BOOK | Nostalgia | Culinary Adventures on the Orient Express

At NAR Lokantası in Nuruosmaniye the pastry chef makes cevizli sarma, a layered walnut pastry. After making the thin sheets of pastry he curls a sheet over his long rolling pin. Sadly this fabulous Istanbul restaurant has closed.


THE WAY IT WAS

AT ONE minute past seven, three evenings a week, a Grand Express left the Gare de l’Est in Paris – its destination the far eastern edge of Europe, where west meets east in a glorious expression of culture. In the days before air travel when sea routes were long and arduous, the fast way to reach Constantinople and witness the magnificent glory of the Palace of Topkapi, the Kapalicarsi (Grand Bazaar) and the Bosphorus was by express train, for those who take delight in the romantic era of trains, the most luxurious train the world has ever known.

This was the Orient Express, a train made up with Pullman and Wagons-Lits wagons, run by the exclusive Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grand Express Européens, staffed by supreme artisans headed by the Chef du train, a diplomat who probably spoke six languages. The accommodation and the cuisine matched any high class hotel, and befitting the class of passenger all passports and luggage were examined on the train.

Michael Barsley imagined what the passengers in premier class were like. “The top Orient Express traveller is either a snob, a spy or what is known as a lady companion.” He exaggerates a little, but when he wrote these words in the 1960s the romantic era of the Orient Express was a cultural icon in the emerging postmodernist world of nostalga and fiction.

In its heyday the Orient Express was a truely glamourous train. It carried the rich and famous, royalty and statesmen, but it was also the favoured train of travellers, couriers, diplomats, businessmen and spies. We know this because novelists Maurice Dekobra, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Agatha Christie, and Ian Fleming featured the Orient Express in fictions that would immortalise the train on the silver screen in film noirs and technicolour.

Ambler, Greene and Fleming, in particular, portrayed the reality of actual life on the train because they did not confine their characters to the cabins and restaurant wagons. Their protagonists are also found in the corridors and compartments of the day-wagons, which contained the less well-off who were prepared to endure three days and nights without a bed to rest in. In their novels the reader knows they are on a steam train travelling across frontiers inhabited by shadowy characters. You can feel the sudden jerks, smell the lubricating oil, inhale the coal smoke and see the passing landscape.

Greene’s Stamboul Train, published in 1932, describes a scene that is not uncommon on night trains today. “He was passing the non-sleeping compartments in the second class; men, with their waistcoats off, sprawled along seats, blue about the chin; women with hair in dusty nets, like the string bags on the racks, tucked their skirts tightly around them and fell in odd shapes over the seats, large breasts and small thighs, small breasts and large thighs hopelessly confused.”

Stamboul Train is the most evocative of all the fictions that feature the Orient Express. The book is all train is how Michael Barsley put it, “but unlike Agatha Christie’s expert, detailed setting for a Poirot problem, Stamboul Train is there merely to be enjoyed, with shudders enroute. The creatures of (Greene’s) imagination on the Stamboul Train are not mere ciphers or caricatures”.

Trains permeated Ambler’s fiction, much of it set in the Balkans and eastern Europe in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, because it was the favoured method of travel for business people, even if it was troublesome. “The train reached the frontier in the early hours of the morning and he was awakened by the attendant for his papers. Mr Peters was still reading. His papers had already been examined by the Greek and Bulgarian officials in the corridor outside and Latimer did not have an opportunity of ascertaining the nationality of the citizen of the world. A Bulgarian customs official put his head in the compartment, frowned at their suitcases and then withdrew. Soon the train moved on over the frontier.”

Fleming, like Ambler and Greene, knew his trains and knew that every traveller on the grand expresses came to loath the arrival at frontier stations and yearn for the train to get moving again. “The guard at the back of the train looked at his watch and held out his flag. There was a jerk and a diminishing crescendo of explosive puffs from the engine and the front section of the Orient Express began to move. The section that would be taking the northern route through the Iron Curtain – through Dragoman on the Bulgarian frontier, only fifty miles away – was left beside the dusty platform. Bond pulled down the window and took a last look back at the Turkish frontier … He watched the dead, dusty platform, with its chickens and the small black figure of the guard, until the long train took the points and jerked harshly on to the single main line. He looked away across the ugly, parched countryside towards the golden guinea sun climbing out of the Turkish plain. It was going to be a beautiful day.”

Fleming, in his role as a writer of spy thrillers, also knew the allure of the Orient Express for his readers. In his 1957 novel From Russia with Love Fleming has his Irish-born, Russian-killer Captain Nash explain to James Bond why his death on the train will be the story of the century. “Old man, the story has got everything. Orient Express. Beautiful Russian spy murdered in Simplon tunnel. Filthy pictures. Secret cipher machine. Handsome British spy with career runied murders her and commits suicide. Sex, spies, luxury train.”
Nash didn’t get to do any killing on the train, and the only murder on the Orient Express that is immortalised in fiction came from the pen of Agatha Christie when her eponymous hero Hercule Poirot finds himself with a problem on board the train to Istanbul.

