A Vacation Aboard The Orient Express, By Mary Ann Fitzmorris,
As a kid I read Agatha Christie’s account of nefarious deeds aboard a mythical train. And ever since, I’ve wanted to take a ride on the Orient Express. And who better to accompany me that Tom, the ultimate train buff? When I called American Express to book the trip, the first thing she said was, “Let me explain how this will work, because it’s kind of complicated.” An understatement I didn’t quite grasp then, but I do now!
London to Venice means the trip begins on the British Pullman, then luxury coach through the Chunnel, boarding the Orient Express in Calais.
London is always calling to me anyway, so we went a few days early. Upon arrival it was straight to Hertz, then to Windsor Castle. It’s a charming little town, and we stopped in a pub called Carpenter’s Arms. I had a kid’s plate of fish and chips, which was perfectly done, and Tom had a vegetarian lentil cottage pie, which miraculously had that beef gravy taste. He loved it. It was typically cold and rainy, but when I emerged from the pub for a quick visit to the castle, it was sunny. Tom finished his dessert in the warmth of the pub. Before leaving Windsor, I had to pass the Thames a few times. Outside the city, I find this river impossibly enchanting. One of my great fantasies is to meander the Thames in the countryside in a tiny houseboat.
We left a little later than we’d planned for London. I booked the Goring Hotel, part of the fabulously British and just plain fabulous group called Pride of Britain Hotels. It was only two blocks from Victoria Station, which I knew would mean a lot to Tom on train departure day.
The Goring Hotel is definitely not my kind of place, i.e, frilly and fancy, but by checkout time I had come to love this place. Much too pretentious for me was my initial thought. But after three days of this kind of treatment I felt that I was family to these people, and I had been sort of staying as treasured guests in their proper British home.
Tom loves this kind of attention. He was giddy to be in the dining room watching waiters steam-iron nearby tablecloths. I made the mistake of asking for a scone at breakfast – it is GB after all – and was aghast to see 3 different kinds of freshly baked scones appear before me after thirty minutes. The waitress sheepishly explained that it took so long because they only have scones at afternoon tea time, so they baked some for me. “But a stale one from yesterday’s tea would have been fine,” I mumbled under my breath.
“Oh no Madame,” she said. “We could never do that.” I’m still wracked with guilt for asking.
The last night we were there, Tom was in his happy place with an ultra-gourmet dinner from a menu full of unrecognizable things. Nothing that came to the table disappointed.
But the thing that most won my heart about the Goring was the good-natured way they tolerated this too-casual American.
I love this place. Tucked away on a tiny street in Belgravia, it was like having my own place in London. After every outing, I parked right in front, exchanged greetings with the bellmen in their top hats and tails, and dashed up one flight of stairs to our room.
We skipped tea and dinner that first night to get to a concert of Brandenburg Concertos at St Martin in the Fields. The church is ordinary and brown in that 18th century way, but what is most interesting is “the crypt” below, where the cafeteria is located. Only in Europe can you carry your food over the gravestones of centuries past.
When we parked the car two blocks away in Covent Garden, it happened to be just steps from the door of one of the few Smith & Wollenskys left in the world. We miss this handsome and delicious steakhouse, so we dropped in for a post-theater “snack.”
Smith & Wollensky does my favorite European food (bread and butter) better than just about everyone, so I was looking forward to that, but I also got a bowl of pea soup for dipping. Tom had a dry-aged peppercorn encrusted strip. Could it really be as great as it seemed? I think, yes.
Take note iced tea drinkers: In Britain that means lemonade. Tea is consumed hot here.
In all previous trips to this my favorite city, I can’t believe I had still not made it to the Borough Market under the Tower Bridge. I aimed to rectify this today. Southwark Street is where all the hot eateries are, and I ran into a few here. (Always recognizable by lines of millennials out front.)
But the food was so plentiful at the Market itself, and so interesting, I couldn’t even think of eating in a restaurant. There was every imaginable version of street food in every possible fusion from all corners of the globe. Absolutely convivial in vibe. Also, so overwhelming that I got nothing. The most tempting thing was a place called Fish, serving huge slabs of fish over nice chips.
