It’s Friday evening and London Paddington is buzzing with tired commuters awaiting their ride to freedom for the next couple of days. Sushi and sandwiches are munched, cans are cracked open and the aroma of (bad) coffee fills the air. I find myself sitting in a quiet and brightly lit waiting room, filled with complimentary refreshments. I grab two packs of biscuits, a couple of clementines, a plateful of nuts and sandwiches and a cappuccino from the self serve machine. I watch in distain as the coffee machine pours hot milk out of the nozzle into the cup before spurting out a small amount of coffee on top. As I take my first sip, I wince and place it on the coffee table not to be touched again. I sometimes wish I wasn’t such a coffee snob.
The platform number of my train emerges on the screen and I wind through the tables with my suitcase onto the platform and onto the train, which is almost full after only a few minutes of opening its doors. I walk to the Pullman Carriage in First Class and see one silver laden table for two free by the luggage rack. A couple on the verge of distress talk to the train manager armed with a clip board claiming that the table is for a journalist “if they turn up”. Seems I got there at the right time.
The journey ahead of me was four and a half hours long. I calculated that I could fly to Russia, Turkey or Poland in that time. But I wasn’t going abroad, I was venturing to St Austell in Cornwall for the weekend.
I sat back and reclined my large leather seat and not long after the train pulled off, the staff were round to take our orders. “How would you like your steak cooked madam” were not words that I was expecting to hear aboard a train. “Medium rare”, I replied and was sure it would arrive anything but medium rare.
Shortly after, a small but well formed smoked salmon souffle with sliced smoked salmon and a horseradish cream sauce (£8.50) arrived at the table. The second starter of stilton and broccoli soup (£7) was then carefully ladled out of a large silver bowl by one of the four waiting staff on hand for the journey. The former was impressive, considering we were on a train. The smoked salmon slithers on the side accentuated the subtle salmon flavour of the light and airy soufflé. The latter was also enjoyable. Each mouthful brought with it a strong but not overpowering taste of stilton, the broccoli being present mostly in colour. The same cannot be said about the bread rolls that accompanied the soup – my guess was that they were of the ‘part baked’ variety that I’ll only ever purchase from my local Lidl if I can’t find fresh.
The used plates were whipped from underneath us as soon as we had finished, making way for the mains. Warmed plates were placed in front of us and each member of the waiting staff walked out of the kitchen, one by one, brandishing metal plates of the different elements of our dish. The fillet steak (£22) arrived first with a smattering of red onion sauce. Each of the waiting staff ran back and forth through the carriage, carefully passing each other without even a slight bump. They had done this before, I thought. Potatoes and vegetables were dished out, sauce was poured and we were left in peace for the next fifteen or so minutes to devour our dishes. I nervously cut into my steak and was happy to see a small amount of crimson red blood seep into the gravy. It was medium rare. It was also delicious and tender. The dauphinoise potatoes were creamy and garlicy and the veg very well cooked with a slight crunch.
I glanced at the dessert menu and wished I hadn’t gorged on waiting room fruit and sandwiches. I was totally full. To the brim. But I’m not one to pass up dessert so I ordered walnut and honey tart (£6.50). The combination of walnut and honey intrigued me as it is not your usual tart combination – pecan and maple syrup, yes, but I’d never heard of walnut and honey before. The pastry was impossibly short and the filling warm, sweet, gooey, crunchy and nutty. We shared. Bad idea. We wanted more. Having also ordered the West Country cheese board (£7) (purely for research purposes), I only managed to finish the Cornish Yarg. The two other varieties, Cornish blue and Chatel cheese were also good but a little too much for the already bursting stomach.
I admired the woman serving coffee for afters. Precision and acute balance is needed in order to pour the coffee so that it doesn’t spill over the side of the cup and onto the saucer. As we swerved around the corner, the stream of coffee was interrupted from its path and almost spilled. The waitress made a sudden move and brought it right back on track. They say practice makes perfect…
I was fastinated by the table of four sat next to me. Despite not knowing each other, they talked for the whole journey about their lives, their loves, their different paths in life. One woman proclaimed that a fellow 18.03 service from Paddington to Penzance passenger had set up an 18.03 group on Facebook to keep in contact with all of the people they had met on their weekly journeys. I investigated and found nothing. But I like the idea.
The meal in the Pullman Carriage was almost catastrophic at times but also totally and utterly romantic. It’s a far cry from the cardboard sandwiches and microwaved bacon sandwiches on my regular train service up North. I hope other train providers take note in the future as it’s a fantastic way to travel.
Food For Think was a guest of First Great Western.
First Class tickets from London to St. Austell start from £40 each way.