his Welsh Baptist upbringing, was dismayed at this abuse of other people's property, but the medics - nice middle class boys and girls all - weren't fussed.

Anonymous said...

I remember it being £5 in 1987 or 88 because I had to travel all over the UK visiting every PSA regional HQ (I worked for PSA). I was rather proud of my economy with the public purse but my HEO still gave me the "be more economical with the Travel & Subsistence budget" spiel despite him paying full fair. I remember railing up to Edinburgh and back the same day (well 2am next morning) and catching the 0640 London train to work while my London-dwelling boss stayed overnight in Auld Reekie.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I noticed the spelling mistake after I posted. Sorry.

Martin said...


I get the feeling you're beginning to cotton on to the reason why Scots only eat Scottish food one day a year..and even then they have to get drunk to do it...

Laban said...

I can't completely blame the Scots.

Five years ago the Boat was under the supervision of a charming French-Canadian chap - now the staff are every nationality except Scottish - mostly Eastern European.

Maybe I should have checked - we just rang and said 'do you do bar meals ?'

The strange thing is that in Scotland, the rule seems to be - the more you pay, the less you get.

We'd have been better off in some more ordinary pub - or going to the chippie.

Anonymous said...

"the more you pay, the less you get"

As a fully paid up member of the great unwashed, I had always thought this rule applied everywhere. The posher the nosh, the smaller the helping.