I found myself in a stinky cheese store called Neal’s Dairy. As soon as the cheesemonger repeated my fromage mantra, “Sharp good-stinky bad” I had to buy some. He sold me a nice slice of Scottish cheddar and a divinely crusty small baguette. And that is all I bought at Borough Market. And that is what I ate the next two days.
Back at the hotel I asked Tom if he wanted to accompany me to Chinatown. My earlier plan was Hakkasan, or Hutong, but suddenly some dim sum and a stroll through Chinatown seemed like a better idea. We made it ten minutes before dim sum stopped at 5pm. Gerard’s Corner (imaginative, huh?- it’s on the corner of Gerard Street, Chinatown’s main drag) is an unassuming basic Chinese restaurant, and we went crazy ordering dim sum before we were shut out. Fortunately they were out of a few things, or the order would have been obscene. But we didn’t stop there. Tom got a fried oyster dish over noodles, and I got a pork noodle dish. I like to think of this Chinatown with its hanging ducks as authentic, but I know the real one, China, must be far grittier and way more frenetic.
An after dinner stroll through the area brought us to our car, and back to the hotel.
We finished the day in the bar at the Goring, where Tom was impressed with his Negroni, and I with the homemade cheese straws. There was no official entertainment, but I was riveted by a strapping young Brit at the next table, who consumed a gigantic and delicious looking American burger without ever touching it. Reduced to mere crumbs with only a knife and fork.
London is the capital of what I call the ampersand retailers. Two owner names are rampant in men’s stores on Jermyn Street. But I only have two ampersands on my list: Rigby & Peller, and Fortnum & Mason. I was shocked it took me three days to get to these.
At Fortnum & Mason, I didn’t have to gawk for a day this time, so I went straight to the list of favorites. Most of my time was spent at the loose tea counter, watching them weigh tea and seal the gorgeous turquoise bags. It is tradition for me to get carried away by something here, and today it was Easter offerings. After only ninety minutes, I left. Must be a record, I think.
Tom thought it too cold to walk and too annoying to drive, so I grabbed the opportunity to visit a few things only I was interested in.
My driver’s license insists I am a Baby Boomer, so even though I was never a huge fan, at some point dropping in on Abbey Road is required. The studios where the music that rocked the world was created sit in a quiet neighborhood. It is smallish, and white, except for occasional graffiti love notes to the Fab Four.
From there I drove to Highgate, an affluent “suburb” with a cemetery that is quite well-known for its famous residents. This was the most ethereal, hauntingly beautiful place! Trees with billowing leaves spring up between graves of centuries past piled on top of each other, covered in a blanket of ivy. I was mesmerized. No wonder they can charge admission. (Also, Karl Marx is buried there.) Jarring in death as in life, the oversized bust of his scowling face wrecks the serenity here, metaphorically towering over the little people.
He would have been proud to learn that it took nearly two hours to go 3 miles back to the hotel. When I saw that the road closures of the critical West End nexus of Marble Arch/Park Lane and Piccadilly were for a march for socialism, my head nearly popped off.
In an earlier walk near the hotel, I discovered that we were merely a block from the Victorian Theater, where the London “Hamilton” is based. I dropped in to the box office to see about returned tickets. The line for these was outside in a ferocious wind, but we were soon offered standing room only at 12.50 GBP (Yes, you read that correctly.) Tom didn’t want to stand. And that was the closest I will ever come to seeing the world’s hottest play at a price like that.
Back at the hotel, I begged Tom in vain to just walk the mile to Veeraswamy on Regent St. We never did make it that far in the car, settling for another restaurant in that group, Chutney Mary in St James. We just missed lunch, so we had a snack in the bar.
I had crab cakes! And yes, they were Indian. Named for a region of India, my Goa Crab Cakes had such an intense spice in the sauce I nearly choked. Tom had a vegetarian dish with melted cheese and tomatoes and that addictive, always perfect basmati Indian rice.
Back at the hotel, we just had time to get presentable for dinner. This may have been the high point of the trip for Tom. Goring service with impeccable food? Unbeatable!
My favorite thing about this dining room was not the perfect food and service, but the Lord David Linley chandeliers made of Swarovski crystal. Lending a pop of elegant whimsy to this staid and traditional space, the rose and periwinkle glass “petals” softly diffused the light in such a way as to make the room sexy, but only in the classiest way. This is the Goring, after all.
