Food:Well chuffed

With enough wine and golden weddings, who cares if your Orient- Express only goes as far as Guildford? Photographs by Madeleine Waller
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When it comes to restaurant one-upmanship, "I'm having lunch on the Orient-Express" is a real show-stopper. It certainly produced gratifying results when I introduced it - relentlessly - into conversations with friends in the days leading up to my little excursion. I kept quiet about the rather more prosaic details of the Orient-Express British Pullman gourmet lunch trip, namely that the train doesn't actually go anywhere glamorous like Venice or Istanbul. In fact, it doesn't go anywhere at all. It just pooters around the English countryside for four hours while its passengers enjoy a five-course lunch, and then returns to Victoria Station. The furthest from London this Orient-Express would travel was Guildford, and as one of my friends scoffed when he learned the truth: "Guildford - it's not even in the East!"

Nevertheless, the train would be hauled by a vintage steam engine, and there's something pretty glamorous about that. And its carriages are beautiful Pullman coaches from the Twenties and Thirties, complete with period fixtures and fittings. Once they formed part of services like the Brighton Belle and the Golden Arrow, but were mainly languishing in railway museums before being refurbished and pressed back into service during the 1980s.

Given the train's mongrel provenance (not to mention the fact that the Orient-Express actually starts its journey in Paris), it's perhaps a little misleading to bill the trip as lunch on the Orient-Express. But I was still excited about the journey, as was my fellow voyager, Charles, a vintage railway enthusiast. To demonstrate his allegiance to a more elegant age, he arrived at our midday rendezvous at Victoria sporting a cravat. "It's been a nightmare!" he moaned. "I didn't know how to tie the thing up, and I've spent the morning looking for instructions on the Internet."

Our fellow passengers had also largely obeyed the Orient-Express company's instructions to come in "smart daywear - no jeans", and there was a real Sunday-best feel about the crowd that was milling around the platform. Mainly made up of elderly couples, or elderly couples with their even more elderly parents, it included a party of confused-looking Japanese tourists, who were probably expecting Hercule Poirot and raffish European glamour, rather than an army of car coats and floral two-pieces.

When the train pulled in, however, its shiny beauty silenced all doubts. Looking authentically time-worn in its umber and cream livery, it sighed to a halt, and the staff, in frock coats and gold piping, proudly swung open its gleaming doors. If this had been a Thomas the Tank Engine story, the 12.05 to Ramsgate standing at the next platform would have hurled itself onto the buffers in shame. Before finding our carriage, we strolled up to the end of the platform, where a gang of enthusiasts had gathered to admire the engine and breathe in the distinctive smell of the steam. As I stood jotting down notes in my pad, a man came over and started chatting to me in a rather over-friendly fashion. "`He thinks you're a fellow train-spotter!" whispered Charles. "He can't believe his luck!"

There's no class-distinction between the carriages - we're all first-class in Tony's Britain - but the most desirable tables are isolated in romantic little private compartments at the end of the main carriages. Charles and I were seated in "Ione", an open-plan compartment of eight tables. The original period decor of each carriage has been meticulously recreated, and ours was a cosy, glowing nest of marquetry panels, gleaming brasswork and art nouveau fabrics. A vase of fresh flowers stood on our crisp linen tablecloth, the window was framed by red curtains, and we sat in comfortable armchairs, complete with lacy antimacassars.

Across the aisle from us, a couple from Oxford were celebrating their golden wedding, in common with several of our neighbours. None of our Orient-Express carriage-mates looked capable of murder, though the chances of someone being found dead by the end of the journey seemed relatively high. Conscious of the proximity of the other passengers, we all began by whispering self-consciously. But as soon as the train pulled away in a puff of white steam, there was a palpable sense of relaxation, as everyone gave themselves up to the luxury of pointless travel, in which there is nothing to do but to talk, eat, and be waited on hand and foot. London unfolded under a bright winter sun, and we sipped Champagne as we crossed the Thames.

The nostalgia theme isn't pursued when it comes to the food, which is partly prepared on-board, in steamy, cramped kitchen carriages. The five- course menu offers no choices, though people with special requirements, such as vegetarians, can advise them when booking. The canapes gave a good signal of the kind of meal to come. They tasted and looked as though some care had gone into their assembly, but they weren't very exciting, being made up of the kind of fashionable, but not over-fashionable combinations - gravadlax and dill sauce, brie and cranberry - that would be familiar to any patron of a Marks & Spencer's foodhall.

The best thing about the first course, a butternut squash and apple soup, was that it was served individually from a big silver tureen. There's something very delicious about chugging through Clapham eating soup spooned from a big silver tureen. The fact that it was obviously freshly prepared, and served with two sorts of bread - onion and Parmesan - was a bonus. The fish course was even better, a thick slab of hot-smoked salmon, served cold with a lobster mayonnaise.

As we steamed through a succession of suburbs, the lady at the next table was carefully noting down the name of each town, a euphonious list that included Purley, Dorking and Staines ("Gateway to Thorpe Park"). For a long time we stopped in the middle of nowhere, looking out over a scrubby fishing lake, but it didn't matter, because we had nowhere special to go. "We've probably stopped to fill up with water," explained our waiter. "Still or sparkling?" I cracked.

Only when it came to the main course - roast duck with cherry sauce - did the standard of the food falter. The tough breasts had an unappetising appearance, not improved by the bright winter sunlight which highlighted the beads of fat rising up from the sweating skin. Potatoes and carrots had both been pre-whittled into characterless torpedoes and cooked to within an inch of their waterlogged lives.

Still, the wine kept on flowing, and we were soon making good use of our jovial waiter's assiduousness in keeping our glasses filled - the price of the trip includes a half- bottle each, but no one seemed to be counting. By the time the dessert arrived - a rather dusty sticky toffee pudding - we were drunk enough to start waving at people as the train passed through stations. The faces of waiting commuters broke into delighted smiles as the train shunted past with a jaunty whistle, and some even waved back.

When we discovered when we took a little walk to stretch our legs, everyone on board seemed to be smiling. Anniversary couples had been given bouquets, as had a young couple locked in a deep embrace in one of the private compartments. I'd noticed her at the station, because she was dressed in jeans, but now it all made sense - the trip had been a surprise, and her boyfriend had just proposed. Judging by the in-carriage action, she'd obviously accepted.

After cheese and liqueurs, the chief steward appeared in our carriage with a huge bouquet of flowers, which he presented to the anniversary lady at the next table, along with a card. She read it, and immediately burst into tears. Then she handed the card to her husband, who did the same. For an uncomfortable few minutes, we sat there in silence as they sobbed. Then the ice was really broken, and we spent the rest of the trip taking photos of each other and chatting about their wedding day 50 years earlier.

All too soon we were back in Victoria. "Are we in Venice yet?" a wag called out as we drew into the station, and indeed, there was something a bit anti-climactic about disembarking without having been anywhere. But as Charles concluded, it had been a life-enhancing experience. "All those happy couples, and the friendly staff - it was like stepping back into some fictional past we would never have been allowed to be a part of." Feeling relaxed, as though we'd begun to operate on a less frantic timescale, we meandered home on red double-deckers instead of jumping into cabs. And it was at least 15 minutes before I used my mobile to check my messages

Orient-Express British Pullman Gourmet Lunch, pounds 190 per person. Varied programme of excursions throughout the year, from London Victoria and regional stations. Brochures 01233 211 772. Bookings 0171-805 5100.

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