On the right track
Some of the finest cuisines in the world can be found onboard trains. Scott Adams hops on three rail journeys for an unforgettable culinary ride.
In a world where we spend most of our time racing against the clock, with barely a thought for lunch, it’s comforting to know that it is still possible to linger over fine food and a glass of wine while enjoying the grace of a bygone era. Aboard the world’s super luxurious trains, the finest local cuisine is prepared by great chefs as the bucolic world glides by.
There is always a sense of excitement and expectation on the Venice Simplon-Orient Express (VSOE) as the train makes its way across Europe between the legendary cities of Venice and London. “Mealtimes are a chance to savour the best dishes from the countries we pass through,” says VSOE’s French chef Christian Bodiguel. But while guests are relaxing in beautifully restored 1920’s carriages, their home for the next two days, the heat is on in the train’s kitchen. “There is a lot of pressure on myself and the staff knowing that our guests expect the best,” he confides. “Even before the journey begins, we have been busily sourcing for the best ingredients and making sure that everything that comes onboard is in superb condition.”
For the overnight journey from Venice to London, most of the fresh produce is delivered onboard just minutes before the train heads out of the Santa Lucia station. The Venetian sole, caught just hours before by local fishermen, will be served at lunch. Other specialities include the delicately scented, fried zucchini flowers and tiny, but highly flavoured prawns from the lagoon.
As the affectionately known “Hotel on Wheels” makes its way through Italy, Switzerland and France, the menu reflects the best that Europe’s famed cuisines have to offer. Guests relax in exquisite historic dining cars which are decorated with Lalique glass panels and fine Art Deco marquetry. After taking in the scenic sights of vermillion stained roofs of ancient Verona, lunch is served. The first course is usually a French favourite like duck foie gras with muscat wine sauce followed by broiled lobster with cress butter. Later that day, as the historic train snakes its way through Switzerland, it stops at the village of Sargans to collect the fresh bread which will grace the tables at dinner. “The baker can’t be late, as we stop just long enough for the crusty loaves and individual dinner rolls to be passed through the galley windows,” Bodiguel stresses.
Dinners are always gala affairs and an opportunity to relive the grand days of train travel. In the Bar Car, men in black tie and women in glittering evening gowns sip cocktails to the sound of live piano music. The food reflects the glamour and style of yesteryear with dishes that represent the best of classic French cuisine, such as a delicate fan of roast duck slices accompanied by caramelised peach. Vegetables are glazed with the finest Échiré butter from western France, while the fine crystal glasses are filled with champagne and old-world wines. Prized vintages such as the 2005 Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières from Bourgogne, brings out the flavour of the perfectly prepared sole while the 1998, Saint-Julien Château Beychevelle from Bordeaux features berry and dark chocolate nuances, which is a perfect foil for the rich Italian beef with black truffle infused sauce from Piedmont.
Before the passengers awake the next morning, the Orient Express’ onboard kitchen is already in full swing. Delicate, butter-rich, crescent shaped pastries are baked right in the train’s kitchen. “It’s a challenge considering the small amount of space we have in the galley,” confides Chef Bodiguel “but the results are more than just delicious, buttery croissants. We continuously hear rave compliments from the passengers.”
A SCOTTISH AFFAIR
There is no better way to experience the Lochs, glens and craggy mountains of Scotland than from the window of The Royal Scotsman. With journeys ranging from two to seven days, this train offers the perfect chance to experience the warmth of Scottish hospitality, fine cuisine and of course some of the best malt Scotch whiskies. The heart of the train is the Edwardian splendour of the lounge-cumobservation car where travellers relax while enjoying a glass of locally distilled scotch whisky, such as the 15-year-old Dalwhinnie. Produced at Scotland’s highest distillery at 326 metres, it boasts lingering flavours of heather, honey and vanilla, followed by deeper citrus overtones.
The Royal Scotsman gastronomic experience begins each day with a traditional Scottish breakfast complete with black pudding, smoked kippers, potato scones, ham and farm-fresh scrambled eggs. It’s a race against the clock to get all the ingredients onboard as it comes from mostly small suppliers and organic farmers dotted around the country. After disembarking to explore an historic castle or whisky distillery, hungry passengers rejoin the train for a lunch that might include locally sourced salmon from the nearby rivers or magnificent scallops which come directly from the bay of Kyle. The local fishermen know the precise time that the chefs will arrive to collect their orders and have only the best of the catch waiting. As the meal comes to a close, dessert lovers save room for sweets such as the wickedly indulgent warm toffee pudding served with double cream.
For Susanna O’Brian, these meals make her feel like she’s “part of a continuous and very elegant country house party”. She and her husband Sean, a wine purveyor in Edinburgh, were celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary onboard. “We’ve done a lot of travelling,” she confides, “but this is just so romantic and elegant.”
Fine porcelain plates, embossed with the Royal Scotsman crest, await some gastronomic marvels, including plump scallops with vierge sauce, followed by succulent roast Scottish lamb with wild handpicked mushrooms and truffled risotto or thinly sliced prime Aberdeen Angus beef. During the game season, guests can also enjoy roast grouse, pheasant or venison served with traditional turnips. Some of the off-train excursions are to stately mansions surrounded by areas of parkland where the game is shot in season for use in the train’s kitchen. Many of the male guests even get in the swing of things by donning splendid tartar kilts and sporrans at formal dinners.
The resplendent Eastern and Oriental Express recaptures the golden age of train travel while passing through some of southern Asia’s most glorious scenery. The journey begins in Singapore followed by opportunities to explore Kuala Lumpur and colonial Georgetown, before crossing the famous river Kwai and arriving in bustling Bangkok. For those who wish to go further, Chiang Mai and northern Thailand await. As the tropical evening falls, the exotic sights and sounds are best accompanied in the Bar Car with an original Shanghai Express cocktail, a heady mix of Bourbon, Amaretto, Southern Comfort, orange and lime juice with a dash of Grenadine.
While ornate temples, paddy fields and heavily forested mountains pass by, Chef Yannis Martineau and his team create mouth-watering dishes which bring together the varied cuisines that make the Malay Peninsula so popular with gourmands. Martineau uses his vast culinary knowledge to create a stylish synergy between eastern and western flavours. Diners choose from dishes such as warm goat’s cheese soufflé with fragrant Thai curry sauce or the crowd favourite, an aromatic cured duck with crispy wok fried vegetables misted in a light soy sauce. The sumptuous symphony continues with a sweet treat such as the highly original gingered pineapple tarte tatin. In the train’s richly appointed dining cars, where rosewood and elm decorative panels blend perfectly with the fine tableware, passengers are always in enthusiastic raptures over the cuisine and fine wines.