This meal literally thrilled Tom. The 100 GBP “amenity” credit toward the bill thrilled me.
It depends on what the definition of “at” is . . .
Long after I drove out of Heathrow, my gut was uneasy about returning the car to Victoria Station. “You sure there is a Hertz AT Victoria Station?” I asked repeatedly.
Because we had nearly $6K invested in this one day adventure, missing this train was unfathomable. Despite all assurances, I walked over to check, because the hotel was only a block away. There was no Hertz counter, nor return spaces. After another call and another round of assurances, the morning of the trip we left early. Worse came to worse, I’d leave the car at the hotel with the staff whom I now viewed as friends.
I dropped Tom at the Belmond lounge, leaving two hours to unload this car. Again, no spaces anywhere. Too early to talk to anyone. I drove around the station several times looking for another car park where Hertz might have spaces. At 9am an attendant for Sixt sat in his kiosk.
I asked him about Hertz. “Oh, no. Hertz is a block over and two blocks down on the right.”
“Are you sure? They told me it was AT Victoria Station,” I said.
“That IS at Victoria Station,” said he.
After dropping the car and walking the three blocks, I arrived at the Belmond lounge.
There were plenty of people occupying the sumptuously upholstered seating, and just as many standing, no doubt wishing they had come earlier. There was one bathroom with a line. I was surprised by this first view of Belmond, especially considering the price point.
We boarded the British Pullman after tea and cappuccino. Each car had a name and history, and look, and our steward was happy to relate the one for Audrey, where we sat. Our car was a royal favorite, he said. Then he told us he had served Nelson Mandela on a neighboring car. I could see why ours was a royal favorite. It was my favorite too.
The upholstery and wood paneling screamed luxury, as did the table set with gorgeous pale blue-rimmed china, fine sterling silverware, and crisp linens.
Tea and coffee was happily poured from heavy sterling pots, baskets of baked goods circulated, and orders for brunch were taken. Happy chatter from all the inhabitants filled the air, and the journey began.
Ten minutes later it was over.
We rolled along the track and the train stopped. And sat. I thought we might be waiting for another train, but an hour later we were informed that the train needed another engine to get past some hill. The Little Engine That Could?? For $6,000???
We backed up a bit and several of us joked we were trying to get a running start. But it backed up and stopped. Another half hour went by before we were informed that this portion of our trip had concluded.
One couple departed immediately after securing a full refund. And then there were . . .
We finished the brunch and everyone was led to a bus. Ours had a family in the first row of seats. I wondered if the driver had been yanked from his Sunday roast to transport strangers across town.
After an hour we stopped somewhere and were loaded onto really luxurious coaches which drove inside the Eurostar.
This was a fascinating thing to watch. The train door opens and the driver deftly negotiates the tiny space and slips his gigantic bus inside the train with a mere foot on each side. Doors between each bus and tractor trailer truck are secured. The bus doors are opened once inside the train, and passengers are allowed to get out. Standing in the two foot space on either side is okay but a little creepy, and no standing in front of the bus at
all. Bus in train in Chunnel. Transportation nesting eggs.
It was done without a snafu, and in half an hour we were in Calais, where the Orient Express sat waiting. It was dark when we arrived three hours behind schedule. One guest from New York had earlier quipped that he was looking forward to a time when he would spend more time on a train than a coach. And finally he would.
It was 9pm, meaning the glamorous dinner with tuxedos and cocktail attire would start at 10pm. Another seating at 11pm. We pressed on. After dinner, hanging out in the stunning environment in the bar commenced, grand piano tickled by a great jazz pianist (and yes, of course Tom sang)
Conversation was so stimulating I was shocked to see the clock strike 2am. I was having a rousing chat with two female barristers from Dublin on the subject of Brexit. Good conversation is intoxicating to me, and it was everywhere. This was the most eclectic group of people from all over the world, and we made some friends we will see again. We were among only a handful of Americans.
When we returned to our cabin, it was decked out for us with exotic thin cotton robes and blue slippers like I’d expect to see at a bazaar in the Middle East.
In the morning breakfast was to be served in our cabin, but we made our way back to that bar.
Cappuccino and tea was being served, along with the most delectable tea biscuits! The Alps were just waking up, buried under snow. It was serenely beautiful, made more so by classical music in the background. We never did make it back to the room for breakfast, which was just a basket of boring pastries.
