26 | Jun | 13

Richard Johnson

River Cafe?

Does it still count as street food — even if it’s served on the water? As 15 of London’s coolest traders gather in the galley of a floating pub in Vauxhall, I remember the wonderful day I found my sea legs. And ate — aboard The Pride of Belhaven.

There was a safety demonstration. Not “cabin doors to manual and cross check”, you understand. Just Hamish, the skipper, pointing out the two small exits on the canal boat as he pulled away from the towpath. Hamish prides himself on the fact that his Sunday lunch cruise is a relaxed affair. For a start, he won’t be travelling above 3mph. And he knows that if anything does goes wrong, it won’t be serious – the Union Canal, just outside Edinburgh, is only four-foot deep. The diners would hardly get their feet wet.

But accidents do happen – even at 3mph. Hamish will, for instance, be navigating the Pride of Belhaven over a narrow aqueduct. “It’s 62 foot of boat, with a clearance of only a few inches on either side” he says, “and if you approach the aqueduct at the wrong angle, you’ll get quite a bang. Around here it’s easy to get a piece of wood caught between your rudder and your rudder stem – and your steering suddenly goes. All you can do is slam the boat into reverse, and bang into the bank. You do have to be careful.”

The Pride of Belhaven is moored outside the Bridge Inn, in the pretty village of Ratho – eight miles outside Edinburgh. The Inn was once a farmhouse, dating from the middle of the Eighteenth Century, and was compulsorily purchased for the building of the Union canal. It became a staging post, offering travellers food and accommodation – an early version of a motorway service station. But with cleaner toilets. When Rachel Bucknall took over the Inn, in 2010, the Pride of Belhaven came as part of the deal. As they say, it’s been an education.

Having worked at Justin de Blank, the Belgravia eaterie, Rachel had hands-on food experience – she was in charge of all the cooked food for the Harvey Nichols Food Hall. But she had no experience of boats. “Well,” she says, “we had a little boat that the family used to fish for mackerel – in Fife. We took our lobster pots down with us, and had a lovely time.” But The Pride of Belhaven was different. Bigger, for a start. “Thank heavens that Hamish, the skipper, came with the business. At least he knew what he was doing.”

Rachel started by putting her pork on the menu. She ran a farm, on the other side of the canal from the Bridge Inn, and decided to up the breeding programme to supply the boat. She crossed Willow, her prize Saddleback, with a Black. “Saddlebacks give lovely crackling” she says, “but they can get a bit too fat. So I got a Black in to see if the piglets would be a bit leaner.” They were. Head Chef Lee Skelton is happy to put a slower maturing meat on his menu because – when they reach the right level of ‘finish’ – they have developed a lot more flavour.

Lee is frantically trying to cook up a three-course lunch – including sea bream, and Rachel’s pork – in the bowels of the boat. His cookers aren’t mounted on gimbals. His chopping boards aren’t clamped onto the work surfaces. And his knives aren’t held tightly to the walls by magnetic strips. He doesn’t feel the need. Hamish has been skippering for 10 years now, and Lee is confident in his abilities. To be fair, it must calm the nerves when you can see families with young children on the towpath who are travelling faster than you are.

Today, Lee has to prep 20 covers. He can work miracles with a four-burner stove, a bain marie and a “hot cupboard” – a traditional gas oven would use far too much gas. It doesn’t make things any easier that Lee is working with a new kitchen assistant – the last one suffered from seasickness. “I’ll do my best” he says. “I’ve learnt to adapt my menu to the boat. Which means I’ve got cold starters, to free the top of the stove for main courses like my pan-fried sea bream. On a boat it’s all got to be quick and easy.”

The water looks calm. But the fire extinguishers in the boat’s kitchen are still strapped down – just in case. And there’s a guard on the stove, to stop the pots flying off. “Unfortunately,” says Lee, “that means I have to tuck my frying pan handle between the bars. In the last really bad gale, the wind was so powerful that we got blown around and the plates crashed onto the floor. And once I was flaming a strawberry for dessert when Hamish banged the boat against the side. I was lucky I didn’t lose my finger.”

