Meals On Wheels

Albeit aimed at Slow Food’s Italian readers, Slowfood is a magazine that encompasses the world. Here we offer English-speaking readers a sample article from the latest issue, number 15.

There’s something deliciously decadent about eating a leisurely breakfast in a railway dining car. Beyond the window, the identikit high streets of suburbia slip past, despoiled by kebab houses, burger bars and other outposts of what is accurately dubbed the fast-food “industry”. Occasionally the train glides to a halt at platforms where tired-looking commuters are clutching cartons of cooling cappuccino and, in some cases, bags already stained with the grease-mark of whatever lurks within, be it bacon roll or buttered toast.

I’m usually one of those on the outside of the window looking in. But the good thing about the trains running to and from London’s Liverpool Street Station is that you can enjoy the decadence of the dining car without having to stump up for a first-class ticket. Another good thing is that the railway company that took over the franchise of the old Great Eastern recently brought in a consultant chef to revamp its breakfast menu.

The company is called simply One and the chef is Ian McAndrew, who has run several top eating places, including 116 in Knightsbridge and the Michelin-starred Restaurant 74 in Canterbury. What’s more, he was once executive chef at the extremely snooty Wentworth Golf Club in Surrey. He knows his onions. More to the point, he knows his kippers — a much downgraded, almost extinct, feature of railway breakfasts.

They used to feature prominently in the lavish dining car of the late lamented Brighton Belle. So, too, I like to think, did kedgeree, the sort of dish that I always associate with pre-war films in which languid figures come down to breakfast in silk dressing gowns. Well, McAndrew offers kedgeree on One’s menu as well. He uses saffron rice and smoked haddock with no artificial colouring. Mmmm … tempting. But it’s the kippers that really tickle my fancy.

“So many of the ones on sale now are just dyed,” says McAndrew. “The ones we’re putting on our trains have been properly smoked over oak.”

This seems an appropriate route on which to fly the flag for the beleaguered kipper. It does, after all, link London with the East Coast, where long-shore herrings for smoking were once a staple catch. Until the1960s, it was quite common for holidaymakers to send kippers through the post with “A Present from Great Yarmouth” stamped on the box.

Long gone are the great days of Yarmouth fishing. And the industry is on its knees down the coast at Lowestoft. Where 120 trawlers once came and went, there are now fewer than 30 boats. As it happens, I’m on my way to Lowestoft this morning to meet a family who have been smoking herrings for 30 years or more.

First, though, I intend to sample the goods on the 8.00 from Liverpool Street to Norwich. The sun is rising under the armpit of an East End crane when I’m presented with a glass of chilled, freshly squeezed orange juice, closely followed by my first pot of Twinings English breakfast tea. An endless supply of what smells like good, strong coffee is available to those who prefer it.

My fellow breakfasters, evidently intent on getting their money’s worth, are soon tucking into cereals or porridge. They’re mainly middle-aged men and mainly business types, by the look of them. One exception is a slim brunette who is seeing off a “full English” (£14.95,including Suffolk sausages and black pudding) as though her life depends on it. Another exception is sitting across the gangway from me. With his cropped beard and his spectacles resting on the end of his nose, he looks like James Robertson Justice in the old Carry on Doctor films. A surgeon,I’ll wager. Just look at the way he’s dismembering that kipper with … well, surgical precision.

This reverie is interrupted by the arrival of my own kipper and I am soon setting to with some gusto. The herring has been lightly smoked over oak, with the result that its flesh has subtlety as well as depth. On-train chef Gary Willdress has removed the head and done some extensive filleting before serving each kipper with lemon wedges, a sprig of parsley and a pat of butter which is melting into a golden lake between the gentle humps where the backbone used to be. Sublime and well worth £12.95, I’d say. That price, incidentally, includes the aforesaid orange-juice, tea or coffee, cereal or porridge. Not to mention hot toast with a tangily astringent bitter-orange marmalade.

An hour or so after laying down my knife and fork, I’m in Lowestoft fish docks with George and David Bunning, father and son whose family firm smoked the kipper I’ve just eaten. George was 15 in 1964 when he first went to sea. Six years later he was skipper of his own trawler. The world was his oyster — or at least his cod, his plaice, his sole, his dogfish and his herring. Fishing ports were booming, all the way up the east coast of the UK. Very different from the largely deserted quayside where we’re standing now. The cranes stand idle. A few small and empty boats bob around. The warehouse floor, where what’s left of the early-morning catch is auctioned, has long since been hosed down.

“There would have been tubs of fish all along this quay in the old days,” George recalls. “Blokes would be standing around, chatting and joshing with one another, waiting for the pubs to open. They used to have 12 days away at sea followed by 60 hours on shore.”

Needless to say, the priority for some during those 60 hours was to get paid, get laid and get drunk. But not necessarily in that order. “There were plenty of pubs in Lowestoft in those days,” George smiles, wistfully.

So what went wrong?

“The price of oil went up and the price of fish didn’t,” he says, succinctly.

He would have gone bankrupt like many another trawlerman after the oil crisis of 1973 were it not for a suggestion, first made by his father-in-law, Tom Field. Instead of selling fish to wholesalers on Lowestoft docks, he drove 80 miles inland in his Ford Cortina to the family farm at Cranworth in mid-Norfolk.

David Bunning takes up the story: “Dad, Mum and Granddad started selling direct to the public. They took fresh fish around the villages and they also supplied pubs, restaurants and, later, farmers’ markets. One Saturday at Swaffham Market, Dad sold 220 stone of Lowestoft long-shore herrings. They’re smaller and sweeter than other herrings and, in those days, there was a bigger demand for them. Today, people want a bigger, less fiddly sort of fish for kippering. That’s why we import so many of ours from Bergen in Norway. They’re three times the size. We bring them in deep-frozen, then cure them and smoke them here.”

The Bunnings started smoking their own in the early 1980s. “It was the best way to guarantee quality,” David goes on. “We use only oak sawdust and the unit’s stainless steel to meet modern hygiene standards.”

But what about Lowestoft long-shore herrings? If there’s so little demand for them, are they still caught?

“A few,” David concedes. “But the fishermen here don’t even reach their quota. They know that if they bring in too many, the price will collapse completely. We still sell them to discerning customers and restaurateurs who are prepared to fiddle about with them.”

Fiddling about with fish has largely gone out of fashion since George’s trawling heyday. “Housewives used to be happy to buy fish with the heads on, unfilleted,” he says. “Fish is like beef as far as I’m concerned. It tastes better when its eaten off the bone. A good kipper should be between 18 and 20 per cent fat. Any more and it’s too oily; any less and it’s too dry. So we try to produce one off a herring caught between September and October.”

The Bunnings do a thriving trade in patés made with kippers and other smoked fish. “And the best way to sell them to younger women is to point out how well they go on a barbecue,” David points out. “Brush them with olive oil, wrap them in foil and you have something quick and tasty as a starter while the chicken and steaks are cooking.”

“And because it’s in the open air,” George adds, “you don’t get the smell in the kitchen. That’s what puts some folk off kippers. They only eat them when they’re staying in hotels.”

Or enjoying the decadence of breakfast on the train.

Chris Arnot is a British freelance journalist

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