The Orient Express: meals on wheels for the wealthy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For the romantic, the lure of the Orient Express is a call to espionage and adventure. For the train buff, it's a chance to ride the rails in a famous, vintage 1926 train.

Then there are those to whom the greatest call to adventure is a culinary one. For me, the Orient Express, and the tour organized on it by Society Expeditions, Seattle, in conjunction with Air France, beckons all to the dining cars and to the very best meals currently available on rolling stock.

Three times a day, passengers on the four-night train trip are treated to enormous feasts prepared by the French chef of Wagons Lits, Pierre Yernaux.

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The train travels, as in its heyday, between Paris and Istanbul. I was on the reverse run, from Istanbul to Paris.

Breakfast is a standard continental one, with the addition of fresh fruit and sweet citron-studded rolls, but both lunch and dinner are five-course banquets, stylishly presented.

This might not be so remarkable on level, stationary ground. But peek into the kitchen - as passengers are inclined to do - and you'll see the chef at work on an old-fashioned wood-burning stove in a narrow work space the size of an apartment closet.

Meanwhile, the train is zipping along over a sometimes twisting, curving landscape fraught with tunnel blackouts. This multiplies one's respect for the elaborate, artistic meals presented to each of the train's 90 passengers.

Visualize, if you will, a lunch that began with Medaillon de Foie Gras Gelee au Porto, the goose liver blushingly pink and delicious.

This was followed by Tournedos Grille aux Baies de Poivre Vert, tender beef in a piquant green peppercorn sauce, accompanied by Pommes en Gateau, excellent fried potato slices formed into a crispy-edged potato cake.

The best of many elegant five-course dinners was one that began with paper-thin smoked salmon slices on toast points, followed by a whole, tiny roasted quail (Cailles au Nid Vigneronne) bathed in a succulent brown sauce enlivened by large green grapes.

Three kinds of mushrooms, including the prized cepes and morels, in a parsley sauce (Fricassee de Champignons en Persillade) kept the quail company, along with a serving of tiny peas dotted with ham (Petits Pois au Jambon).

The ubiquitous cheese platter was upstaged by dessert - Gateau au Chocolat - a spongelike chocolate cake layer alternating with a white gelatinous one.

Our only chance at exercise between feasting was the bit of sightseeing arranged for us at our various stops. But there was time enough for the truly greedy among us to sample the homemade ice cream at Ruszwurm, Budapest's oldest pastry shop.

Vienna, too, was not above gastronomic temptations, especially when a stop at the Hotel Sacher to sample the famous velvety chocolate Sacher torte was built into the tour.

And in Salzburg, after a few rounds of church and city exploring, we were off again in a beeline to experience the flaky apple strudel at the popular Glockenspiel Cafe.

And so it went. Between land excursions, it seemed to be mealtime end to end on the train.

Of course, one could be strong-minded and fast, spending the lunch or dinner hours in one's compartment, watching the cornfields and mountainous terrain of Eastern Europe speed past.

Or one could sit in one of the dining parlors and admire the car's aesthetics - the art deco ornamentations; inlaid wood paneling; Lalique glass inserts of birds and nymphs - without taking one bite of the dishes displayed before one.

Well, maybe you could. I opted for the noisettes of lamb decorated with fresh asparagus, artichoke hearts in a garlic-scented tomato sauce, mushrooms in fennel, duckling a l'orange with spinach ring, fillet of beef Perigoudine with truffles, fresh salmon in a sorrel sauce, and all the rest of the heavenly dishes set before me en route.

On the Orient Express, you have to be willing to roll with the paunches. Isn't that what adventure is all about?

The following are two of Chef Pierre Yernaux's recipes, served aboard the Orient Express on its Paris-Istanbul and Istanbul-Paris runs. Escalope de Saumon a l'Aneth 3 pound piece of salmon 1 lemon, sliced 1 teaspoon salt 2 bay leaves 1 sprig fresh parsley 11sprig fresh thyme 1 leek, sliced Water 1/4 cup butter 1/4 cup flour 2 cups milk Salt and pepper to taste Fresh dill weed Freshly grated nutmeg, optional

Rinse the fish and place on rack in kettle. Add lemon, salt, bay leaves, parsley, thyme, leek, and just enough water to cover.

Bring to a simmer, turn heat down to a bare simmer, and poach until fish is done - about 20 minutes.

While fish is poaching, prepare sauce. Melt butter in a saucepan, add flour, carefully blending, then milk. Bring to a boil.

Season with salt and pepper to taste and simmer gently 20 minutes - or until thickened slightly. Add dill and nutmeg; blend well.

Gently lift salmon from broth to a warm platter. Pour sauce over, decorate with a sprig of fresh dill weed, and serve immediately. Serves 6. Vacherin aux Fraises 3 egg whites 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar 1 cup granulated sugar 1 quart fresh strawberries 1/2 cup powdered sugar 6 scoops vanilla ice cream 1 cup chocolate sauce

Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. Place egg whites in large bowl and let stand until they reach room temperature. Add cream of tartar and beat until whites form stiff peaks when whisk is removed.

Add granulated sugar gradually, about 1/2 tablespoon at a time. Beat until stiff and glossy.

Cover baking sheet with aluminum foil or heavy brown paper. With a spoon, shape egg whites into shells on baking sheet. Place in oven and bake 30 minutes. When done, turn oven off and leave shells to cool inside. Store shells in airtight container until ready to use.

To serve, slice fresh strawberries and mix gently with powdered sugar. Place a scoop of ice cream in meringue shell. Top with 3 tablespoons chocolate sauce. Finish with a spoonful of strawberries on top. Serves 6.

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