Chicken

Make (Simplified) Chicken Chasseur; Dine Like You're on the Orient Express

November 15, 2017

The Orient Express embodies a certain kind of adventure in a certain kind of style. Kings, maharajas, czars, politicians, writers, celebrities, financiers, crooks, smugglers, and spies have all taken the journey from Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul). Hemingway wrote on it; Lawrence of Arabia began his epic mission on it. Agatha Christie met her husband on it and set that famous Hercule Poirot mystery in it. With an eye for a theme, I suppose, I was reading Murder on the Orient Express as my night train from Venice, Italy, to Ljubljana, Slovenia, pulled out of the station. As the domes of St. Mark’s faded into the glow of the lagoon, it was easy to imagine myself back in time, getting dressed for dinner in a mahogany and silk–bedecked cabin. In real life, two heavyset men in leather jackets were snoring, two nuns sat silently on the carriage’s remaining orange vinyl seats, and the smell of cigarettes and dust scented the air. The dining car was...closed.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

The “Train Éclair du Luxe”—or, as it came to be known in newspapers, the Orient Express—had a bow-tie–essential dining room to rival any grand hotel and a menu to match, all in a time when travel often meant rough conditions and hardship. The inaugural dinner menu, of October 4th, 1883, featured oysters, turbot with green sauce, chicken chasseur, a chaud-froid of game animals (a.k.a. meat coated in a creamy jellied sauce—hooray for aspic!), chocolate pudding, and a dessert buffet (because who doesn’t have room for petit fours after a 4-course dinner?), all served to the tinkling tones of a baby grand piano.

This kind of cooking was very much on my mind as the Not-Orient-Express clattered through the Italian countryside. I’d spent the summer working for a fancy, French-focused catering company in London, where I’d boned things and stuffed things and souffléd things, and had more aspic experience than anyone really needs in life. That paycheck 1) became this adventure, and 2) left me with a simplified recipe for chicken chasseur, which was on the Orient Express's inaugural menu. It’s a rich braise of mushrooms, chicken, and tomatoes, and though it tastes complex, it’s actually easy to pull together. There's no need to make stock from scratch, as the originator Philippe de Mornay (of Mornay sauce fame) would have us do.

As time went by, dinner on the Orient Express became more and more lavish. To keep ahead of the competition, the train doubled down on luxury. On January 4th, 1898, for example, guests could choose from 13 items, including turtle soup, langoustines a la Parisienne, truffles with champagne, and chicken with sauce Valois (a béarnaise-like shallot vinegar reduction). These dishes would be a feat to cook in a proper kitchen (my summer job was a testament to that!), let alone a small galley slipped into one end of a constantly rocking train car.

Dining on the Orient Express in the 1920s and 30s reached new heights of elegance. This is when Agatha Christie called the train “undoubtedly my favorite” in her memoir. The menu for June 2nd, 1925, included fiddly dishes designed to showcase the technique of the chef: poularde mascotte (capon breast and leg, stuffed and served with a creamy sauce), jambon et rosbif a la gelée (gotta love that aspic), and crème Lutetia (a brûlée-style custard made famous by a Parisian hotel), and this was only lunch! Fresh ingredients were on-boarded at local train stops, and seasonal produce—berries, tomatoes, fresh herbs—influenced the menu, which was handwritten on specially designed cards every morning. Menus began to draw on recipes native to areas on the train’s passage—a local-seasonal approach, one could say.

These dishes would be a feat to cook in a proper kitchen, let alone a small galley in one end of a rocking train car.

Two hours, several chapters, and one dead body into my book*, Jon (my then-boyfriend, now-husband) set out an ad hoc picnic of ripe tomatoes and green olives that we’d picked up at the Rialto Market. Luckily, what the experience lacked in luxury, it made up for in wine. He gouged out the cork of our emergency Valpolicella with his penknife, and we settled in for a long night of semi-sleeping while sitting up. The Italian countryside rolled by in silhouette through the window as we ate, and it would have been terribly romantic, apart from the snoring men in leather jackets and the staring, silent nuns. Nevertheless, our esprit de voyage remained undaunted. We were 21. We had enough breadsticks in our backpacks to keep body and soul together, and we were on a train, experiencing the magic that all travelers can touch whether gliding in mahogany carriages or sticking to warm orange vinyl.

Though, in reality, no murders have ever occurred on the Orient Express, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria is reputed to have locked himself in the bathroom because he feared assassins were onboard. The other crucial plot device in the Poirot story, the train becoming stranded in a snow drift, did occur in real life. Over the course of 5 days stuck on ice, legend has it that the passengers and crew hunted the wolves that encircled the carriages—and ate them! It seems unlikely, though, since every train was well stocked with provisions.

Tell us about your train experiences—and train food!—in the comments.

3 Comments

Marsha M. November 15, 2017
Well, I have yet to ride the Orient Express, but I have traveled a bit on European trains. The best series began in London, where I boarded for Paris. I had lucked into first class for a few Pounds more, so it was lovely. The couple across from me had brought some sort of fish thing to eat, and just as they finished, our breakfast was served - a lovely light meal on china, with (of course) excellent tea. So we dined our elegant way through the tunnel, emerging to a second cup of tea and France. A week later, I boarded a sleeper from Paris to Lyon. Alas, the refurbishment of Le Train Bleu was to be completed the next day, so I couldn't see it. I had gambled that I'd be the only single female travelling second class, and I won! A compartment to myself. The company was convivial, and we were gathered for champagne and music as soon as we were underway. Shortly thereafter, we enjoyed a very nice dinner, more wine, and more music. When I returned to my compartment, it had been turned down for sleep: the bed made up all comfy with a pile of fluffy pillows, a warm duvet, and a pillow chocolate. I didn't really sleep, peering out the window at mostly invisible landscapes. Every cell hone on the car dinged in almost-unison whenever we crossed a border (Paris - Milan crossed into and out of Switzerland twice, I think), and there was an abrupt stop in the wee hours. We were awakened to coffee and viennoiseries with just enough time to dress and prepare for arrival. I also travelled from Milan to Florence, and thence to Venice, all lovely with wine or coffee and little nibbles. I adore European train travel.
 
Marsha M. November 15, 2017
I apologize, not Lyon, Milan.
 
Author Comment
Katherine K. November 15, 2017
Wow! That all sounds amazing! Such a glamorous way to travel!