But it was love not death that gave the Orient Express an attraction few other trains have been able to match. This is because of Maurice Dekobra’s The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, a novel published in 1925 when train travel, especially at night, conjured in the imagination romantic liasions. Lady Diana Wynham, Dekobra’s Scottish aristocratic heroine, makes no bones about it. “… I have a ticket for Constantinople. But I may step off at Vienna or Budapest. That depends absolutely on chance or on the colour of the eyes of my neighbour in the compartment. I have reserved rooms at the Imperial, on the Ring, and at the Hungaria, on the quay at Budapest. But I am just as likely to sleep in some horrible hotel in Josephstadt or in a palace on the hillside … I’m giving myself exactly six weeks to discover the imbecile who will cater to my whims and ripen in my safe deposit some golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides …”

Forty years after it had been inaugurated a train only one man truely believed in had a reputation that has never been sullied in the public eye. But then the Orient Express was special from day one and destined it seemed for a greatness far beyond the simple expediency of rail travel.

The first transnational Express d’Orient left Paris on October 4, 1883. It was 200 feet in length. An Est 2-4-0 locomotive pulled two baggage cars carrying mail for the countries the train was to travel through, a dining wagon and two sleeping wagons (the men in one and the women in the other). It travelled at a leisurely 50 miles per hour via Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Subotica and Bucharest to the Black Sea port of Varna, where 40 exclusively selected travellers boarded a steamer for Constantinople. It was a journey of 1800 miles and took 96 hours. The continguent were led by George Nagelmackers, the founder of the Compaigne Internationale des Wagon-Lits et Grand Express. They included bureaucrats, politicians, railway officals, bankers, journalists, Wagons-Lits directors, an author and a few assorted people who had managed to acquire tickets. Among the journalistic continguent was Henri Stefan Opper de Blowitz of The Times, who reported that Nagelmackers was “bent on revolutionizing Continental travelling by introducing a comfort and facility hitherto unknown, and has had to struggle for ten years not only against internal difficulties and the conflicting interests of railway companies, but against the indifference of the very portion of the public which is destined to profit from the result”.

Nagelmackers’ Orient Express was indeed the reward for ten years of struggle with ten railway companies and their governments. Although Opper de Blowitz’s book of the journey, Une Course à Constantinople, was regarded as “magnificient” and “exaggerated”, Edmund About also wrote a book, De Pontoise à Stamboul, about his experience on this historic journey. Opper de Blowitz’s and About’s chronicles glamourised this new train. Nagelmacker had the success he desperately desired and a whole new concept for rail travel, across national borders, was gaining favour with the public. Within six years, by way of Belgrade, Nis and Sofia, a line was opened directly to Turkey. Then an event, which would give the Orient Express the panoramic glamour it had been missing because of its route through central Europe, occurred. In 1906 the world’s longest railway tunnel, the Simplon, between Brig in Switzerland and the outskirts of Domodossola in Italy was opened. A train, running from Paris to Milan, was inaugurated, eventually connecting Venice and Trieste to the route through France, into the Swiss Alps past Lake Geneva, the Rhone Valley, the Italian Alps, Lake Maggiore, the Po Valley and the Adriatic coast. Following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 the Orient Express got a new route, from Paris to Istanbul, via Dijon, Vallorbe, Lausanne, Brig, the Simplon tunnel, Domodossola, Milan, Venice, Trieste, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Nis and Sofia.

It also got a new image. The Simplon Orient Express became a sleeper-only fast train, reducing the journey time by almost half to 56 hours to Istanbul and 59 hours to Athens. Other routes to the Orient, via Germany and Austria and Switzerland and Romania, would be inaugurated, during the 1930s, but the end of this fabulous train was near. In 1962, after a forty year history, the Simplon Orient Express run by the Wagons-Lits company was shut down – ended by the politics of rail travel and the simple fact that the rich and famous, the traveller and tourist, the courier and businessman now went by fast, scheduled airline.

In the 1960s the demand for high-speed, non-stop expresses was replaced by the demand for slow, local trains serving every station. Glamorous rail travel, the kind provided by Wagons-Lits, was a luxury rail companies could no longer afford, and if anyone was going to provide cuisine, high or low, it would be them. The famous Wagons-Lits restaurant cars were abandoned. Wagons-Lits would now be associated with bed-linen. The golden era of rail travel, the age of steam trains, Pullman cars, Wagons-Lits sleeper wagons and upholstered compartments was over. The Orient Express had come to the end of the line. If you want to experience the Orient Express you need to read the fiction and watch the films. That’s the perceived wisdom these days. The reality is different, as realities have a tendancy to be. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

THE WAY IT BECAME (2001)

It is still possible to travel the old Orient Express routes all the way from Berlin, London, Paris or Madrid to Sofia, Istanbul or Athens by transnational express trains, but only the adventurer, the romantic and the young should contemplate the full route from Paris or Munich to Istanbul, because, beyond the Alps, it is a mad journey to be endured rather than enjoyed. Nothing much has changed since the mid-20th century when the grand European expresses lost their passengers to the airlines and fussy customs officials, long halts at frontier stations and lack of food made trains like the Orient Express a pain in the arse. Experienced rail travellers now bring their own food because there is none available once the trains reach the Balkans and eastern Europe. They also make sure they know the regulations regarding passports and visas. Anyone without a passport or a valid visa will find themselves off the train. Anyone wanting to travel to and from Istanbul by train in the 21st century should expect the unexpected.

Paris, as it was in 1883, is still a starting point for Istanbul. Once trains ran through central Europe via Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania to the Bosphorous or they ran via Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. The journey took three nights and almost four full days. Today, perhaps surprisingly, the journey time is the same, despite the choice of routes and services east now available. Even the fast southern route from Paris via Vallorbe, Brig, Milan, Venice and Belgrade is a three day journey.

