It was a balmy February morning when I met an old friend at Le Péché Mignon on Ronalds Road near Highbury and Islington. I had first come across Le Péché Mignon a few months ago when I had had a lovely coffee (and a great cake, I remember the staff being very helpful to check the ingredients for my nut allergy) but too little time to properly think about the space. So, when the opportunity arose to meet a friend (who I have known since we were both 5 but haven’t seen for many years) near Islington, I jumped at the opportunity to meet there.
This small but delightful café seems to be very popular. Both the bench seat in the window (where I had sat last time) and the long, sharing-table in the middle of the café were practically full by the time we arrived in the mid-morning. Fortunately, there was plenty of space in the quiet garden at the back for us to catch up for a couple of hours (and a couple of coffees!). The coffee is roasted by Monmouth, the Americano was very well done and there were quite a selection of pastries and salads on offer. One wall of the café was lined with bottles of wine while Carambars were available to purchase next to the counter.
The garden behind the café had plenty of tables and, even though it was February, it was warm enough for us to sit comfortably outside. One of the walls of the garden was formed by two sets of brick walls that had a join between them. The appearance of a separation between the walls, together with the weather, reminded me of the crack and the imminent demise of the Larson C ice shelf. However as this was probably too close to recent posts about climate change, I started thinking about defect structures in crystals instead. While pondering this though, my thoughts turned to an entirely different subject matter, the unusual toilet at Le Péché Mignon.
Just as the toilets in our old primary school, the toilet at Le Péché Mignon is outside, in the garden. This got us reminiscing about our old primary school which, during winter, regularly closed when the outside toilets froze (hopefully not a problem for the toilets at Le Péché Mignon!). And while the school has undergone significant renovation since then, it does get you thinking about the history (and engineering/science) of toilets. While this may seem an unpleasant subject for, what is after all a café review, please do bear with me because thinking about toilets can lead to surprising connections. For example, a recent New Yorker article about confirmation bias featured quite a discussion on toilets. How? It seems that while people generally tend to think that they understand how a toilet flush works, when asked to explain it step by step, they suddenly become far less confident. Our knowledge is not so great as we tend to think it is.
Which brings me back to Le Péché Mignon. The issue of flushing toilets became a problem for London in the mid-nineteenth century when the introduction of the “water closet” increased the volume of water flowing into the rather inadequate sewage system (if you are interested in the history of the toilet you can click here). The great engineer Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91) was commissioned to design and build London’s sewer system in which a network of tunnels were built across the capital. Bazalgette’s northern branch lies about 5 minutes walk north of Le Péché Mignon and runs from Hampstead Heath to Old Ford in Stratford. A distance of just 9 miles (14.4 Km), this particular tunnel has a remarkably steep gradient dropping at least 4feet (1.2m) every mile (1.6 Km). Imagine water flowing down a plug hole. The turbulence and speed of the water (ahem) flowing down this ‘drain’ means that Bazalgette had to think very carefully about how he lined this particular tunnel. If he had used ordinary bricks, such as those that make up the wall around the café’s garden, they would have eroded quickly with the turbulent motion of the water. Consequently, Bazalgette specified Staffordshire Blue bricks¹ to line this tunnel. During the manufacturing process, Staffordshire Blue bricks are baked at very high temperature (and in a low oxygen atmosphere) making them particularly resistant to erosion and to water absorption. It should not surprise us that the hardness, brittleness and texture of materials should be affected by the temperature at which they are formed after all, great care is taken about the temperatures at which chocolate is melted and allowed to re-solidify. Indeed, a vast amount of research is done to understand how different materials (from ceramics to metals) respond under different heat treatments. This research is important for applications as diverse as the walls of sewer tunnels to the design of aeroplanes. And, of course, to the design of better coffee cups, a thought with which we can return to thinking about this great little café.
Le Péché Mignon can be found at 6 Roland’s Road, N5 1XH
¹”The Great Stink of London…” Stephen Halliday, Sutton, 1999