There is something about certain train journeys – the old-school glamour, fine dining and fabulous outfits. And copious amounts of champagne – I have to confess, it had my name written all over it. The magic of the golden age of travel has been brought back to life by the Belmond British Pullman (the new brand name of Orient Express Trains & Cruises).
The British Pullman, is made up of 11 carriages that formed part of the most famous services in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s – each with its unique style and personality, beautifully restored and refurbished.
To say we were excited to go on this journey, would be an understatement – and funnily enough, we weren’t exactly going anywhere: the train ride was the experience, as we were to return and depart from London Victoria Station, after a 5-hour fine dining experience.
The 100+ passengers arrived at the station, half an hour before its departure. During this time, we got to enjoy the British Pullman lounge, which is conveniently located by its boarding platform. On arrival, we were immediately greeted by a glass of champagne and were handed a beautiful box with our tickets, which were part of our personalised travel journal. I loved this detail and how special it made everyone feel – this train journey is certainly a special occasion and this keepsake would be one of the memories to take back home.
The British Pullman operates both lunch and dinner services throughout the year, but this year, there is something even more special – Belmond has invited some of the leading British chefs to team up with its executive chef Robbie Gleeson and serve truly unique dining experiences. In our travel date, the pop-up chef was Tom Kerridge, the executive chef of the 2-star Michelin pub The Hand & Flowers (the only pub with stars in the UK). Needless to say, Tom was at the lounge meeting and greeting every passenger.
After a couple of glasses of champagne, it was time to board the British Pullman!
Obviously there was no luggage, so it was easier for everyone – but made even more special by the staff, which welcomed each passenger to its correct carriage. These are named and not numbered, so we did need a little help to find Cygnus, which was designed in 1938, but not completed until 1951.
When we got to our carriage, all we could say was ‘ahhhhhhhh’. It was stunning – and every person who boarded the train had exactly the same reaction. The tables were set and looking stunning and you could just feel the excitement in the air.
There are tables for 1, 2 and 3 on the main part of each carriage, with separate areas for tables of 4 (called coupes). We were actually assigned a table for 3, which meant we had an extra seat which was perfect for all the goodies we had – a signed Tom Kerridge book, a magazine, and of course our lovely box with our tickets.
It didn’t take long until we left. And to be honest, no one had any idea where we were going – but we found that information in our travel journal, which indicated that we were going on a loop journey via Ashford, Canterbury West and Whistable. It was actually interesting to see the various types of scenery, which changed dramatically from urban to rural and we even got some peeks of the sea.
Champagne continued to flow and our culinary journey was about to begin – some pretty canapés arrived before our 5-course dinner.
Things got off to a flying start with the actual first course – an English cucumber gazpacho, served with creme fraiche and vodka. It was incredibly delicious (and something we will be attempting to recreate at home one day) and if I am perfectly honest, I have a complaint to make: it was too small. It was absolutely fantastic and a few weeks later, we are still talking about it. The cold soup was paired with a Jake’s Orchard Sparkling Cider & Nettles (I kid you not), from Kent, England, which was very nice.
The second course was chilled Cornish mackerel escabeche with pickled carrots, and I had to ask Mr. O if he had called in advance to let them know about two things I really don’t care for! Obviously, he had a little bit of mine. This course was paired with a cold Beaujolais (2011 Morgon Domaine Jean Descombe from France), which was lovely.
The third course was a braised new season lamb shank which was absolutely fantastic. It was served with pea and mint ragu, pickled girolls and salsa verdi. I knew the food was going to be amazing, but I was also incredibly impressed with what the chefs were able to cook on a train – it cannot be easy. It was paired with a 2008 Bandol Domaine de la Begude (from France), which was, without a doubt, the best wine served.
Service was outstanding – a lot of attention to detail and the timings were perfect. I had wondered if 5 hours would be too long for a dinner – but it actually wasn’t. Everything was timed to perfection, and needless to say, our glasses (both wine and water) were always tendered to. No detail was too small.
During dinner, we also had some entertainment (which we obviously didn’t expect). There were some musicians who played in each carriage and they were very good. If you want to hear a little bit, have a look a the little video I did on Instagram (only 15 secs, but gives you an idea).
After a little break, it was time for dessert. In the United Kingdom, that means the cheese course, of course! I think it would be fair to say that most people who do not know the UK well, never heard about one of its secrets: amazing cheeses. On this occasion, we were treated to Beenleigh Blue, Gubbeens, Wealdwad Goats and Somerset Brie, served with grapes and raisin bread. This little bit of heaven was paired with a 20-year-old Ferreira Duque de Bragranca Tawny Port, from Portugal (obviously!).
At this stage, we other visitors: a magician who was actually very good. It got all of the passengers of the carriage chatting and laughing and obviously I cannot tell you the tricks he played on us.
I have to say I didn’t have a lot of room left at this stage, but it would be rude not to try the last course: a summer fruit fool, with pink peppercorn shortbread – it seriously does not get any more British than that! It was paired with a lovely lovely lovely 2013 Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont, Italy and I may have asked for seconds.
At this stage, we had realised that 4 hours had come and gone – and I cannot tell you how quickly it went. Especially when Tom Kerridge did the rounds of all carriages and came to say hello and chatted for a bit with every passenger. It was a lovely touch (and he got me some ideas of how to get a table for the Hand & Flowers before May 2015). He also signed the book and happily took a photo with us.
And after coffee and tea, I am not sure how, but we got back to London Victoria station where it all began, 5 hours before. I loved our evening at the British Pullman, and it was also great to meet other guests and find what occasion led them to that night: a birthday, wedding anniversary, engagement and quite a few tourists who thought they wanted a true British experience – and I cannot agree more. If you are visiting, it is one of the most quintessentially British experiences you could have, and one you could take with you forever.
One thing you also get to take with you, besides the menus and the (lovely) travel journey, is the silver napkin rings. They were removed from our tables when service started, but were given to every passenger before we got back to London (so no, I did not steal them!).
As we got back to the station, you could tell everyone was smiling and oh so happy – a fantastic evening, in my case, spent in the company of my fantastic husband. And it won’t be long until I am back, as later in the year I will be going on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, from Venice to London, and once we cross the channel back to the UK, the British Pullman will be there waiting for us. And take us to Victoria again. And again.
And if you want to see what ‘The Dinner’ experience really looks like, I leave you with this video. It was truly exceptional.
Disclaimer and Fact Box: I was a guest of the Belmond British Pullman, and as always, opinions are my own. The ‘Lunch’ journeys start at £235 per person, including all food and drinks, and the ‘Dinner’ experience starts at £420 (£495 if hosted by a celebrity pop-up chef). You can find out more about upcoming journeys on the British Pullman, by clicking here.