Rail travellers in a hurry should take this route. It starts in the Gare du Lyon, ideally on an early afternoon TGV, repleat with dinning wagon, along the old Dijon-Vallorbe-Lausanne route, arrives in Lausanne at quarter to seven (making the journey time nine hours from London, four from Paris). If you are young, can cope with sleep deprivation and desperate to get to Istanbul, it is possible to wait in Lausanne for the 22.06 Simplon Express to Venice, take a quick glimpse at the Grand Canal, sip an espresso in the station cafe, change to the 08.14 Drava express, get to Belgrade at midnight, stay the night and leave at 07.00 the following morning on the Balkan Express, which arrives on the western shore of the Bosphorous, if you are lucky, as dawn breaks. Or, if you are feeling rich, there is an ‘Orient Express’ complete with Pullmans and Wagons-Lits restaurant wagons, from Paris at 17.49 arriving in Vienna the following morning just before nine. At 19.35 there is a train to Belgrade, which connects with the Balkan Express for the 26 hour journey to Istanbul. Whatever way you go the journey takes three nights.

It took us a lot longer, but we decided we wanted to take all the Stamboul trains east from all points north, west and south in each direction. The plan, on paper, seemed a simple task of travelling from A to Z with some diversions. We would travel from each major city in western Europe. The idea, to compare routes and services and value, also had a simplicity about it. After all the travellers of the late 19th century and early 20th century stepped into the ticket offices in St Petersburg, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin, Edinburgh, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Madrid, Lisbon, Geneva, Milan or Rome and bought tickets that took them into the Balkans and further into the east, to Constantinople. Surely it was still possible to do the same in zippy modern Grand Express Européens? We had seen the way it was, we’d studied the modern timetables, now we wanted to see if there were any more adventures out there.

We started with the German route. The journey through Germany and Austria was uneventful. Then we boarded the 07.10 from Budapest to Bucharest and entered a world of corruption, skulduggery and smuggling. The fun began at the frontier towns of Bekecsaba and Lokoshaza. Windows were pulled down and the goods were loaded. People poured into the wagons, carrying the world and everything else on their shoulders. Customs and police and Romanian train clerks got on. Our passports were checked, our tickets were inspected.

We had taken the advice of Deutsche Bahn, who sold us most of our tickets, to buy Global Inter-rail Passes and upgrade with supplements, seat reservations and berths. There was a problem with the passes. Your problem, we told the train clerks. They went away but they kept coming back. We pretended to be poor. We should have travelled premier class. We realised that a scam was being operated. None of the people laden down with goods offered any tickets to the train clerks. Not long before we reached Bucharest, with the train running more than an hour late, a smart, well-dressed middle-aged man got on, summonsed the train clerks and held a conference with them, notebook and pencil in hand. At Bucharest we were told the goods were for the Christmas markets.

Our night train to Istanbul, the 14.05 Bosphor Express, carried wagons and sleepers that had not been serviced since they were built in the 1950s. I flooded our cabin because I failed to spot a leak in the basin plumbing and then the heating went off. “Frig,” our Romanian neighbours in the next cabin said. They were used to it.

At the frontier with Bulgaria a discussion began with the wagon chef and a man in a smart suit about our tickets. “If they are not valid it’s your problem not mine,” I told them. I brought out my Cook’s European timetable to prove that our Global Rail Passes were valid in Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. Something told me the man in the suit wanted me to cross his palm. A youth came up while we were staring out the window – a preoccupation with rail travellers at frontier stations – offering bottles of alcohol, soft drinks, and snacks. I bought a bottle of vodka from him. I knew we would need it later.

Sometime after one o’clock the train reached Svilengrad and for the next three hours the train was halted, shunted, wagons from the Balkan Express added, started, shunted again and halted again while our cabin door was repeatedly thumped by a succession of customs and police.

We were told to buy Turkish visas at the border. We didn’t know that meant being instructed to leave the train, go to a draughty shed to buy a visa, take it to another draughty shed to have it stamped before being allowed back on where our passports were checked for the new visa stamps.

In the morning as the train cruised along the shore of the Bosphorus, the man in the suit came back. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. ‘You want hotel in Istanbul?’ he asked. ‘We’re fine,’ I said. He smiled, shook my hand and walked away.

After five nights in Istanbul we boarded the 08.30 train out of Sirkeci station. There are only three trains out of Sirkeci – the 8.30 and 15.50 local services to Pehlivankóv, and the 23.00 to Belgrade and Bucharest, dividing at Svilengrad. The Pehlivankóv service connects, not without some fanfare, with Greece. A little bit before Pehlivankóv the line divides, one track turning north-east towards Svilengrad, the other turning south-west towards the Turkish frontier station of Uzunkóprú and Pythion across the border in Greece.

At Pehlivankóv the electric engine was replaced by a diesel shunting engine. When it stopped a few minutes up the line we had the feeling it had broken down. We looked out. There was a man in a boiler suit with spanner in hand attending the engine.

At Uzunkóprú our wagon was connected to a load of freight wagons. I bought some more vodka, this time from a man in a hut where provisions could be bought for any currency you cared to exchange for the goods.
Eventually we crossed the Meric / Evros river to Pythion, waving at the solemn Turkish soldiers and the cheerful Greek soldiers as we passed their barracks on each side of the river.

The Athens train arrived punctually. We disembarked at Alexandropolis, stayed the night, got the early train to Thessaloniki the following day and took the night train to Sofia, where, a day later, we waited for the snow-shrouded, three hours late, Balkan Express to Belgrade.

