Escapists will prefer a murder mystery lunch on a steam train pootling through the Kent countryside. On-board it is 1933 and intrigue is in the air, with the murderer unmasked over a Champagne lunch. Sit back in your winged armchair and settle down to a decadent Bellini brunch served by liveried flunkies on the Belmond British Pullman carriages of the Orient Express. The carriages date from the 1920s
and are so far removed from commuterdom thatyou will soon slip back into a bygone age of bone china and brief encounters with intriguing strangers.
There is an element of mystery about the itinerary but don’t exclude Champagne and oysters on Broadstairs station, with a brass band playing and the body count rising. Vintage luxury is the order of the day so dress up, even if it’s only to make an elegant murder victim. I once fell at the first hurdle and spent the journey trying to hide my scuffed shoes from Jimmy Choo, shoemaker to the stars. He seemed sympathetic to my plight but not sympathetic enough to cobble me some designer Choos before we pulled into Bath. As a keen Malaysian foodie, Jimmy was far more engrossed by the retro British feast on-board the train.
Less murderous steam-hauled gourmet getaways take in Sussex, Kent, Oxfordshire or Somerset, perhaps calling in for high tea at the splendid Manoir aux Quat’Saisons near Oxford. You might be tempted to return for a cookery course on another occasion. The Raymond Blanc Cookery School offers classes in baking, patisserie, dinner parties and rustic food, with trainee chefs occasionally despatched to the organic kitchen gardens, even the mushroom garden, to hone their craft.
Back in Sussex, fans of craft beers will be drawn to the forthcoming Sussex Beer Festival, supported by CAMRA. The festival is staged in Brighton, with tastings of Arundel Sussex Dark and Whitstable Oyster Stout competing with the comically-named Get Lucky and Hung, Drawn and Portered. Harveys, from Lewes, independent Sussex brewers since 1790, produce traditional cask ales made from local hops,
showcasing their Sussex Best Bitter, a popular hoppy affair which lives upto the brewery motto, “we’re only as good as our last pint.” As for Sussex ciders, the bizarrely named beasts include Golden Squirrel, Black Pig and Hunt’s Hairy Pig from Battle.
Come spring, Kent and Sussex Wine Tours will whisk you off to local vineyards, from the boutique to the big boys, with guided tastings and a gastropub lunch thrown in. Bluebell Vineyard drinks with the big boys, thanks to its award-winning Champagne-style sparkling wines. Stopham Estate, in West Sussex, responds with royal wines, served on The Queen’s barge at her Jubilee. Upperton, in the South Downs, enjoys one of the best vineyard vistas in England, though picturesque Hush Heath, in the Weald, might disagree, and also aims to make pink sparkling wines which rival French fizz.
The best foodie forays are not just about revelling in rural charm but about opening your eyes to urban thrills. The Eating London Tours are my current favourites, with full-on food safaris in sexy Soho and gritty East End which are guaranteed to make you feel like a country bumpkin in the big city.
I’m a Londoner adrift in the East End, far from my safe, suburban, southwest London ‘hood. Instead of hanging out with the chattering classes on the Soho tour, I’m mixing it with the East End geezers. Spitalfields Market is a place where hungry hipsters meet the hoodies and live to tell the tale. The tour runs the gamut of gangsterdom in the old East End to hipsterdom in the new East End. Emily, the bubbly guide, tells the story of the East End through its stomach and we devour Jewish bagels and Brick Lane baltis, greedy for a taste of immigrant culture.
But there are also English vignettes which hark back to an older East End that has survived both the Blitz and City Boys’ bankerdom.
In Poppies Fish and Chips, I’m like a fish out of water but loving it, from the mushy peas to the dodgy Kray Brothers’ memorabilia. Poppies is a throwback to post-war seaside chippies and is so retro it’s cool. Pop, the genial patron, cheerfully reminisces about the murderous Kray Brothers and shows me one of Reggie Kray’s innocuous landscape paintings. Pop sees himself as the archetypal East End geezer: “I’ve cooked for the Queen Mum but I wasn’t responsible for that fishbone that got stuck in her throat.” Take-away chips are served in edible newspaper – “handcrafted fresh because of Health and Safety, it cost me £20,000.” And it’s sustainable cod, a nod to imported City Boys’ values.
Nearby, the English Restaurant looks like a patriotic pocket of Dickensian London, the sanitised version, without Oliver Twist and grim gruel. Saved from demolition, this folksy wood-panelled townhouse serves British staples, from Mutton pie to Dover sole and deep-fried oysters. We only tuck into bread and butter pudding, a hateful school dinner dish, but I love its crème brulée topping.
On Brick Lane, the Old Truman Brewery has gone from beer to Banksy, becoming a creative hub for style-savvy galleries, playful murals, pop up shops and politically correct street food. We’re here for Brick Lane’s ‘curry mile’ where “83 per cent of curry houses are Bangladeshi not Indian.” Emily shepherds us into Aladin for some serious curry tasting, from mild vegetable to spicy lamb. Praised by Prince Charles
no less, this friendly, no-frills curry house is one of London’s finest. Nearby, queues around the block mean we’re at Beigel Bake, an all-day Jewish fast-food outlet. We’re full but manage more than a bite of the signature salt beef and gherkin bagel slathered in hot English mustard.
From Banglatown, the food safari sashays into Pizza East, one of the hippest Shoreditch joints. We tuck into the famed salted caramel tart, “perfect for when your body craves salt, sugar and fat in one hit,” teases Emily. At night, this former tea warehouse’s New York loft vibe is swamped by Negroni-quaffing hipsters. By day, some are chilling and chomping on 120 types of cereal in the Cereal Killer Café. I’d rather go French in the House of Androuet, a superb cheese shop run by two French brothers who cater to Francophile foodies as well as loft-living city slickers. The master-cheesemakers naughtily tempt us with Stilton and Cheddar, rather than Roquefort and Reblochon.
Time for English ale in the Pride of Spitalfields, a regular boozer, resolutely ungentrified. Lennie the soporific pub cat surveys his admirers as we compare hoppy Amber Ale and more-ish Cornish cider. It’s been full-on since breakfast in St John Bread and Wine, a branch of Fergus Henderson’s nose-to-tail eating experiences. There we chomped on London’s best bacon buttie, on many a local bucket list. Between grazing stops, Emily has pointed out Jewish soup kitchens, Jack the Ripper’s haunts, pockets of Georgian gentrification, patches flattened by the Blitz, and old geezer pubs dwarfed by glass and steel towers. The tide of London’s history is unstoppable, with each wave of immigrants making way for the next but leaving a taste of their presence behind. If you have any room after your Sussex escapades, a trip East is worth the train ride.
Food, Wine & Beer Trails
(Easter, May, summer):
English dining train tours:
Campaign for Real Ale,
Eating London Tours
Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons
Sussex Beer Festival
(Brighton, 17-19 March):
Tante Marie cookery school: