European train travel offers sophisticated fine dining — at 300 exhilarating kilometres an hour, writes Kate Gibbs. Now that we have modern, high-speed services running to the heart of cosmopolitan European cities, trains are no longer the dog-eared refuge of rail enthusiasts or those who can't afford to fly. Amsterdam is brought an hour closer to London, and Seville 40 minutes closer to Madrid as high-speed links have significantly cut journey times between European destinations in recent years.
There are still some networks offering food that is, in train terms, stalling somewhere between steam and diesel. But many European trains are now offering in buffet carts food to match that found in the villages, castles, hillside chapels and farmhouses blurring past.
The Eurostar leaves from London's St Pancras terminal and spends about 45 minutes in darkness under the English Channel before reappearing in the poplar-lined expanses of France's fields. Somewhere between departure and arrival, the buffet car fills up, while polite, British queues wax lyrical about their South-of-France weekender.
Eurostar knows a culinary crowd and now does hot and cold options all day. A light afternoon meal can be an organic Camargue brown and wild rice salad with celery and English cox apples and toasted sunflower seeds. Or a pan-fried chicken breast with sage and onion stuffing, olive and tomato sauce, roasted new potatoes and spring greens.
Even in standard class, most inter-country trains now offer trolley services where you can pick up a packet of cheese biscuits, a proper coffee and a made-that-day croissant. A bistro cart in most TGV trains through France will at least turn out a decent Croque Monsieur, if not a four-course meal.
On Spain's high-speed AVE trains you're skittled over the snow-capped foothills of the Pyrenees and through olive groves with a menu and glass of fino sherry in hand. In Club class, a green salad with cured duck breast, mango and poppy seeds arrives as the train pelts between Seville and Madrid.
On the Thalys trains that operate in Germany, Belgium, France and The Netherlands, the sophisticated evolution of train food is perhaps most evident. First-class passengers travelling from Brussels are served dishes concocted by Michelin-starred Belgian chef Alexandre Dionisio and chocolate macaroons by renowned Belgian pastry chef Jean-Philippe Darcis. Pork pies, celeriac in remoulade, rich chocolate cake and tarte tatin with vanilla are standard fare. As long as they're serving food like this on high-speed trains across Europe, it's almost a shame the journey is over so quickly.
This article first appeared in Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald on 26 March 2011.