Belgrade is a big old terminus and ours was the last train in. It was shut and staffed only by three policemen who kindly bought a phone card so they could phone the friend who was supposed to meet us. We had no dinars and there were no ATMs we could use our western cards in. So the police obliged us.

We stayed for three days before moving on to Zagreb, Ljubljana and Trieste. The journey from Ljubljana to Trieste is one of the most spectacular in Europe, but it is dwarfed by the splendour of the journey along the northern Adriatic coast to Venice, across the Po Valley to Milan, up past Lake Maggiore to Domodossola, through the Simplon, along the Rhone Valley to the Chateau de Chillon on Lake Geneva, and into the Jura. It is a delight for the eyes and not one to be squandered in a comfortable Wagons-Lits linen bed.

There are many reasons for taking the train to and from Istanbul. One is arriving in Istanbul, the other is travelling along a railway line that dissects Switzerland and its towering mountain ranges, carrying trains from all points of the compass. If you wish to travel by train across Europe from the west and the north into the south and east you must travel through the Alps and, for most travellers, that means going into Switzerland.

It is possible, for example, to leave Nice, in the south of France, on the Riviera Dei Fiori, with its panoramic wagon, just before nine every morning and travel along the French Riviera, into the Ligurian hills, past the Italian and Swiss lakes, through the Gotthard tunnel, arriving at Basel in the north-west of Switzerland beside the German and French borders 12 hours later.

Then from Basel it is possible, after a few hours nap, to board the 06.17 Cisalpino train bound for Milan via the Berner Oberland in the cheese-making heart of western Switzerland, alongside Lake Thun towards the Lotschberg tunnel and a 3,500 feet gradual descent into the Rhone Valley and the frontier town of Brig, where the Simplon tunnel cuts a route through the high Alps to Domodossola, beside Lake Maggiore, and finally the industrial north of Italy, arriving three hours later in time for a second breakfast.

The sleepy traveller might wish to stay in bed a little longer and instead board the 8.19 Transalpin, which weaves it way east towards the border with Austria, taking in the magnificence of the Zurich lakes, the Vorarlberg and Tyrol mountain ranges, and the Inn river en route to the Austrian capital, arriving just before seven in the evening.

The Gotthard, Lotschberg and Simplon tunnels are not the only way through the Alps, for those who wish to go from the west to the east. It is also possible to leave the Gare du Lyon in Paris on a TGV destined for the south-east and from St Gervase board the Mont Blanc Express, a distinctive red train that winds its way to Chamonix, below Mont Blanc, and up along the Trient Valley into Le Châtelard, Les Marécottes and Salvan, timeless Swiss mountain villages that reveal hidden delights, and down to Martigny in the Valais canton, alongside the Geneva line, that leads south into Italy and the east of Europe or north towards France and the north of Europe.

It would be modern to say that the era of Grand Express Européens is over. It would be more accurate to say that rail travel has never been more exciting or more luxurious. Today it is simply expressed in an era of fast, luxurious trains that race from city to city at speeds over 200 kilometers an hour. The nostalgics, especially those living in north America where the train has been relegated into the doldrums by car culture, believe the days of the Grand Express Européens died with the steam age; Europeans know this is not true. Today trains proudly displaying the names of mountains (Monte Rosa from Milan to Geneva Airport and vv); the names of artists (Rembrandt from Amsterdam to Chur and vv); the names of engineers (Gustave Eiffel from Paris to Frankfurt and vv); the names of seas (Freccia Adriatica from Torino to Lecce); the names of scientists (Galilei from Florence to Paris); the names of ships (Lusitania hotel Madrid to Lisbon and vv); the names of writers (Hans Christian Andersen from Munich to Copenhaven and vv); the names of countries (Hungaria from Berlin to Budapest and vv); and the names of musicians (Mozart from Paris to Vienna and vv). Europe’s culture is etched on the train engines that carry its populace across the continent at every hour of every day throughout the year.

Rail travel remains an activity that transcends the post-modern view of the world, simply because it is the most comfortable way to travel, on small short trains, or large long trains, on old trains and on new trains, on trains that break down and on trains that travel at high speeds. There is a romanticism about trains that capture the imagination and appeal to people because trains, particularly the electric sets, are seen as environmentally friendly and plug into the ideal of sustainable public transport.

Death in Vienna: Mark Smith describes the end of the Orient Express

On 12 December 2009, EuroNight train number 469 Orient Express left Strasbourg on its final overnight run to Vienna, and on 13 December the celebrated name Orient Express disappeared forever from the official European timetables after 126 years. True, the Orient Express may have been the ultimate example of a knife that’s had its blade and its handle replaced many times, but this train was indeed the true descendant of that first 1883 Express d’Orient and it officially carried the name Orient Express. You can trace its evolution from timetable to timetable, year to year from 1883 to 2009. On its last run, the Orient Express had evolved into an Austrian Railways (ÖBB) EuroNight train, with one Austrian Railways air-conditioned sleeping-car (1 & 2 bed compartments, including two deluxe compartments with toilet and shower), two modern air-conditioned couchette cars with 4 & 6 berth compartments, and an Austrian seats car. The Orient Express was cut back to start in Strasbourg rather than Paris in June 2007 when the Paris-Strasbourg high-speed TGV line opened, so that it could no longer be attached to a French domestic train between Paris and Strasbourg. Although a TGV connection from Paris was provided, the writing was on the wall for this train when it stopped directly linking the French and Austrian capitals. It had lost its Paris-Budapest Hungarian couchette car and Paris-Bucharest Romanian sleeping-car in June 2001, and it hadn’t carried any through cars for Istanbul since the 1960s.

