Philippa James meets Raymond Blanc on the Orient Express and has a Brief Encounter in Carnforth
PUBLISHED: 00:04 11 February 2014
Philippa James joined Raymond Blanc on the Orient Express and made a return journey to Carnforth to those film star tearooms
It didn’t require much arm-twisting when the editor asked if I’d like a trip to Carnforth on The Orient Express for a champagne reception, sumptuous seven-course dinner and the opportunity to meet one of my food heroes, Raymond Blanc.
As we approached Carnforth, before the return to watch a stunning firework display over Morecambe Bay, I closed my eyes and drifted into a favourite black and white scene from Brief Encounter, part of which was filmed here.
It reached cinemas as World War Two was ending, providing a message of morality at a time when marriages had been torn apart. Although said to be one of the most romantic films ever made, the action could be summed up as ‘make tea, not love.’
The female lead Celia Johnson was less than happy at being sent up north, and she was equally miserable about the food she was served in the actors’ railway carriage. Co-star Trevor Howard found comfort in brandy.
However Celia succumbed to our northern friendliness. In a letter home to her husband, she spoke of being impressed with the station master, whom she described as ‘an old-fashioned gentleman who raised his hat every time he saw her’ and allowed her to warm herself in front of the fire in his office between takes.
Today, you will still find a warm welcome at Carnforth station and much better food. Largely thanks to Peter Yates, chairman and founder of Carnforth Station and Railway Trust Co. Ltd, it now boasts a refreshment room, micro pub, heritage centre and dress agency.
After my trip with Raymond, I made a return visit to the refreshment room, run by husband and wife team, Andrew and Helen Coates with chefs Wendy Barnes and Gareth Slinger.
While Wendy is front of house, Andrew oversees operations in the kitchen. The couple have had the business for six years. Andrew said of learning to bake: ‘I got The Stork Baking Book out and, if it didn’t work, I just kept trying until I got it right.’ And of the bread making, he added: ‘The Snug had a bucket of spare beer one day and asked if I could use it. I’ve never looked back.’
Andrew said they don’t allow ‘moody customers’ into the refreshment room, and he serves food as he’d like to serve it to himself. ‘If they want fast food, they know where they can get that. We do chips that are peeled and hand cut,’ he told me. ‘If someone comes in just before we are closing, we get everything out and start again.
‘We have good customer skills and can make someone’s day in visiting Carnforth Station something memorable and special, like them having their photo taken under the famous clock.’
Chefs Wendy Barnes and Gareth Slinger said the food that their visitors, coach parties, train and film buffs, and many regular locals, like is ‘good value, comfort food.’ This includes stews, hot pot, scones, home-made cakes, and Banburys, which featured in the film. They are similar to an Eccles cake, but oval and originally made to a secret recipe dating back to 1586.
The venue has now extended its repertoire and hosts christenings, vintage themed parties, with authentic crockery, and popular free jazz sessions on the 3rd Friday of the month.
This is one railway station where a delay would be a blessing.
Raymond steams in
Chef Gareth Slinger was thrilled that Raymond Blanc went into the refreshment room to chat to staff during the Orient Express trip.
His kitchen is very different to the train’s galley where I witnessed the military-style operation required to serve seven superb courses from a cupboard. I believe cooking on the Orient Express is murder!
Raymond, who had chatted with us earlier, is utterly charming. He was leaning against the 1920s carriage wall looking exhausted - not surprising after a very long day working in that space.
He spoke of our Lancashire chef, Chris Wells, who I have featured before in Lancashire Life. Chris is training at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, and Raymond said he was proud of the young man’s achievements.
As I tottered, euphoric, off the train towards my taxi, clutching my menu and Raymond’s inspiring and enlightening book, Kitchen Secrets, I mused that this may have been my first trip aboard The Orient Express, but I certainly hoped it wasn’t my last.