Hildur brings round the wine list – there are no licensing restrictions once The Pride of Belhaven is underway. “We can serve 24 hours a day if we wanted to” says Rachel Bucknall. “We had a lot of Frenchmen over for a France v Scotland match, and they all turned up at 12pm. Our licensing in the pub doesn’t start until 12.30pm, so we thought ‘What on earth do you do with 30 Frenchmen, desperate for beer?’. We put them in the boat, pootled off down the canal, played them some Scottish music, and served them beer. It was lovely.”

To think that the railways nearly killed off Britain’s canals. People thought of them as little more than foul-smelling ditches, and they faced a future of abandonment and closure. In the 1950s, all that was left was a handful of boats, struggling through a dirty and decaying system. It took a group of forward-thinking individuals – the Inland Waterways Association – to persuade the government to recognise the potential of the canal system for leisure and tourism and, in 1968, the Transport Act stopped the rot.

There are now three times more boats using the network than there were in 1968 – enough traffic to warrant the opening of the Millenium Ribble Link at Preston, the first new canal in over a century. And all over Britain, people are starting to discover the joy of eating and drinking on the water. There is a new network of cafes and restaurant boats, including The Glass Boat in Bristol, the Gongoozlers Rest in Braunston and The Oliver Cromwell in Gloucester Docks. There are coffee boats and ice cream boats – even cheese boats, with spontaneous cheese tastings along the towpath.

And it’s not just the canals. It’s our rivers as well. The Visitor Boat, for instance, is a converted coal barge on the Thames where waiters garnish the food with herbs, fresh from the ‘garden’ – upstairs, on the deck of the boat. Diners can hear the waves beneath them. They can see the majesty of Tower Bridge through the windows. And they can smell the tug-boat diesel as it’s blown along from Westminster pier. But with a roster of magnificent chefs to draw on, it’s not the smell of diesel that the diners take away with them.

10 year ago, the Union canal was classed as a “remainder waterway” – part of it had been filled in. But in a flurry of activity around the Millenium, the funding was found to renovate it. Diners can now travel from Edinburgh to Falkirk by canal. While they eat, they can watch the swans, the herons, the stoats and the otters. And the optimistic fishermen. Hamish remembers watching a Frenchman pull out a pike. “I wouldn’t have eaten it – but he marinated it in red wine overnight and ate it the next day for his lunch. He loved it.”

Lee – who loves to fish on his days off – has never put pike on the menu. He doesn’t need to. He has access to top quality local produce. Whether it’s Rachel’s pork, stuffed with haggis, or pheasant from a local gamekeeper served up with apples from Rachel’s orchard. And if ever he’s in danger of running out – and can’t convince enough people on board to switch their order – Rachel will just hop into the 4 x 4 and drive extra supplies down to him. “Many is the time that she’s jumped on the boat with a whole blackcurrant cheesecake.”

Hamish is still up on deck – focussed on the canal, as it winds ahead. He keeps looking at his watch because he’s intent on running the Pride of Belhaven to time. He knows that Lee likes to serve the diners their starters and main courses on the way to the aqueduct – and their desserts and coffee on the way back. “But if the chef’s had a bit of a bad night, he might not get the food out as quickly as usual” says Hamish. “So I’ve got to find a way of slowing things down.” Which would, effectively, mean going backwards.

After a brief stop at the aqueduct, Hamish turns the boat round. And Hildur, the waitress, serves up dessert – from a distance. “You have to be careful” she says. “Normally, customers will reach out. But I don’t go too near them, in case there’s a little accident.” Charlie, her assistant, knows all about little accidents. He has just spilt red wine on the white tablecloth. “He was shaking” says Hildur. “He wouldn’t take the the desserts out at all. He left that to me. Normally I put a little doily underneath the bowls, so they don’t slip. But he’ll learn in time.”