Real Meals: Train food

The latest Real Meals column from the New Statesman:

My nephew Jack and I are heading south after an unsuccessful attempt to reach the remote Hebridean island of St Kilda. Facing the implacability of a force-nine gale, Angus the skipper demurred. Mind you, when we arrived at the quayside in Stornoway, I’d felt like demurring as well; it wasn’t so much the prospect of 40 miles of heaving North Atlantic as the spectacle of hungry gulls mobbing the back of Angus’s pick-up. “They got a whole load of sausage rolls earlier on,” he admitted.

Now we’re midway through a long day of transport food. Jack gave the full Scottish on the Ullapool ferry a swerve but, for want of anything else to do, I tucked away egg, bacon, black pudding and toast, then sat burping Buddhistically as the ship lurched and groaned. There was nothing to eat on the coach to Inverness – probably just as well, because a sick bag was looped round every armrest and the atmosphere was charged with static electricity and the fumes of stale puke. Jack managed to cram a wrap of some sort down his neck at the Costa in Inverness; I had the driest ham sandwich of my life as the train jogged through the Grampians and down to Edinburgh.

So, we’re standing in Waverley Station, waiting for the 5pm East Coast service to King’s Cross to pull in. Jack has been unable to resist 12 Millie’s Cookies mini bites for £3.95 – and I’m with him on that one: I doubt I’d be able to resist a Millie’s cookie in front of a firing squad, eschewing the blindfold for their toothsome chewiness. “Look,” I instruct him, “when we board, we need to get seats right by the buffet so we’re in pole position for the dining car. If we go in for a sitting after an hour or so, we should be able to hang out there for the remainder of the journey, thus blagging ourselves a first-class seat.”

It’s little tips like these that I see as the very essence of the avuncular, but when I present myself guilelessly to the steward, she’s having none of it.
“If you’re in second class,” she says unprompted, “you’ve to eat and then return to your seats immediately.”

“You mean right away?” I query Bertie Woosterishly.


Even so, a railway supper is always worth having; it doesn’t matter that the decor is Noughties-utilitarian, nor that the view is of the cooling towers of Eggborough Power Station. The mere fact of a waiter staggering towards you with a steaming platter conjures up the romance of the Stamboul train – or, at least, the Brighton Belle of my childhood, when we ate kippers under plush shades and my father excoriated Lord Beeching again and again and again.

Leek and potato soup, £4. A spicy roast breast of chicken with preserved lemon and served on a bed of basmati rice, £16. Not even the miserable vers libre of menu language can frustrate the punctuation of those rounded-off prices. Nonetheless, I had the leek and potato soup; Jack had the ratatouille tart. I had cod; Jack had a steak. I had the pear and hazelnut pastry; Jack crammed down a chocolate fudge cake – even though the Millie’s mini bites were eating him from within. When the un-Spartan boy protested at all this noshing, I snapped at him: “Keep at it! But masticate each mouthful at least 40 times – I’m not going back to second class.”

A man came along the aisle with a large plastic bag and when he passed us, I saw the slogan “Cleaning your East Coast train” on his back. What is this modern mania for ceaseless rubbish removal, if not the flip side of excessive packaging? Do we hope to unwrap, discard and clear up our way out of recession? These and other observations I shared with Jack as we thrummed towards Peterborough. He looked at me the way I used to look at his grandfather over kippers on the Brighton Belle.

Still, I knew we’d passed that faint but nonetheless significant line: all it took was a judiciously deployed Clydesdale Bank £10 note and the hefty steward was in our metaphorical pocket – there was no way she’d chuck us out now, even though it wasn’t really legal tender. So, a three-course dinner with drinks and coffee, plus hefty tip: £65.55. It was a fraction of the price differential between second and first class.

True, the cod was thrashing around in the leek and potato soup like an ocean-going yacht in a force nine, but sometimes you’ve got to suffer for your luxuries.