Train picnic: dining in style

September 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

It was my birthday on Friday 11 September.  Until recently this was not a noteworthy or memorable date and sadly it is now for all the wrong reasons.  I chose to celebrate quietly this year by attending the finals of the Leeds Piano Competition.  Music may be the food of love but I have been married to Tim now for 16 years and I need more solid sustenance.  A picnic on the train as we journeyed across the heather-clad Pennines from Manchester to Leeds was the obvious solution.

Where to look for inspiration for this special picnic?  First stop was New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser’s book “Cooking for Mr Latte” a chronicle, with recipes, of her courtship with future husband.  Chapter 26 is entitled “Fine Dining in the Sky” and contains some excellent advice which is easily transferable to a train journey.

Hesser’s general advice is “the food must be compact and light, yet it cannot be skimpy.  It must include favorite food like cheeses, cookies and olives, and it should in some way be lavish.”  Suggestions to pack include salted nuts, especially delicious salted almonds from Spain, a chewy country roll and a nutty, soft cheese.  Further recommendations are excellent cured meats, salads prepared with aged vinegars and nut oils, fresh herbs and homemade mayonnaise.  Bought treats are suggested to complete the meal – a tart, cake or petit four or a caramel-filled chocolate.

Next stop was the unlikely sounding “Constance Spry Cookery Book”.  Chapter XXXIV is “Menus, Parties and Food for Special Occasions and contains an apt little section headed “Train Food”.  Who would expect that an English cookery book first published in 1956 could be such a repository of enticing food ideas?.

Ms Spry’s general advice about train food is as follows: “The primary qualification about such food is that it shall taste fresh and be really appetizing.  It should never the bear the faintest trace of paper flavouring, something not so easy to avoid as one might think.”

She goes on to describe a delicious meal made by a family member for  small party going up to “the far north” (Manchester? Scotland perhaps! the destination is never specified).  It makes delectable reading:

“Each of us was handed when we got into our sleepers a small, neat cardboard box containing two little screw-top cartons and other small packages.  In one carton was a perfect freshly made lobster salad in a delicious dressing, the second contained fresh fruit salad of peaches, strawberries, and orange.  Crisp, poppy-seed-sprinkled rolls were quartered and buttered, and a Porosan bag held the crisp heart of a Cos lettuce.  There were small cream cheese rolls made by taking two short pieces of celery, filling the hollow made when they were put together with cream cheese, and rolling the whole in brown bread and butter…”

Suitable inspired, I made by own preparations.  Visits to the deli and greengrocer provided me with Spanish salted almonds, extra large stuffed green olives and thinly sliced meltingly soft Bellota ham accompanied by crisp celery sticks and crunchy radishes.  These would be served with chilled champagne to begin the meal.  Next, I took my cue from Constance Spry and prepared a simple but delicious lobster salad, combining new potatoes, soft-boiled quail eggs and squeaky blanched green beans with the diced lobster meat.  The whole lot was packed into a carefully lettuce lined food storage box and topped with a dollop of wobbly yellow homemade mayonnaise flavoured with lemon zest and a little chopped tarragon.  Next was a ripe St Marcellin cheese served in its own dinky indivdual terracotta pot.  I then put together my favourite simple fruit salad of sliced white nectarines in passion fruit pulp. A quick trip to the bakery provided us with fresh rolls and cherry and almond tartlets, which along with half a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape completed the preparations.  The whole lot was packed into a small wicker basket along with forks and a couple of glasses and we were off!

It was all just as good as it all sounds as I hope the pictures below demonstrate.  It definitely beats the usual railway offering of a pack of peanuts and a curled-up pre-pack sandwich hands down!

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