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.
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.
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.
- 8 chicken thighs
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 4 cups chestnut or button mushrooms
- 3 shallots
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 teaspoon tomato puree
- 1 cup chicken or veal stock
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 thyme sprigs
- 2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley
- 1/2 cup cream
Tell us about your train experiences—and train food!—in the comments.