food: Planes, trains and automobiles

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The Independent Culture
Easter is, I reckon, the first time in the year that most of us think about going away. For some, there will have been winter holidays skiing and glamorous trips to the Caribbean, but for the majority, most of the year's outings start here. It may only be for a short break, a trip on Eurostar to Paris or Brussels, an Easter break in the West Country, or further afield to warmer climes, such as Spain, Morocco and Greece for example. But it is always in your mind how you are going to be catered for, whichever way you travel to your chosen destination; be it by plane, train or automobile. Or boat.

Last year, towards the end of summer, well in autumn, actually - I took my father on a surprise trip to New York. He had never been to America and I thought he should see New York before his 80th birthday. We went on the QE2 and heaven forbid that you call it a boat. It is a ship and it is sad to hear that this grand, transatlantic, middle-aged lady of the waves is to be put up for sale. But as far as being catered for, there was little to worry about. It goes without saying that the facilities for cooking on a ship of this size and magnitude, are going to be a little easier to control than the broom cupboard-sized kitchen found on an Intercity train, or the similarly restricted galley space (that is, in reality, a servery) several miles up in the sky.

But whatever the catering restrictions when travelling, it is surely sensible to appreciate these and take note. After all, you would not normally cook six fillets of sole in the morning, for a dinner party that evening, pour a creamy sauce over them, cover with foil and then start heating them up at around about seven o'clock - for about an hour. Would you? But I could certainly see myself re-heating a shepherd's pie (served with at least two sachets of travel ketchup); a fish pie made with smoked haddock - which keeps its firm flakes firm for longer than most other fish; a creamy chicken curry such as Tikka Masala, which as every M&S junkie knows, heats up beautifully (as does the rice); or even a steak-and-kidney pie. Perhaps some braised lamb, such as a navarin, served with boiled or mashed potato alongside, which would happily mingle with the (hopefully) delicious gravy as the dish re-heats. Oh, I could go on and on... and will.

The same thing happens on trains. Although I have seen microwavable cartons of Tikka Masala at the bar buffet counter, it seems to be a perversity still to serve leathery grills and deep-fried scampi in the dining car. Surely even the dimmest of decision makers would realise that it might just not be such a good idea to install a vat of hot fat on a train that travels at more than 100 miles an hour? But when I tried those little golden morsels on a journey to Bodmin Parkway last year, all their little crumb-soggy coats had fallen off and drifted sadly about the plate among the soggy chips and wrinkled and burnt - yes, burnt - peas. It reminded me of low tide. Perhaps there isn't a deep fryer after all, which, I suppose, is a relief. So why even contemplate cooking scampi in breadcrumbs? It's a joke.

Travelling by car is, of course, a matter for you. Eating at a place on the way solves everything, but if you are the sort who likes to get out the folding chairs and enjoy something other than a sandwich, then at least think practically. Choosing things which can be eaten entirely in one hand is sensible advice, I think. There is nothing wrong with the simple hard-boiled egg - it was always my favourite in the picnic basket. But how about peeling them before you set off, cutting them in half and packing a tube of good mayonnaise to squeeze on to the halves as you eat. Or anchovy paste, or harissa if you are feeling in a spicy mood - or even all three! I would fill a buttered baguette with sliced proscuitto and pack a jar of good gherkins. But don't assemble it at the roadside: it's just too traumatic. And have a Bounty bar for pudding.

Eating fairly constantly - oh, all right, all the time - over the five days it took to cross the Atlantic, the vast kitchens of the QE2 clearly knew what they could and couldn't cope with. But with five restaurants, feeding a possible capacity of 2,218 people, you expect a few hiccups from time to time. The only two serious lapses that I recall were a pretty dreadful seafood risotto one lunch and some woefully undercooked puff pastry that surrounded a lump of tasteless beef fillet (though perfectly cooked rare as requested).

Breakfasts were wonderful. There were memorable egg dishes, such as benchmark Benedict and the curiously-named "shirred eggs", where two eggs are baked gently with a little cream in a flat porcelain dish. The addition of a spoonful of caviar with these, on our last morning's breakfast before disembarkation, a world-class view of the World Trade Centre as a backdrop, was, without a doubt, one of the most moving moments of traveller's fare that I have ever experienced.

Traditional hotel a la carte fare, such as crystal clear, classic consommes and a velvety smooth vichyssoise, were also masterfully prepared. Even moules marinieres were a triumph; though I suspect not many were sampled, as the day on which they were offered the ship was rolling and pitching at an alarming rate and most of the passengers were horizontal. My father, who adores mussels, was not to be fazed by such trivial movements, and followed these potential stomach-tremblers with a large helping of traditional shepherd's pie. In retrospect, I should have asked the kitchen to make us up two individual portions, so that I could have asked the cabin crew on the return plane journey to heat them through for us. But would there have been any ketchup, I wonder?

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