Yes, I have a lovely life: a restaurant reviewer, and able to take my pick of the very best that the World has to offer. I am, however, seldom driven to displays of overt enthusiasm for my latest destinations. They are all good and some exceptional, but the signature lunch trip ‘Golden Age of Travel’ aboard the British Pullman carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has had me ticking off the days on my iPhone calendar …as well as casually mentioning the event to anyone who would listen.
The original company was founded in 1982 by James Sherwood, an American with impeccable taste and vision. He had acquired two of the original carriages at auction in 1977, when the celebrated Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (founded in 1872 in Belgium) withdrew from the Orient Express service. James spent a total of $16 million buying 35 sleeper, restaurant and Pullman carriages, and on 25 May 1982 the first London-Venice service was inaugurated.
The lunch tour through Kent mainly features former Brighton Belle Pullman coaches. Usually operating from a classy corner of Victoria Station in London, specials run throughout the south of England to historic sites, and on this day to Whitstable.
Your initial view of the train heightens the sense of anticipation. In truth you notice your fellow passengers before you get much of a peek at the train itself, dressed in their finest and already entering into the spirit of the affair. Many a snap would be taken with loved ones and train staff dressed in magnificent crisp white uniforms. One might even spot a flirting flapper or a fascinating thirties ‘Falstaff’ quaffing fizz, before one boards the train.
And what a train. These are the British Pullman carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express gleaming in umber and cream livery, with every carriage individually displaying its hand-painted name and crest. One is transported back in time to a gentler age when one could travel, if one wasn’t a victim of the between-wars depression, in luxury. Your steward will show you to your reserved seat in one of eleven carriages, each one a homage to craftsmanship.
Every carriage is different, with its own character, upholstery and fittings (your derriere will grace real furniture), and the changes in seating configuration add to the interest as one wanders the length of the train. Plush upholstery is surrounded by marquetry, reflecting amber light from brass sconces and shaded lamps. I would imagine that the ambiance would be truly romantic at dinner on dark winter evenings, when those muted lights would come into their own. Everything has been painstakingly restored to its original glory.
Passengers are actively encouraged to visit all parts of the train to take full advantage of the experience. One is seated in either ‘coupés’ – small compartments seating up to four people – or in the open car, mostly at intimate tables for two, although there are a limited number of single tables and of tables for three.
The service is calming and unrushed. We departed at 11.45, sipped champagne and nibbled canapés as we joggled sedately out of Victoria. Settled back into our cosy seats we admired the etched glasses and cutlery, a table setting the like of which one seldom finds these days. Heavy silver-ware gave an air of opulence. Not stuffy, self-aware or posing, this was old-fashioned but accessible charm.
I am a woman of ‘a certain age’ and had expected that all passengers would be my vintage or older. There were whole carriages, however, that were filled with those in their late twenties and thirties. These trips seem to appeal to all adults with an appreciation of the finer things in life. A group of young thespians (they were celebrating a birthday next-door-but-one) amused all who passed through their carriage. Lots of couples were marking special events: Andy was enjoying a surprise birthday treat with his wife; a group of ladies were having a Hen party …which they will actually remember.
Service is unsurprisingly impeccable. Arthur and Agatha anticipated every whim. The company evidently chooses their staff carefully. Jeff Monk, The Train Manager, is a marvellous ambassador. His training in hospitality (OK, so he learnt his trade in the Navy and that’s not exactly the leisure industry) has served him well. He was in fact a professional chef and started his career on trains in mainland Europe when he left the sea. As they would only use French chefs (sad to say that prejudice is still thriving) Jeff took a ‘front-of-house’ role. A man with dedication, pride and a ready smile.
Preparing food on the move is always a challenge. Had this been anything other than the British Pullman carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express I would have expected, and probably been satisfied with, a picnic or a plastic box, but the linen-laid table had raised my expectations. Matthew Smith has been the Executive Head Chef for the British Pullman and Northern Belle since 2002, and in that time has created menus fit for the great and the good.
Matthew has always wanted a career in the kitchen. He was making pancakes at the age of six. He has worked at Claridges Hotel, Ritz Casino and the Institute of Directors, so he is well used to luxury – that is to say he has a background in presenting food in luxury restaurants. His kitchen on the British Pullman is probably a bit snugger than at Claridges. It’s a 4.5m by 1.8m vision of stainless steel. He says his main worry isn’t the space but rather guests who want a particular food. He doesn’t have access to a full larder and can’t just jump off the train to buy that ingredient.
Matthew is ably assisted by Jon Kohout, and a central kitchen where the initial preparation is carried out. They still cook all dishes fresh in the galley but at least the spuds are peeled in advance. Matthew says “I love being part of making someone’s special occasion extraordinary…”
We tasted Matthew’s handiwork at lunch. Wild River Trout and Green Peppercorn Terrine was deliciously fresh and light. Fricassee of free-range Chicken stuffed with Mushroom Duxelle was moist and well-seasoned. The potatoes served alongside were outstanding. Matthew explained that they are simmered long and slow to give a buttery texture whilst still holding their shape.
Good to find a British cheeseboard. In fact the menu as a whole reflected the seasonal best that these Isles have to offer – simple and local ingredients treated with respect. The bill of fare, that would have been appreciated just as much in the 1930s as it was last week, was a testament to the philosophy that taste transcends trend.
I mentioned Whitstable. We had a leg-stretching opportunity when we reached that seaside town. A bank of iced and lemon-garnished oysters was waiting for us on the platform, along with another glass of champagne and a trad-jazz band. How apt, how “right”! Many a Charleston was Charlestoned and several Black Bottoms were bounced before we returned to our seats for a dessert of fresh Strawberries and Poppy Seed Stack and a brace of coffees.
Lunch aboard the British Pullman carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express isn’t cheap but it’s truly value for money. It’s more than sustenance on the move. It’s an iconic venue with moving scenery; it’s a high-end restaurant with remarkable pedigree. It’s the weaver of treasured memories that will be personal and unique, and that, as they say, is priceless.
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Ltd
20 Upper Ground, LONDON SE1 9PF
Email (UK): firstname.lastname@example.org
Reservations (UK): 0845 217 0799 or 0207 921 4007
Opening hours: 8:30am-6:00pm, Mon-Fri.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018