The last time I took a train that had a dining car was right after I graduated from high school. A friend suggested we go to Europe, I had nothing better to do, so off we went.
We flew to Brussels and from there, took a train to Paris. It was lunchtime when we boarded, so we were happy to be on a train with food. Walking into the dining car, I was flooded with memories of childhood trips. It looked exactly as I remembered: the tables were set with clean white tablecloths, cloth napkins, china, silverware, and gleaming glasses—just like in an old movie.
I was excited and hungry for French food. My first taste was a baguette—the most important part of any French meal (that is, if you’re French). I bit into it and at the sound of the cracking crust, I knew it would be good. La mie, the center was light and full of holes making it the perfect contrast to the crust. I was happy.
I don’t remember what I had as the entrée, but for dessert I ordered a slice of pear tart. I was watching the scenery speeding by and wasn’t paying attention when I took my first bite. Mon dieu, the flavors that erupted in my mouth! The piecrust was flaky with just a touch of pastry cream around the caramelized and succulent pear. That was the best pear tart I’d ever had! As I savored every bite, I realized that the quality of the food I was eating was remarkable, and I was on a train—a train!
Now, when I take a train, it’s a bullet train: the TGV or Train a Grande Vitesse (fast-speed train). Their speed has transformed train travel. The ride is pleasant and incredibly easy—except for the food.
When you’re hungry in the TGV, your only choice is to go to the food car. You stand on line at a counter and wait to place your order. Your choices are a selection of prepackaged foods that at best are heated in the microwave. There are no tables, no china or silverware, just a few stools at a counter by the windows where you can un-wrap your food to eat on a paper plate with paper napkins and plastic utensils. It will satisfy your hunger but certainly not your taste buds or aesthetics.
Gone forever is the prospect of having a great meal in a train dining car in France. And that makes me sad.
Technology has transformed our lives in so many ways that I would never want to change; but I don’t believe eliminating fresh food improves our lives. I am a romantic and would love to have some of the luxuries of the past live on.
Some trains manage this. For instance, the Japanese bullet trains, the Shinkansen. I had the opportunity to travel through Japan on them. They don’t have dining cars but they do serve fresh food. There are people who walk up and down the aisles with carts full of what they call Ekiben. They are the train versions of the Japanese Bento boxes (lunch boxes). Inside the boxes are assortments of fresh meals. When the train pulls into a station, all the carts that were on the train are unloaded and new ones come on. Not only is the food always fresh, but they also change the type of foods depending on the time of day.
The Bento box is a part of the Japanese culture so there was no question they would find a way to include them in their new trains.
I’m certain if a few good chefs got together they could come up with fresh meals to put into a boite à lunch. I’d like to buy a lunch box full of good fresh food when I’m on the road wouldn’t you?
Do you have travel food that you like? Is it fresh?
Do you make your own boite à lunch, lunch box, and take it with you?
I’d love to know. Merci
** Dining cars can still be found on special tourist trains. They are no longer on the regularly scheduled trains that run throughout Europe.
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Celine was a name that was synonymous with good food in my home. She was my grandmother’s cook. My mother still tells me stories about watching Celine in the kitchen. Her secret, she’d say in a hushed tone, was her sauces; sauces, she’d say with emphasis, are the secret to being a great cook. Celine didn’t . . .