Our new friends gradually started to file in, and the conversations began anew. I couldn’t believe I was drinking champagne at 10am, but it seemed a fitting accompaniment to bar snacks like curry dusted almonds. And then it was time for lunch.
Tom had foie gras and the like, and I had more curried almonds.
The service on this train, and with everyone at Belmond, was simply extraordinary.
On the way back to the room I dropped in on new friends from Manchester, UK for awhile. Then it was tea time, again in the room.
We pulled in to the station in Venice at 6:30pm, and that is when reality returned. A long water taxi ride dropped us pretty far from our hotel. Dragging bags on the cobbled streets for four blocks and two bridges with steps was a workout. Finally we were checked in. I threw open the windows and overlooked the familiar Italian red tiled roofs. What had they been privy to in all those centuries?
Tom’s favorite Venetian restaurant was five minutes walk (that’s his cutoff), so we dropped in on Antico Pignolo for another “snack.”
He had oysters, then a pasta dish. I had tagliatelle with mushrooms and he had dessert. 75E. Someone needs to review the definition of snack with Tom.
We awoke to sunshine in Venice, and slightly warmer temps. Downstairs we ran into some of our new friends at breakfast. One was vexing about spending 100E for a gondola ride. I try to live by a line from a Seals and Croft song from the Seventies, though I hate all Seventies music (and everything else about that decade). The phrase “we may never pass this way again” guides me through decisions like that.
I mentioned that to our friends, and another current song a friend says always reminds her of me. It may be the greatest compliment I’ve received. It’s Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.” So, dance!
After breakfast Tom and I walked to the Doges Palace, a place that has been closed in all previous visits here. Italian decor is so, . . Italian. Over the top, but still beautiful in its own way. I am obsessed with Venetian terrazzo, which is everywhere. But it wasn’t the floors that wowed me. The ceilings were impossibly ornate. Whenever I see artistic expression at this level, I am saddened that television has destroyed so much of the beauty from future generations. Who will now create from these trades that have been passed down through millennia, when everyone is staring into their phone?
The most captivating thing at the Palace of the Doges is not the palatial spaces, but passing through the Bridge of Sighs. Looking at it from the outside is wistful, but entirely different. Seeing that last glimpse of the Grand Canal through a tiny window from inside is really sobering. I could only imagine the thoughts of the condemned as they were led to their fate.
And the armory room! I couldn’t help staring at a closeup view of arrows-their super pointed tips-and wondering about the mindset that would allow someone to fling that into another human. Or the swords or machetes that are used to simply whack off a head. I’ll have to remember that when I feel that culturally our society has descended into inhumanity with vicious attacks on social media. Or the endless prattling about guns. Fortunately, guns ended the barbarism of the the Middle Ages, at least in the Western world.
We left the Doges Palace and headed over to Harry’s Bar, where they charge a lot for food, . . .because they can.
I had to have a Bellini, which was smaller than I thought it would be. Bread came really toasty, along with those awful breadsticks Italians are oddly attached to. Tom had carpaccio and I had tagliolini pasta with parsley and olive oil. And the bill was 128E!! Definitely worth every euro cent.
Tom returned to the hotel and I walked Venice alone for hours, checking in on some old haunts. And discovering new ones.
Late afternoon we went to Cafe Florian in Piazza San Marco, and sat outside listening to music. This was a favorite hangout for Dickens, which made 6E just to sit a little more palatable. We left when my guilt got to me for having Tom sit outside in the cold (though it really wasn’t)
We returned to the hotel for a drink before dinner. All the places I threw out were too far to walk in the cold, Tom said. So we wound up at a place on the square. Doubtful about this plan, I looked it up, and was reassured by the revelation that the interiors were done by Phillipe Starck. Then I arrived and saw the high shelves of taxidermy animals, including a little bird. I wanted to go right then. Tom saw a 5 course, 8 course, or 13 course pre-fixe menu. I didn’t recognize a thing, though the bread baked in house was extra crusty delicious. When the bill came, it was 287E, and I only watched!!!
Most fascinating about this whole experience to me was the two Floridians at a neighboring table. After hearing their American accent, I struck up a conversation. They come to Venice every time their wine cellar is empty. After a few weeks they move on to Verona’s environs to restock with their favorite wine-Amarone. Dressed formally, they left their balcony suite at Danieli for the 13 course extravaganza. No sticker shock for them, but I left catatonic.
