Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 15: The perfect bacon roll

Were it not for the responsibility of running her coffee bar, Big Lou would undoubtedly have gone off on honeymoon – had Fat Bob suggested such a thing. But she did have that responsibility and Bob, in spite of several hints, subtle and otherwise, intended to implant the idea in his mind, had failed to produce the desired suggestion. So she had eventually reconciled herself to the fact that the trip to Norway that she would so much have loved to make, would simply not take place, and that instead of waking up on a honeymoon cruise she would instead find herself starting the day, as usual, in her flat in Canonmills, and proceeding with her regular routine. That involved preparing breakfast for Bob and her adopted son, Finlay, and then, after Finlay had been dropped off at school in Stockbridge, making her way up the hill to Dundas Street. There, in the small food preparation area behind the stainless-steel bar of her coffee shop, she would start preparing the bacon rolls that she knew her regular customers would order when they began to arrive in dribs and drabs from eight onwards.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Lou knew that to some extent it was these bacon rolls that prevented her from ever getting away on holiday, or, indeed, on honeymoon. The making of a bacon roll is not the most complicated task facing any cook, but it is one that, if it is to be done well, requires a certain set of skills that some people simply do not have. Big Lou had often thought about this, and had decided that the most important of these skills was a feeling for bacon. She had talked to Angus about that once and he, perceptive and sympathetic friend that he was, had immediately understood what she meant by that phrase.

“A feeling for bacon, Lou? Yes, I think I know what you mean.”

Big Lou explained further. “I’m not boasting, Angus. I’m not saying that I’m one of the best cooks in Scotland or anything like that.”

“Of course you aren’t, Lou. And look, I think I know what you mean. The world is full of soggy bacon rolls.”

Lou nodded. “Aye, you’re right there, Angus. People think that all there is to a bacon roll is a roll – any old roll, in fact – and a couple of rashers of bacon. I have had some terrible bacon rolls in my time.”

“And so have I,” said Angus, shuddering at the memory. And now one or two of these rolls came back to him, just as the madeleine cakes came back to Proust, but without the warm connotations that the cakes had for young Marcel.

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“I had to go down to London,” Angus continued. “I was on a committee that met in London once a year and they used to send me a rail ticket – second class – to go down for that. I had a bacon roll on the train, and it was an utter travesty. Soft white bread – tasteless – and floppy, discouraged bacon, pink and limp, and far too salty, as I recall. The grease from the bacon had soaked down through the roll, making it even limper. It was a perfect storm of a bacon roll – panis horribilis, so to speak. Ghastly.”

Big Lou shook her head. “And I imagine it wasn’t cheap.”

“Certainly not,” said Angus. “I forget what it was exactly, but not much change out of five pounds.” He paused. “Of course, those who were travelling first class got that travesty of a bacon roll free, but even that is overpriced.”

Big Lou looked sad. “If only people would stand up to that sort of thing. If only they would stand up to people selling them that sort of unhealthy rubbish.”

Angus thought about this for a moment. “Actually, Lou, can any bacon roll – even a well-made one, be considered healthy?” He gave her a sideways glance; he did not want to offend. “It’s just that bacon . . . well, I thought we were being encouraged to eat less of it. I don’t think it’s the healthiest of meats. And white rolls – well, they’re not all that good for us. And they’re full of the wrong sort of carbs.”

For a few moments Big Lou did not reply. Then she said, “Everything in moderation, Angus.”

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“You mean it’s all right if one eats bacon infrequently?”

Big Lou nodded. “Yes. No more than once a day.”

Angus considered this. “Once a day, Lou?”

Big Lou nodded. “My aunt used to make bacon rolls for the orra man on the farm. She made one in the morning when he arrived for work, one at lunchtime, and one for him to take home for his tea. He lived just outside Arbroath, you see – not far from Snell Mains. He was a good man – and a great accordionist. He sang bothy ballads.”

“And ate rather a lot of bacon rolls?”

“He didn’t think it was too much.”

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“Is he still with us?” asked Angus.

Big Lou shook her head sadly. “He’s deid,” she said. “Poor fellow.”

“Ah,” said Angus. He was not proposing to be tactless, but what could one expect?

“He just made his ninety-second birthday,” went on Big Lou. “He was a keen curler, and he dropped down on the curling rink. It was the way he wanted to go.”

Angus said nothing at first. Then he asked Lou what were the criteria of a good bacon roll.

“Slightly crisp bacon,” she said. “But not too crisp. You often find it too crisp in the BT sandwiches, or is it BLT sandwiches?”

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“BLT,” said Angus. “You shouldn’t get that mixed up.”

“Acronyms,” sighed Big Lou. “There are so many of them these days, what’s a body to do? Yes, anyway, the bacon should be just right – neither overdone nor underdone. And it must not be too salty. Folk use far too much and the result is that all you taste is the salt. Then the roll itself should be crisp-ish. Not too dry – a dry roll is no good at all – but you want a bit of firmness. And you must have butter. Some people say that you don’t need to use butter, but you do. You have to have butter.”

“Oh, Lou,” said Angus. “My mouth is watering.”

“Purely Pavlovian,” said Lou.

Now, as she opened up the coffee bar on the Monday following her wedding, she thought of how the bacon rolls tied her down because there was nobody who could make them for her. James, the young man who worked in the coffee bar several days a week, only arrived at ten, and she had been unable to find staff who were prepared to come in for an early shift. And even if she did find such people, would they be able to make a good bacon roll? Lou doubted it. She could try to train them, of course, but Big Lou had discovered something about people that she had not known before: they did not want to learn, because an awful lot of people, in her experience, thought they knew everything already.

So she sighed, turned on the coffee machine and the oven, and started her day: day three of her married life – and Fat Bob was still fast asleep back in Canonmills – as far as she knew.

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But he was not.

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2022. Love in a Time of Bertie (Scotland Street Volume 15) is in bookshops now. The Enigma of Garlic will be published in November by Polygon, price £17.99