Thursday, 1 April 2010

The start of a 21st-century 'Grand Tour'

It as been raining in London since the afternoon. Grey – and very cold, although nowhere near as bad as much of the rest of the country, which has been 'enjoying' a sharp reminder of winter.

After a four-hour flight from Venice yesterday (with 40-minute stop in Geneva), followed by battling through the 'enhanced' passport controls at London City Airport (it would be fascinating to know just how many millions of 'undesirables' are actually refused entry at UK airports – but then again, the probably small figures wouldn't appease the knee-jerking, hysterical tabloids and their terrified, little-Englander readers), we finally made it home.

As I tried to sort various things out, The Other Half popped up the road and picked up fish, chips and mushy peas, on the grounds that he felt that: "You don't want to start cooking now".

It was hardly the best grub I've eaten – but then again, we simply needed fodder by that stage. The in-flight food hadn't been up to much – and only very tiny snacks at that. With long queues at Marco Polo to get through woefully understaffed security, we'd had no time to get food there either.

So this morning, having taken today off as a bridge between our holiday and Easter, I sat in bed with camomile tea, paper and pen and Antonio Carluccio's Complete Italian Food, which has been on the shelf for years after I'd found it in a discount bookshop and which continues to floor me.

It was no clearer today. So I set off shopping, in bright (if cold) sunshine, with no list at all and even less idea of what I would cook for today and tomorrow. All I knew was that the one place that might guarantee me some form of support in my characteristic state of post-Continent pissed offness was a visit to Borough Market; and the hope that, regardless of the weather, like last year, the first Jersey Royals would be available there – even at a price.

I wasn't wrong on the potato front. But after approaching the situation in a totally novel (for me) way – wandering right around the market to get an idea of what was available, but not buying at that juncture – I went and sat down for a coffee and fag outside a café alongside Southwark Cathedral, pulling out paper and pen to compile menus and list. And then it started to dawn that the last few days have been a leap forward in my culinary education, and potatoes, potatoes, potatoes – even if those potatoes happen to be Jerseys, those early-spring jewels of the soil – was not really what I wanted.


The British Pullman pulled gracefully out of Victoria Station at 10.45am on Thursday 25 March, carrying the first passengers of the new season to Folkstone, where they would transfer to a coach to be taken, via the Eurostar, to Calais, to join the famous Wagon Lits of the Orient Express.

The Other Half and I were particularly delighted to discover that we'd been allocated a private compartment to ourselves – no having to mix with the rest of the passengers on this rather posh package tour. Was this a treat – or a form of quarantine?

We giggled like children as brunch was served: Bellinis followed by a "fresh fruit cocktail", "scrambled eggs with chives, Inverawe smoked salmon, served on a potato and herb rosti and pan fried mushrooms". What the menu didn't mention was that our cheeky Cockney waiter would also bring around caviar. Now I love lumpfish roe, but have never had the real stuff. This was too good an opportunity to miss and, when The Other Half declined his portion, I dived in to make sure it didn't go to waste.

There was bread and butter and preserves, and then a slice of pear and rosemary tart with fresh cream, plus coffee, as we chugged elegantly through the rain-sodden Kent countryside, past oast houses and orchards – and all designed by "executive head chef" Matthew Smith.

A train. With an "executive head chef". This was a different planet.

And that different planet continued at Folkstone, where the train was met by a four-piece Old Orleans band that played us off the train and onto coaches that are, apparently, more usually used to transport football teams to and from matches.

After faffing around at Ashford for a tedious, wet half hour, the coach was allowed to board the shuttle for the 35-minute trip under the sea to France.

Amazingly, the weather had already changed to welcome us, as the coaches disembarked and drove us through Calais to the railway station. There, after our baggage – which had been delayed in transit – had been stowed, we were finally allowed to get off the coach and stroll to our carriages as the train's staff stood alongside.

It also offered an opportunity for a mass use of cameras to record this first sighting of the train – plus desperate last fags before boarding.

The steward for our carriage was Davide, who assured us that he had come from Mauritius just to buttle for us. And finally, off we set into the French countryside at a sedate pace, passing through stations where people stood on the platform and gazed at the train in disbelief or delight, grinning or snapping away with their mobile phones, and waving at us.

The compartments are small, but that only remotely becomes an issue when the time arrives to dress for dinner, requiring a certain amount of organisation. Which we managed rather well, before heading for the bar car and pre-dinner cocktails, accompanied by the Italian pianist on a baby grand, playing a selection that ranged from Piaf to Dean Martin to Abba to Jethro Tull to songs from the shows to popular classics.

As if that wasn't surreal enough, things soon took an even camper turn. Halted in the middle of nowhere for some time, an announcement was eventually made to inform us that we were being held up because, further down the line, a train and a car had had an altercation.

It was around this time that the pianist struck up a selection from The Sound of Music. Sitting around in evening dress, a number of the travelers joined in – the campest communal sing-along ever witnessed.

But so to dinner.

We started with an "open ravioli of Brittany lobster on a bed of slow-simmered, shredded Belgian endives with orange peels", followed by "roast fillet of beef with its marrow with a red onion chutney and a red wine and shallots sauce", accompanied by a "mille-feuilles" of vegetables and "potatoe cake" (God, they need a sub-editor).