And ready to go home.
We awoke to sunshine in Venice, and slightly warmer temps. Downstairs we ran into some of our new friends at breakfast. One was vexing about spending 100E for a gondola ride. I try to live by a line from a Seals and Croft song from the Seventies, though I hate all Seventies music (and everything els…
And ready to go home.
Not wanting to leave Venice without another walk along the Grand Canal, I took the breadsticks from last night’s dinner to the pigeons in the square. Then I walked to the Arsenale to see the shipyard that has built ships since the empire. On the way, I walked with a little man and his dog, and watched hordes of kids come in from the boat busses for school. Among these crowds was a mom and young son and their adorable pooch, who played fetch the whole way. I love dropping in to absorb daily life with the locals wherever I go.
I was gone maybe too long, arriving at the hotel to see Tom sitting with our new Brit friends for breakfast. Warm good bye hugs all around, swapping of contact info, and we were off.
We boarded the water taxi to the transportation building, and found Hertz after a long walking search with lots of bags, finally dragging them up a flight of stairs.
On to Milan by way of Verona. As a hopeless and unabashed romantic, I had to visit Casa di Giulietta. Me and about two hundred school kids. Verona is a young person’s city, giving it a unique and vibrant energy. After wading through these kids, I saw that for 4E you can go out on the balcony that was almost certainly not hers. But Tom discovered that this was definitely a medieval building, because the toilets were literally a hole in the ground. He was fascinated by this; me, repulsed.
After a quick (but essential!) stop at Venchi, we dropped in at a corner pizza and pasta place called Villa Fontana. I was suspicious because of its unassuming appearance.
The pizza was surprisingly delicious. Perky red sauce and ample cheese, I wished I had gotten one too. And I’m not a Margherita fan. Another cappuccino for Tom and we were off to Milan. And I was still thinking about that pizza.
We arrived in Milan late afternoon, intending to see the big cathedral, have dinner, and go to LaScala. Instead, Tom went to the bathroom at Dolce and we left town.
I chatted with the guy who showed us in. “Do you know how far the airport is?” he asked.
When he saw my blank face and told me at least an hour, I decided to take his advice and stay at the airport Sheraton. Out flight left at 8:35 am.
The drive to Malpensa airport was indeed interminable, and I was grateful I didn’t have to do it at 5am. Just as he said, the Sheraton was part of the airport. We checked in, and I returned the car. The attendant mentioned I’d forgotten to fill the tank. 100E. I thought about that, but only for a second. “Do it, ” I said as I walked away. When I’m done, I’m done.
After a grueling day of travel, we arrived in New Orleans by late afternoon the following day. That’s Tom’s true happy place.
For more pictures of the trip. go to instagram@tastefullyyourstomfitzmorris@emmiestravels.
April 10, 2017
French Quarter Festival April 11-14
Easter April 21
Jazz Festival April 26-May 5
Eat Club Dinner @ Impastato’s April 17
Yes, We Have Some Bananas
Today in 1633, greengrocer Thomas Johnson of Snow Hill in London displayed bananas in his shop window. They were the first bananas ever sold at retail in that country. Most people in England had never seen or tasted bananas, but heard enough about them to snap them up. Bananas would not become widely available in England for another 200 years.
National Soft-Shell Crab Day. Soft-shell crabs are just beginning to appear right now. The early part of the season is best, with the biggest specimens we may see all year.
Soft-shell crabs are almost absurdly delectable. Every creature that eats crabs relishes these. It’s a wonder any crabs make it past that vulnerable stage. Soft-shell crabs are blue crabs that have just molted their too-small shells. Almost all the ones that come our way are farm-raised. (The wild ones hide very effectively, and finding one is dumb luck.) Soft-shell crab producers can tell when a crab is about to molt. As soon as it does, it’s removed from the water. Otherwise, the shell stiffens and gets “papery.”
A crab increases its size by pumping up its tissues with water in the minutes after it sheds. If you ever see the process, you’ll wonder how that crab could possibly have been in that old hard shell. Crabs get better as they get bigger. A gigantic soft-shell crab contains, among many other wonderful things, two massive jumbo lumps of a size one rarely gets in straight crabmeat dishes. One “whale” (as the biggest soft-shell crabs are known in the trade) is better than two smaller crabs.
