UK / Europe

A Moveable Feast

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Orient Express

I LOVE Hemingway. Sometimes I think I read him way too early in life. Over the years I’ve ticked quite a few of Ernest’s passions off the list (this is not the forum in which to itemize the ones of which I’m guilty of indulging). Only two big ones remain – bullfighting and big game hunting.

The Hemingway digression is for the headline, which the Orient Express company pinched from one of his short stories, and which I then duly stole from their press release for their British Pullman experience from London’s Victoria Station to the southern tip of England and back in time for tea.

I don’t recall if Ernest ever rode on the Orient Express, there were a lot of train journeys in his yarns, however. The British Pullman Orient Express is one of dozens of products the company offers, journeys that are synonymous with romance, luxury and high adventure. And golly do I love trains. There, let me get that out of the way. And I love all of the great train journeys of fiction, from Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant in North By Northwest to Sean Connery and that amazing Russian sort in From Russia With Love.
And of all the great train journeys I have been privileged to make – from London to Paris on the Eurostar, from Wengen to the top of the Eiger, from New York City’s Penn Station to San Francisco across a nation deep in shock after 9/11 – this day trip to the southern tip of England will stay with me all of my life. The trains in my hometown are an international disgrace. Recently the pack of fools and culpable villains that call themselves the government of New South Wales spent $500 million on a city metro and abandoned the project without laying a single inch of track.

In any sane country the whole pack of them would be dragged out in the street and shot. In NSW they will probably be reelected, such is the quality of politics in the oldest and most corrupt state in that nation. The only place you can compare NSW trains with is Egypt, and that is an insult to the Egyptians, God love them.

In  England and Europe the trains work. And boy do they work. In my state only a moron or someone with a death wish would say, it’s OK I can go to the bathroom when I get on the train. In Europe they are places you are tempted to bring a novel for some  leisurely alone time.

In the lobby of St Pancras there is a sign:

And when all the horrible roads are finally done for, And there’s no more petrol left in the world to burn, Here to the Halt from Salisbury and from Bristol Steam trains will return.

Part of me longs for that day. The company’s press release says “come on board and into another world – of vintage razzmatazz and Art Deco style‘’. It’s true. They also pitch the trip as “an unforgettable journey of great entertainment and spectacular English destinations’’. Also true.

And there is also the great food, entertainment and the scenery- from the biggest city in Europe and the gentle hills of this sceptred isle to the southern tippy point of the island as waves crash against the Cornish coast.

The train is made up of authentic 1930s carriages, many of them rescued from people’s backyards and museums, but the ride is very smooth and it really moves along to the tinkle of glasses and cutlery, a reminder of a gentler, more civilized age. The chairs are all deep and comfortable winged armchairs. Actors and signers roam the train and entertain my fellow lunchers, including one dark haired opera songstress who is persuaded to while away an hour or so on my lap.

When Orient Express Pullman manager Jeff Monk stops by for a chat, I ask him why people like trains so much, fortified by a good French red. “It’s such an iconic thing to do,’’ says Jeff. The trips available include Venice, Calais, Bath and Cambridge. Jeff tells me about a couple who got married in the morning and got on his train in the afternoon to Venice. And if it could be any more romantic, the groom was a British officer on leave from the wars in Afghanistan.

Something appears to be in my eye, I discretely brush away a tear with the back of my hand. “There is something very special about eating on the train. I don’t know what trains are like in Australia …’’
“Third World – if you’re lucky’’ I interject, just revving up.
“… but even in Britain people don’t generally dine on trains, and yet, and yet, there is a real magic about dining on the train.’’

Which brings us to the food, as the train roars down the coast we put on the nose bag about a total of six times.

The chef tells me that from August 12 it’s game season in England and he tries to get through as much of the local wildlife as possible before winter, including grouse, partridge and woodcock.

The game is gutted and plucked on board, so there’s a lot of work involved. Luncheon begins with English smoked salmon with giant capers and an Austrian chardonnay, the Kremstal Geyerhof Reserve, if I can make sense of these notes.

The Kremstal‘s fruitiness goes well with the creamy buttery fatty salmon and giant capers’ sharpness.

There are wine shops in the region that have been selling plonk for over a thousand years, and they’re still going, so the Austrians must know what they’re doing.  For the main I settle on a barbary duck, recently humanely blasted from the sky, which has a wonderful rich gamy flavor, and an ’02 San Polino Brunello de Montalcino.

What the Italians have forgotten about making this full round and ripe drop probably isn’t worth knowing.

I’m flagging now and after pudding with thickened English cream it’s time for a Tia Maria before we pull back into Victoria Station. Just time for a shower back at my room at the St James Sofitel before heading out into the night of London to meet some friends.

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