Cheese and biscuits came next, followed by "chocolate and pear cake with Reims lady fingers flavoured ice cream", "small pastry delicacies" and coffee.

In this case, the "chef de cuisine" was Christian Bodiguel.

Stuffed after the cheese and biscuits, I forewent the rest of the courses. Two such big meals in one day was really pushing things for me.

But here was lesson number one: the "open ravioli" was nice – but it was, to my mind, rather too sweet. I'd have added a touch of red chili to cut right through the sweetness.

The Other Half asked whether I really felt like taking such a matter up with the chef. I suggested that Monsieur Bodiguel was far too busy to be bothered. But daring as it might seem to believe that one could add something to the art of a French chef, I stand by the idea.

The compartment had been transformed by the time of our return. But if it had been a matter of organisation to get dressed for dinner, it was utter chaos to undress for bed. It could so easily have resulted in a case of murder on the Orient Express.

Yet once that was achieved, amazingly, we slept comfortably and with no disturbance from the sound of the train as it plodded away through the French night, having finally got moving again after a delay of some two hours and to the sounds of cheering from the bar and restaurant cars.

I had already had a discussion with Davide, who, on discovering my desire to try to photograph the scenery, had suggested that he would knock on our door at 6am for the start of the best stuff. As it happened, I woke at 6.30am and, carefully lifting the blind, found that we were stationary in Basel station – he had thankfully decided that since we were behind time, it was best to let me continue sleeping.

By the time we'd dressed, we were heading into a vast tunnel beneath Zurich, and Davide knocked on the door shortly after that to alert me to the first lake. It was just the start of a stunningly beautiful journey into and through the Alps; blue skies and green water; snow-capped peaks and picturesque villages. Gorgeous – and I snapped away madly, helped by the fact that the compartment windows can be wound down very low and, whatever a small plaque said to the contrary, it was very easy to lean at least a little way out of the window.

The results – given that we were moving, and often bending round at quite substantial angles, are surprisingly good, including this shot of a rather austere castle, which was snared just before we crossed from Switzerland to Austria.

There are no showers on the train, although each compartment has a little closet with washbasin. Hot water is provided by a stove in each carriage – all of which are kept burning by the stewards. The faint smell of the stoves became one of the familiar accompaniments on the trip. The stewards also bring you breakfast – fruit cocktail, fruit juice, tea or coffee, bread rolls, butter and preserves.

There was no chance that anyone was going to starve on this expedition – and as though we'd all actually climbed every mountain on the way, step by step, lunch proved to be yet another epic occasion that I have – perhaps thankfully – lost the full menu for. Suffice it to say that it included duck and later, a tart of apples, with Fourme d'Ambert cheese caramelised on top, accompanied by black pepper ice cream and topped by a nasturtium.

Now I love cheese – and I like Fourme d'Ambert – but this seemed to me to be a case of over-egging (so to speak) the pudding. Apple tart – with ice cream: there's nothing wrong with that that requires correction by adding extra, and frankly superfluous, ingredients.

Later – stuffed for what felt like the umpteenth time in a meagre two days – we flopped in easy chairs in the bar car, nursing Becks beers and watching as the train trundled through the rain, down from the Brenner Pass and into Italy.

We had caught up some time, but not a great deal. As we headed across the Ponte della Libertà to Venice itself, through the mist and with no hope of seeing the Queen of the Adriatic rise magically out of the water before us, I felt so tired that the only idea in my mind was to get to our hotel and go to bed.

Perhaps it was no great shock that Serenissima should change that.

Finally leaving the train behind, together with the package tour groups who were transferring en masse to hotels, we hauled our bags down the station steps and out alongside the Grand Canal. A water taxi dropped us just beyond the Rialto Bridge, and we were at our hotel itself in mere moments.

A rapid unpack followed. And then we faced the knowledge that we had the rest of the night to ourselves. Food might not be on our menu, but a beer and a walk and smoke all were.

The concierge asked if we wanted directions – but we were already in the mood simply to wander and, if it happened, get lost, as it is said visitors should do in the city.

We headed in what we hoped was the direction of Piazza San Marco, rapidly betwitched by the architecture, the tiny side canals disappearing into velvet blackness, the shops trading in glass (was this the real Murano or Chinese imports?) and Carnevale masks, the paintings and the pasta.

In San Marco itself – the one piazza in Venice (all the other public spaces, irrespective of size, are campi), the Doge's Palace was lit up brightly. St Mark's Basilica, St Mark's Campanile and the Loggetta added to the ocular feast. But unlike the rich diet of the preceding 36 hours, this didn't leave one feeling constipated, but eagerly anticipating more.

We wended our way back and sat at a table just below the Rialto Bridge, nursing welcome beers and watching the lights play on the waters of the Grand Canal.

We had arrived.

PS: there are no pictures of both myself and The Other Half together in evening dress. But since some of you asked, here are the next best things – The Other Half in his best bib and tucker, and a quickly taken self-portrait.

1 comment:

  1. Loved the gorgeous pictures! Thank you.