In order to herald French Odyssey, his new TV series on French cooking, Rick Stein wrote a recent piece in the Radio Times about his culinary travels in France, from which one sentence stood out. It was "One of the best meals we had was in the station buffet at Agen".
My eyes popped out.
I popped them back in again.
I, too, had been in the station buffet in Agen, only a month previously.
I read the article with more attention.
"One of the best meals we had," he wrote, " was in the station buffet at Agen, a small town between Bordeaux and Toulouse: for €7 (£4.50) we had a foie gras salad, followed by chargrilled ailerons de magret, dessert and a pichet of red wine."
He had had better luck than I had. All I got was a croissant and a cup of black coffee. Mark you, I had the disadvantage of being there at 6 o'clock in the morning, long before foie gras time. I had left our holiday house at 4am to take my son and daughter-in-law to Agen to catch the 6.21am train to Toulouse, for their flight back to Rome, and for two eye-rubbing hours we had driven along the dark French roads, with only the occasional supermarket lorry whizzing the other way. As we approached Agen, the raggedy dawn started to break, like a mushroom omelette slowly taking shape in the sky. It was a great treat to come out of the grey town and silent streets into the bright buzzing station cafe, full of radio noises, coffee cup clinking and morning workers discussing the best ways of keeping off mosquitoes. (It does not seem likely, but that is what they were discussing.)
And it reminded me yet again of a bit of advice that my father had once given me. "If you're ever stuck in a French town looking for somewhere to eat," he said, "head for the station. In Britain this would be suicide, but in French stations they seem to take pride in their food."
Over the years this advice has stood me in good stead. I remember once wandering round the hills near Strasbourg with the late Bill Hewison, then Punch's art editor - we were doing a piece on the European Parliament long before Britain ever joined the EU - and landing up in a small town at lunch time.
"How shall we know where to eat?" mused Bill.
"At the station," I said firmly, and 20 minutes later, thanks to Dad, we were watching the trains and eating wild boar for the first time. Have you ever been offered wild boar in a British railway station? I don't think I have.
Among other station buffets I can recommend is the one at Troyes, the nearest big station to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, and I only know that because I once had to go there for Radio 4, chasing the shades of General de Gaulle. Our train back to Paris was an hour or more late. It was cocktail hour. So we made our way to the station bar, and drank pale yellow beer in a wonderful, out-of-time, smoky vault where you expected Inspector Maigret to stride in any moment and order - well, a pale yellow beer, I guess. If it had not been for the flickering TV set, you would think you had been transported back 60 years.
And in the Gare de Lyons, if you go to the Train Bleu Restaurant, you would think you had been magicked back 100 years, because it still has the same creamy rich decor it was given when built in 1900, in mid-Belle Époque. To reach it, you have to go up a grand staircase big enough for a Hollywood musical, and you then find yourself in a gold and frescoed monument to gilded Second Empire splendour.
If you could eat the decor, it would be a feast. And the only time I ever gained entry, the food was not half bad either.
"So," I said to my wife as I came back from day-dreaming and nostalgia to a bit of hard research, "have you and I ever had a memorable eating experience in a British station ?"
"Yes," she said, straightaway and rather shockingly. "Only once, but it was really nice. In Paddington. Remember that sea food and shellfish bar? We had a great meal there. I think you had oysters, and I had langoustines. And a nice bottle of Sancerre. It was great. Of course, it's not there any more."
No. Of course it's not.Reuse content