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Issue 67 - Fine Dining on the Rails

Scotland Magazine Issue 67
February 2013


This article is 5 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Fine Dining on the Rails

Sue Lawrence discovers mouth watering offerings on the railways

Train journeys can be the most relaxing form of travel – no security, no airport hassle, just turn up ten minutes before departure and off you go. There is the added bonus that you see the countryside as you travel.

My first long train journey was as a student, inter-railing through Europe: we are not talking luxury here! We carried enormous rucksacks, so heavy we almost toppled when putting them on. As the weeks wore on and money ran out, meals became intermittent!

Travelling through Italy on our way home proved interesting. One night on a sleeper, having eaten nothing but biscuits all day, we not only felt ravenous, we must have looked starving too, as the train guard asked if we would like to eat some pasta his colleague was cooking in the guards van. YES we would, grazie. Never has pasta with tomato sauce tasted so good.

The next day, waiting for another train at a platform in a large station, we sat on a bench looking enviously at a large Italian family seated on blankets on the ground, around an elaborate picnic. We smiled when the mother came over to us with some bread, which we devoured with indecent haste. She then invited us to join them; I can still taste the salami, cheese and frittata.

In the UK, food on trains has never something to shout home about.

But one of the most lovely ways to travel is on the Northern Belle. This train, travelling throughout Britain, reflects the style of England’s 1930s Belle trains. Its luxurious interiors including shiny brass and exquisite marquetry set the scene for a truly indulgent few hours travel. My dinner on the Northern Belle included beetroot cured salmon gravadlax, caramelised pumpkin soup with parmesan then guinea fowl with chestnuts and braised red cabbage. An enormous cheese board the size of a table is borne through the carriages by the brilliant staff who are obviously trained to stand stock still when the train judders to a halt. The exquisite food is all washed down with fine champagne and wines.

If you are lucky enough to be in Peru, I cannot recommend the Hiram Bingham train enough. This train runs from Cusco to Machu Picchu, the magnificent Inca citadel. I sat in a luxury compartment being served delicious food and drink as the train wound along the track through Andean valleys for an all too short three hours. Standing on the open observation deck at the back carriage, I could see locals wearing bright locally woven clothes, long black pigtails down their backs, working the fields. Looking up there were mountains capped in snow: it is more than 11,000 feet after all! I tried, unsuccessfully, to spot a condor while travelling through the Sacred Valley; but the fabulous band of musicians on board sang El Condor Passa as compensation!

On the way to Maccu Pichu there is a three course brunch then on the return journey, there is a splendid five course dinner that included duck ham with eucalyptus essence, trout with quinoa then custard apple parfait. Then a cup of local coca tea to counter altitude sickness as I sat back and tapped my feet to the Andean pipe music. An unforgettable journey.

For details of the Northern Belle and the Hiram Bingham train, visit

Serves 4 This recipe, from Executive Chef Robbie Gleeson, is served aboard the Northern Belle.

2 heads of celeriac peeled and quartered
10g/half oz butter
1 bunch of chives
1 onion peeled and sliced 1 red pepper peeled and sliced
1 red chilli de-seeded - finely diced 1
0g /half oz peeled ginger - crushed 1 clove of garlic
1 punnet cherry tomatoes - halved
2 tsp castor sugar
2 tsp fish sauce
4 portions of lamb fillet (approx 150g / 5 oz)
Small measure of port
200ml/7 fl oz lamb stock

Heat a small roasting tray with a little olive oil, add the celeriac, roast in the oven at 180oc for 20 minutes.

When the celeriac is soft, remove it from the oven and mash it. Add the butter and seasoning and the chopped chives While the celeriac is roasting, sweat the onion, pepper, chilli, garlic and ginger in a little olive oil for about 10 minutes, until soft.

Add the cherry tomatoes, sugar and fish sauce and cook for about 20 minutes until the mixture becomes a jam. Keep stirring this all the time to ensure the mixture does not catch the bottom of the pan.

Seal the lamb in a hot pan, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and cook in oven 180C for 10-12 minutes. Take lamb out to rest and de-glaze pan with port, add lamb stock, reduce and skim.

To serve, place the celeriac and chive mash in center of plate, slice the fillet of lamb and arrange on the mash.

Spoon the tomato and chilli jam on top, pour the sauce around the lamb and mash. Serve with seasonal vegetables

The idea for this is from American food writer M. F. K Fisher’s “Railroad Sandwich” (from her 1976 book The Art of Eating) which her family perfected on long train journeys. They called upon a fellow passenger, preferably one of ample girth, to do the sitting. Timing is not crucial but, depending on girth and corpulence, I advise a minimum of 20 minutes.

1 short, wide French loaf
60 - 75g / 2 - 2¾ oz butter
wholegrain or Dijon mustard
approx. 110g / 4 oz quality cooked ham, sliced

Slice loaf horizontally into two halves, remove some of the inner crumb.

Spread both sides generously with butter, smear mustard onto one side.

Place ham along one half, top with the other half, pressing down firmly together.

Wrap in foil then in plastic bag then wrap in a tea towel.

Sit on the loaf (gently but firmly) for 20 to 30 minutes, then carefully unwrap, cut in two and devour.

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