OUR ROUTES AND OVERNIGHTS

Berlin-Istanbul-Paris via Prague-Bratislava-Budapest-Bucharest-Belgrade-Ljubljana-Trieste-Venice-Verona-Munich-Karlsruhe-Strasbourg.

Paris-Athens-Berlin via Lausanne-Vevey-Brig-Stresa-Milan-Udine-Vienna-Budapest-Bucharest-Sofia-Thessaloniki-Belgrade-Zagreb-Graz-Stuttgart-Frankfurt-Kassel.

TICKETS

German Railways

Offers

Italian Railways

Trenitalia Multi-Journey Pass

Serbian Railways

Swiss Railways

Offers


THE WAY IT IS NOW

Once the rail service in and out of Turkey is resumed we will continue this story. In the meantime savour some of the dishes and read extracts from some of the stories that will feature in the book.


BRIG — Restaurant Cheminots

Restaurant Cheminots is the talk of the town. Diners leave sated, and promise to return. The menu is always a looking glass into traditional Swiss food.

When available freshwater fish from Switzerland’s numerous lakes are transformed into mouth-watering dishes. La Pôchouse, the Burgundian freshwater fish stew in a white wine-vegetable stock, takes on a Swiss twist.

Veal has been an alpine ingredient for centuries, largely because it has featured in sausage-making. By putting the St. Gallen Olma-Brätwurst on his menu he is acknowledging the autumn farm fair in St. Gallen when half a million veal-milk sausages are consumed every year, thus paying tribute to a sausage some argue is the best in Europe.

By serving lamb’s lettuce salad with sautéed bacon, boiled egg and garlic croûtons, he is telling his guests, don’t leave the canton without trying the delicious nutty leaves that can be found grown across the slopes of the valley and sold in the market stalls every Saturday.

Always available are local wines, especially the large white wine called Fendant, pressed exclusively from Chasselas grapes, that goes down well with fondue and other cheese dishes.

Of his signature dishes several are typical Wallis, particularly the famous vegetable pie with apples, cheese, leeks, onions and potatoes known as cholera from the Goms valley, east of Brig.

This is the current menu and this is his version of cholera.

VENICE — Fegato alla Veneziano venetian veal liver with onions

Associated with the cuisine of Venice, yet popular throughout the eastern alpine regions.

  • 900 g veal liver, sliced thin
  • 300 g onions, sliced thin
  • 100 ml olive oil
  • 45 g butter
  • Parsley, chopped (optional)
  • Seasonings

Sauté onions in half the oil over a low heat until they are soft, about 30 minutes. Remove and set aside. Increase heat, pour remaining oil and fry the liver in two batches, about five minutes each time. Combine all the liver with the onions and seasonings in the pan, and cook for two minutes stirring constantly. Transfer to a serving plate. Deglaze the pan with the butter, pour over the liver and onions, garnish with parsley. Serve.

VIENNA — The Crescent

Don’t think for one moment that because Viennoiserie is global that the Viennese have lost their reputation as Europe’s best bakers. While their signature bread, cake and pastry products are made by everyone, from the Belgians and Danes in western Europe to the Romanians and Greeks in eastern Europe, the Austrians continue to produce a high standard of baking. You only have to walk through the streets to see that.

The majority of bread eaten in Europe takes place mornings to mid-day in the form of various shaped buns, flat and pocket breads, hot and cold toast and a range of pastry breads that have disputed origins.

We know some of these as croissant au beurre, pain au chocolat, croissant aux amandes, pain au chocolat aux amandes, pain aux raisins au beurre, chausson aux pommes, chouquettes

… and the plain old croissant.

This enigmatic crescent-shaped pastry bread is more than mere food, it is the stuff of legend. Associated with royalty and resistance, the origins of the croissant go back to ancient pastry traditions.

Whether they are Jewish, Italian, Austrian or Hungarian no longer matters. Viennoiserie has been a success since it was introduced at the World Fair in 1867. Gradually it seduced every pastry chef from Paris to Copenhagen, where the Danes claimed it as their own.

The real irony is that a pastry bread originally made as a communal activity only to be adopted by the aristocracy is now within reach of everyone, albeit as a machine-made factory product.

The real danger is that the original waxing moon-shaped delicacy will be lost as the world decides there is only one crescent – the croissant!

This is the original crescent-shaped breakfast bread – the kipfel!

BUCHAREST — Mamalizhniki

You can can find every type of food you desire in Bucharest, just don’t expect to find traditional dishes indigenous to Romania. Even the Romanian polenta dishes known as mamaliga are made throughout the Balkans, the cheese and cream being the specific difference between regions. And the days when Romanians were known by Russians as mamalizhniki, because they consumed so much polenta, are in the past. So we are going to hark back to those days and give you two classic mamaliga recipes. And the recipe for a pie that is shared between the Moldovans and the Romanians, now thought of as a traditional dish.

ISTANBUL — Magic Carpets 2001

Gustave Flaubert thought Istanbul would become the capital of the world and during the first half of the 20th century it was the destination everyone desired, for reasons that are not obvious to us today. Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk insists that Istanbul suffers from end-of-empire melancholy, and it is this state of mind that defines the city on the Bosporus. Does this melancholy touch the souls of the tourist and the traveller?