Cleaning a soft-shell crab for cooking is a bit involved. You cut off the face and rip out the gills (the “dead-man’s fingers”) and the sand sac. You can then proceed, but the crab will appear to have lost some corpulence. So some chefs stuff something inside to take the place of what came out. As for the actual cooking, no method beats deep-frying. I’ve occasionally had broiled or grilled soft-shell crabs that were as good as fried. But never better, and usually worse. From that point, nothing enhances a soft-shell crab more than napping it with a little brown butter and a pile of lump crabmeat on top.
Biscuit Hill is a small mesa standing about a hundred feet above the desert floor in western Arizona. It’s 102 miles west of Flagstaff, and about the same distance southwest of the Grand Canyon. Its name is easy to figure: it looks like a big buttermilk biscuit out there in the parched landscape. A stream from the mountains a couple of miles east keeps enough water in Biscuit Hill Tank for the stock. Its a twenty-nine-mile drive to Seligman on I-40, where the nearest restaurant–The OK Saloon and Route 66 Roadkill Cafe–will be found.
boudin, [boo-DAHN], French, n.–A light-textured sausage stuffed into a casing and cooked. The word is an old one, with roots that also gave us “pudding.” The meaning is clear: it’s a soft mixture of ingredients that set into solid form, but just barely. The variety of sausages called boudin is wide. From our perspective in South Louisiana, the word used alone refers to boudin blanc, made with pork, pork liver, and sometimes other pork organs. This is all mixed with cooked rice and seasonings before going into a casing. It’s fully cooked when purchased from the butcher, but is usually heated before eating. Many butcher shops sell it hot and ready to eat. Boudin noir–a blood sausage–is less common even in Cajun country, and unheard of almost anhywhere else.
Food And The Law
On this day in 1995, smoking was banned in all New York City restaurants with more than 35 seats. From that point, laws prohibiting smoking in restaurants spread. It took a dozen years for them to come here, but we’re glad they did. Right now, some restaurants are complaining that the ban has had a negative effect on business. That happened in New York, too–initially. Sooner than anyone expected, volume was back up to (and beyond) levels from the smoking era.
Food On The Air
On this evening in 1982, in a skit on Saturday Night Live, Eddie Murphy pulled a large live lobster out of a tank, held him up to the cameras, and named him Larry. He then asked the audience whether they wanted Larry boiled and eaten, or whether Larry should be allowed to live. Giving the lobster a name was what decided that one. By the end of the show, the telephone voting from around the country gave Larry a reprieve, and he went on to live until he could collect residuals from the reruns of the show.
The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
When with your food empathy you feel
You’ll begin to dread your every meal.
For you to eat, something must die
But forget it! It’s already said good-bye!
People We’d Like To Take To Dinner
Novelist Paul Theroux’s birthday is today, in 1941. He mostly writes fiction now, but he came to my attention through two travel books. In both, he takes trains to the farthest points tracks lead. The Great Railway Bazaar goes from London through Asia. The Old Patagonian Express starts in Boston and ends in Mendoza, Argentina. He digs into the culture wherever he goes, and has much to say about the way people eat. To an extent, it was what Anthony Bourdain does now, but thirty years before.
Annals Of Fishing
Today in 1989, a number of major American food distributors stopped selling canned tuna caught in nets that trapped (and then suffocated) dolphins. The move caused the price of tuna to rise a bit, but tuna from countries that did not accept the restriction went down dramatically, and for a time its sales actually went up. Now dolphin-safe tuna is the standard of the business. Progress is all around us.
Music To Drink Shots By
Today in 1958, The Champs’ recording of Tequila hit Number One on the pop charts. It was essentially an instrumental, with the group saying “Tequila!” at the end of every few bars.
Relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry signed a lifetime contract with the Kansas City Royals today in 1985. . . Kirk Lowdermilk, pro football player, was born today in 1963. . . Bill Martini, former Congressman from New Jersey, was born today in 1947. . . Jay Cooke, an early American financier, was born today in 1821.
Words To Eat By
“Soft crabs are always fried (or broiled) in the altogether, with maybe a small jock-strap of bacon added.”–H.L. Mencken.