For me, rail travel is the most enjoyable and relaxing mode of transport. When I heard that top Chef Raymond Blanc was hosting a fine dining experience on board the Belmond Northern Belle, I had to book tickets.
Formerly known as the Orient-Express, Belmond is an expert at providing memorable luxury train journeys. Old-school glamour, vintage carriages and some of the country's finest dining. Together with Raymond Blanc, they have formed the perfect partnership. Blanc being one of the UK’s best chefs, his restaurant Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons has held two Michelin stars for over 30 years.
My mum is a huge fan of his, having dined at Le Manoir over 20 years ago, so it was easy to decide who to take with me. After a frantic dash through traffic, still with no idea exactly what we would be eating or where we would be travelling to, we arrived at Chester station just before departure at 5.45pm.
We followed a group of very smartly dressed people and found our carriage, Warwick, where we hopped aboard and settled into our seats, safe in the knowledge that we were in for a gastronomic adventure.
Each carriage is named after a British stately home or castle and decorated with art nouveau lamps, mahogany fittings and plush armchairs. Evoking the opulence of 1930s rail travel.
The tables were set with white linen and even had bespoke china and silverware. It felt like we had been transported to a bygone era.
As the train pulled out of Chester station, we were given our menus as well as a glass of Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne.
No matter how much Champagne we drank, our glasses were never empty, continually being topped up by the serving staff.
The sommelier explained that we would be travelling as far as Derby before making the journey back home. A 130-mile round trip.
A circular tour of the English countryside lasting five hours; the perfect amount of time to enjoy five dishes of Raymond’s finest cuisine.
The canapés arrived, mum had the salmon while I had the cheese, which we nibbled on while admiring the Cheshire countryside.
Shortly thereafter we were offered some homemade bread, both of us chose a miniature baguette in honour of our French host.
Our first dish arrived, an amuse bouche of Ironbark Pumpkin Soup with Hazelnut Biscotti and Cashel Blue Cheese.
During the dinner onboard entertainers walked through the carriages entertaining the guests. We were serenaded by The Chanteuse who sang French classics. The train’s resident magician did a good job of impressing us all with his magic balls.
In between, an accordionist played soothing classics.
Our second course was Leek Terrine with Jerusalem Artichoke and Truffle Dressing. It was delicious and reminded me of a dish I had the first time I visited Paris. It was accompanied by a glass of white wine from Burgundy.
For our main, mum had Braised Jacob’s Ladder with Mashed Potatoes and a Red Wine Jus.
I had the vegetarian option, a truffle and mushroom risotto. Just as we began tucking into our dishes, our host appeared.
Throughout the dinner he walked between the carriages greeting his guests. He said a quick hello but told us that he wanted us to enjoy our mains without distraction and that he would pop back once we had finished. As he walked away he instructed me, “you will enjoy that risotto.” He was absolutely right.
Our mains were paired with a beautiful glass of red wine, which our waiter topped up frequently. Of all the drinks served, this was my favourite. From the Rhone Valley, it was full-bodied and perfectly complemented my risotto.
As promised, Mr Blanc returned. He chatted to us for a while, talking about his restaurant and his career. He spoke to my mum about his 14 vegetable gardens at Le Manoir where all his seasonal organic produce is grown. He was an absolute gentleman and gave us a signed copy of his latest book before posing for photographs.
It turns out mum’s old friend, James Humphreys who worked at the Chester Grosvenor, is now the Operations Director of Northern Belle. James told us that Mr Blanc spends more time with the guests than he is asked to and is an absolute gentleman.
Mr Blanc set the tone for the evening. Despite the menu being formal, and the costume being black tie, the whole experience was completely relaxing. The serving staff all took time to chat to us as did our fellow diners. We got chatting to a lovely family sat opposite us, a husband and wife and the lady’s parents. They had been on over ten journeys with Belmond, all around the UK. They promised us that the next course would be “the best cheese board you’ll ever have...”
Perfectly timed, the serving team appeared with a large wooden tray which straddled the aisle, resting on tables either side of the carriage.
On it was a selection of gorgeous European Artisan Cheeses, each with their own origin and story, one was so special it is only produced every six months. The cheeses were served with a glass of red dessert wine from Corsica.
We ended the dinner with Chocolate Marquise with Tonda Hazelnut and Lemon Butterscotch Sauce.
While we were enjoying this Head Chef Richard, who assisted Mr Blanc, walked through the carriage receiving an appreciative round of applause on his way through.
Just when we thought we couldn’t be impressed any further, the train came to an abrupt halt in the middle of a patch of darkness in the countryside. The lights went off and seconds later a firework extravaganza set off in a neighbouring field.
It was truly magical sitting on board watching the fireworks in the distance and mum and I promised each other that we’d book on the same journey next year. Definitely the most special train journey I’ve ever taken.