Arriving in Istanbul at the start of Ramadan, the citizens are penitent because this is an important time of year, yet the overwhelming character of the people is humbleness.

And friendliness.

We are thrust across the Bosporus onto the Anatolian side of the city, and manage to persuade Jimmy our host to let us cook in the style of Keith Floyd the food we have bought in the markets. The kitchen in Jimmy’s hotel has seen better days, but Floyd would have loved it. Jimmy then forgets we had bought and cooked the food ourselves, and gives us a bill for meals!

Turkey is the food basket of the world, and all food is in Istanbul. Traditional Turkish food is, with French, Iberian and Italian, among the best in Europe, shaped by centuries of interaction with the world to the east and west. The cuisine of the Ottoman period is still with us, albeit disguised in the clothes other cuisines have dressed it in. From fried anchovies to doner, shish and yoghurt kebabs, meat-filled flat-bread to rice and chickpeas, sesame breads and stuffed aubergines, sweet honey and pistachio (baklava) pastries and all kinds of börek (rolled) pastries with countless fillings, Turkish traditional food is diverse, reflecting an amazing harvest of fishes, fruits, meats, nuts spices and vegetables.

We spent five days in Istanbul in search of the perfect carpet, a search that was so exhausting that Jimmy, in utter exasperation said, ‘madame, there are no magic carpets in Istanbul,’ and gave up after another fruitless trip to a carpet warehouse. We crossed the Bosporus and, after a period of quiet solitude in the Kapalicarsi (the covered grand bazaar) buying Anatolian spices and drinking Turkish tea, we wandered out of the Nuruosmaniye Gate into the grounds of Nuruosmaniye Camii mosque along to Nuruosmaniye Caddesi, and there on the steps up to an unassuming door we met Bulent, a former soccer player honing his skills as a seller of rare, expensive silk-wool carpets. We went inside and, accepting the wonderful hospitality of these endearing carpet sellers, took our time examining an endless array of creations, several from Tabriz in the Azerbaijani region of Iran, across the Anatolian border.

We had found our magic carpets.

Istanbul is a magical place. It has a wonder that transcends the world, a wide-eyed innocence that attracts wide-eyed innocents, travellers of the heart, lovers of a culture that places the moment in the mood. For some that is art, for others it is food. For us it is both. Ali, the owner of Bazaar 54, realised we had been seduced by the magic in the carpets.

A year later he arrived in the west loaded with the silk-wool carpets we coveted. ‘Take your pick,’ he said.

BULGARIA — Patatnik cheese and potato pie

When the farmers of the Rhodope mountains in southern Bulgaria began to grow potatoes, it was a natural progression to cook them with the rural ingredients that formed their traditional culinary heritage – cheese from sheep’s milk, strong onions, and aromatic herbs such as spearmint. These are the basic ingredients for a good patatnik, but there are always options. Meat enriches the dish, red peppers replace onions, savory replaces spearmint, but cheese is the constant. Keeping with the Balkan tradition of making pies with filo pastry, patatnik should also be encased in the thin sheets.

  • 250 g potatoes, peeled, grated
  • 150 g meat, minced
  • 50 g cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • Parsley / Mint
  • Seasonings
  • Butter, melted
  • 6 filo sheets cut to size of baking tray

Grease tray with butter, place a sheet of filo lightly on the bottom. Brush sheet with melted butter, repeat with two more sheets. Mix eggs into cheese, meat and potatoes, season with salt and some chopped parsley or mint. Spoon into tray. Place three greased sheets on top. Preheat oven to 180°C. Bake for 45 minutes.

BELGRADE — Cevapcici ground beef rissoles

This wonderful city is a culinary gateway. It leads in various directions to the fabulous food of the people who have inhabitated these lands for thousands of years. The Ottoman influence is still present but as each region asserts its own cultural identity in the fast lanes of the 21st century, the slow food of past centuries becomes prominent. Among these are cevap or cevapcici, one of the mešano meso (mixed grill) snacks of the Balkans.

  • 1 kg beef, minced
  • 45 ml water
  • 10 g paprika, ground
  • 10 g seasonings
  • Olive oil, for greasing

Bring all ingredients together in a large bowl and knead until the fat in the meat starts to separate onto the hands. Leave to stand for an hour in a cold place. Shape into croquettes, about 10 cm long, 3 cm thick. Oil a baking tray and place them together without touching each other. Bake at 200°C for 30 minutes.

LJUBLJANA — Postojna Jama and potato soup

Once apon a time, during the galmour years of the Orient Express, our Balkan train through Ljubljana ran south towards Postojna, Pivka and Sezana onto Villa Opicina above Trieste and along to Mestre and Venice. Nowadays the train, en route to Zürich, runs north toward Jesenice and Villach in the Alps. Great for our travel story, not so good for our food story.

Hello Slovenia, goodbye Slovenia.

So we are going off on a tangent, toward Ilirska Bistrica near the border with Croatia, to allow us to talk about Slovenia’s traditional food culture. And collect some recipes from an old friend. The Slovenian recipes that follow were inspired by Mirka’s ideas and by Slovenia Cooking, a great little book about the country’s traditional dishes, with editions in various languages.

The route to Ilirska Bistrica is serviced by bus and train, so we are taking an early bus to Postojna to have yet another wander in the cave.

What we find is amazing and the story continued. During the first two weeks of February 2016 one of the female olms at Postojna Cave laid 45 eggs and became an immediate celebrity throughout Slovenia. Olms are endangered members of the proteid species of salamanders whose ancestry is 190 million years old. These cavedwelling vertebrates thrive in the subterranean darkness of places like Postojna and are likened to tiny dragons with their distinctive heads, limbs and toes. The olms in Postojna are known as proteus and are believed to have evolved from several species.

The management at Postojna Cave established an infrared camera to allow biologists to keep a close watch on this significant event, and the recordings revealed the delicate process. The olm clings to the surface of the water when she is about to lay, and after 20 minutes the egg is laid. Olms tend to reproduce once a decade and the behaviour of this mother is changing the knowledge about olms. It was also believed that the egg laying period lasted three weeks. In Postojna Cave the process continued for eight weeks, which surprised the biologists.

‘It is also becoming increasingly obvious that we do not know all that much about the mysterious life of olms,’ said one of the biologists. ‘The proteus is very sensitive to changes to its environment, including temperature and cleanliness. We hope that this amazing event will emphasise to the world just how important it is that rivers such as the Riva Pivka, which arises in the cave, are kept clean. otherwise there would be no “baby dragons”.’

Now we must sustain ourselves with some potato soup, and continue by train. Unlike the olm, which can survive for ten years without food, we are hungry again.

Time for some potato soup!

INNSBRUCK — Strudel

The ascent of strudel was thought to have reached its nadir when this delicate pastry came to epitomise the Viennese kitchen in the 1800s. The thinly drawn dough that makes the strudel iconic has its origins in ancient Assyria. It was associated with the ottoman Turks and the Spanish Moors, and known as Spanish Dough in cookbooks of the 1700s. By then it was an established aspect of pastry baking throughout the period of the Austro-Hungarian empire, moving westwards from Budapest to Vienna and Salzburg.

The strudel went through various changes until it started to resemble a coiled pastry. Fillings included beans, cheese, fruit, gourds, leaf and root vegetables, meat, nuts and seeds and rice. When Anna Dorn mentioned ‘solid apple strudel’ in the Great viennese Cookbook in 1827, the strudel had been boiled and baked over open fires for 200 years.

Strudel cookery changed with the emergence of oven baking and white flour. The translucent dough became crispy, and the apple strudel became legendary. Ground cinnamon, soaked raisins and toasted breadcrumbs
(from kipfel bread) complimented the tart apple filling to produce a sweet-sour taste.

In Vienna sour cream was added to accentuate that sourness. In Salzburg the apfelstrudel was sweetened and softened with warm milk. In Innsbruck and alpine regions the old style remains constant. And in Berlin kirschwasser was added to the raisins, and walnuts were included in the filling. Sugar was used to offset the acidity of the tart apples, which included a range that became known as strudler apples. Gradually, throughout the 20th century, apfelstrudel epitomised the art of the Viennese patisserie, and its Assyrian, Arabian, Moorish and Turkish origins were forgotten.

MILANO CENTRALE — Arancine rice-meat balls

On the ferry across the Messina Strait, delicious arancine could be found in the spacious café. Some days they are round in the fashion of the cooks from western Sicily, other days tapered in the style of eastern Sicily. Broken open they reveal a ragù usually made with minced meat, thick tomato paste, peas, a bit of onion, and the occasional herb. In the centre of the tapered ball is a cube of melted cheese. If you ever get the chance to
look into a Sicilian kitchen you will notice the cooks making their arancine on marble slabs.

First they will take the rice that has been cooked al dente and lightly salted, mixing it with pecorino cheese, saffron and two beaten eggs. With a dexterity refined by long experience they will mould the rice into a large ball with one hand, making a hole in the centre. The other hand is free to spoon some ragù into the hole, finishing the operation with a cube of cheese. More rice is added to seal in the filling.

The cook will already have prepared the flour and breadcrumbs on separate plates and beaten the third egg in a cup. The arancine are then floured, egged and breadcrumbed, fried in hot oil and baked in a hot oven for 15 minutes.

Round arancine are generally stuffed with ragù and with cheese but a version not unlike the Albanian ball containing spinach is not unusual in northern Italy, especially in Venice and Verona, birthplace of vialone nano rice.

Once upon a time delicious arancine were sold at a shop in Milano Centrale. Sadly modernisation killed that trade.

LAUSANNE — Café Romand and Rösti potato cake

Across from the railway station in Lausanne is a rising cobbled street. It leads to a busy road in the heart of the lakeside city. Tucked in beside a church is the august establishment known as Café Romand. Under the auspices of Madame Christiane Péclat and her chef cuisinier Thierry Lagegre, it is rustic charm. If you are lucky you’ll get a two-person table by the wide window looking out at those looking in, wondering what you are going to eat.

Rösti, pan fried potatoes, is one of Madame Péclat’s signature dishes, served throughout the day. Lagegre makes his rösti with parboiled waxy potatoes, in the fashion of the Bernese, recently recognised by UNESCO for their craftiness with this Swiss treat.

At the Restaurant Anker in Bern, they serve 19 versions. We are going to try their Berner rösti, then compare it with Lagegre’s version.

Johann Jakob Strub brought the potato to Switzerland. A native of the canton Glarus, he was a lieutenant in the English army and according to legend returned home with a bag of seed potatoes from Ireland. Potatoes were cultivated in Glarus in 1697. They spread to the neighbouring cantons and by the middle of the 19th century prötlete herdöpfel, fried potatoes, replaced barley porridge as the preferred breakfast among farming families around the growing city of Zürich. The recipe travelled south-west into the Bernese countryside and over the mountains into the Roman canton of the Valais, where it was called pommes de terre roties.

It became the morning meal among the French-speaking farmers, was shortened to rotiesrösti in Swiss-German. By the mid-20th century variations of the original recipe began to appear. The Roman west preferred boiled potatoes, the Germanic east used raw. The rösti divide is longer between east and west, boiled and raw, lard and oil, it is between good rösti and bad rösti.

The secret to the success of rösti lies with the choice of potato, and how it is prepared. Starch content is crucial. It should be low to medium. Generally mealy potatoes do not make good rösti and generally waxy potatoes are too firm, but these rules do not always apply. It is the water in the potatoes that makes a difference.

Swiss Agriculture recommend the Christa, Ostara, Sirtema, Urgenta and Victoria varieties, which are all firm slightly mealy potatoes in the middle range. The Palma variety is also favoured.

The perfect rösti should be compact and crisp, and not greasy. To achieve this, the potatoes – cooked or raw – must grate evenly and hold their cut shape. Cooked potatoes are cooled in a fastfreezer, raw potatoes are cooled in a water bath. Then they are grated in a food processor for less than a minute.

Home chefs face challenges here. Leaving them overnight in a cold place is how they did it in past days, and today the fridge will achieve the same aim – cool the potato for grating.

Whatever the choice, the grated potatoes must go into the pan or skillet immediately. Butter or lard is still the preferred frying medium but the use of oil, sunflower in particular, is becoming popular.

Gas is preferred to electric, to prevent the rösti cake from burning. The final secret? Experimentation – like all simple cooking.


More Extracts and Recipes


Selected Recipe List

There will be 150 recipes in the book, here are a few to whet your appetite, English translations to follow.

  • Älpler Fondue
  • Älpler Magronen
  • Alt-Art Apfelstrudel
  • Alt-Art Zwiebelsauce
  • Arancine
  • Baccalà Mantecato
  • Balik Ekmek
  • Banitsa
  • Bayerischer Leberkäse
  • Bayerischer Sauerbraten
  • Begendi
  • Belokranjska Pogaca
  • Berner Rösti
  • Bigoli
  • Bircher Müesli
  • Birnenweggen
  • Bratwürst mit Zwiebelsauce
  • Bündner Bohne und Gerstensuppe
  • Butterzöpfe / Sonntag Brot
  • Canederli al Tastasal
  • Capuns
  • Castagnole
  • Cevap
  • Chräpfli
  • Cholera
  • Gnocchi di Verona
  • Grießknodel / Speckknódel / Topenknödel
  • Cordon Bleu
  • Crema di Montasio
  • Croque-Monsieur
  • Cuchêla
  • Eintöpf
  • Fasole cu Cârnati
  • Fegato di Vitello alla Veneziano
  • Fondue Savoyard
  • Fondue Simpilär
  • Frico con i Ciccioli
  • Frikadellen Brötchen
  • Frtajla
  • Gamberetti di Laguna con Polentina Morbida
  • Gamsi Obara
  • Gaziantep Baklava
  • Gebratene Gans
  • Gefüllter Kalbsbraten
  • Gemsenrücken Braten
  • Gerstensuppe
  • Glühwein
  • Gulyàs
  • Hühnerfleisch und Kastanien Suppe
  • Hutzelbrot
  • Icli Köfte
  • Idrijski Žlikrofi
  • Kalbsgeschnetzeltes
  • Kalbsrahmgulasch mit Sauerramhspätzle
  • Käsknöpfle
  • Kipfel / Vanillekipferl
  • Kmecki Kruh
  • Köfte
  • Kranjska Klobasa
  • La Pôchouse Suisse
  • Laugenbrötli
  • Leberknödel
  • Lebkuchen
  • Lectar
  • Lescó
  • Maccheroncini
  • Maluns
  • Mamaligu cu brânza si Smântâna
  • Marillenknödel
  • Mercimek Çorbasi
  • Moelleux au Chocolat
  • Mutschli
  • Nohutlu Pilav
  • Nadalin di Verona
  • Nusstorte
  • Österreich Leberkäse
  • Panettone
  • Paprikás Csirke
  • Pasta e Fagioli
  • Pastissada di Caval
  • Patatnik
  • Platsindy / Placinte
  • Polenta e Uccelli
  • Pommes de Terre Pont Neuf
  • Pörkölt
  • Potica
  • Raclette du Valais
  • Risotto al Tastasal
  • Risotto all’Amarone
  • Risotto alla Carnarola
  • Risotto alla Radicchio
  • Roggenbrot / Pains de Seigle
  • R’zules
  • Sachertorte
  • Salsa Pearà
  • Sara
  • Sbrisolona
  • Schwein mit Kraut
  • Sokak Simit
  • Spätzle / Knöpfle
  • Spekulatius
  • Spiezer Frischkäsemousse
  • Struklji Sirovi
  • Tiroler Schmarrn
  • Tarhana Çorbasi
  • Testenine z Bob in Zaseka
  • Tokány
  • Tortellini di Valeggio
  • Urdinkel Vollkornbrot mit Bruhstuck
  • Walliser Käseschnitte
  • Weggli
  • Zaseka
  • Zürcher Rösti