Award-winning author, Sharon Hudgins, takes us on a culinary journey on board the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express.
If you’ve ever experienced eating on the dining car of a train, you know that dinner on the diner can range from dismal to delightful. But who would ever think of taking a Trans-Siberian train nearly 6,000 miles across Russia for the culinary experience?
Think again. Every meal on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express is sure to satisfy the most discriminating diner—from the fresh-squeezed orange juice at breakfast to the select wines served at each four-course lunch and three-course dinner. For travelers who like to eat well on their journeys, the food on the Golden Eagle train is a major part of the pleasurable experience of crossing Russia on a luxurious private train.
Back around 1900, when the new Trans-Siberian Railroad began long-distance passenger service, a few of the first-class dining cars and station buffets were sumptuous indeed, serving gourmet dishes, fine wines, and French brandies to well-heeled travelers. But in the Soviet period, during seven decades of the 20th century, eating on Russian trains was a proletarian experience at best. Food in the sparsely stocked dining cars was often worse than at a factory workers’ canteen, served on soiled tablecloths by surly waiters. So savvy rail riders carried their own provisions on the train or bought home-cooked snacks from local vendors on the station platforms along the way. That was still the case in the mid-1990s, when I worked on the Asian side of Russia and the standard Trans-Siberian trains were my “commuter trains” there.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I journeyed across Russia on the Golden Eagle train in 2006, on the first of five railroad “land cruises” where I presented lectures on Russian history and culture for passengers traveling on that train. Multi-course meals in the two ornate dining cars were prepared by well-trained Russian chefs who cooked everything from scratch, including baking fresh breads and pastries overnight while the passengers slept in their cozy cabins, rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the rails. Except at breakfast, no two dishes were ever served twice on the 12-day trip, and the imported wines poured freely at every lunch and dinner made the journey across two continents, Europe and Asia, seem even more leisurely.
I was particularly impressed by the composition of the menus, which featured foods of the different regions we crossed: fresh seafood in the Russian Far East; pel’meni dumplings, “the national dish of Siberia,” as we rolled through the central part of Asian Russia; an outdoor barbecue with a variety of grilled meats and vegetable salads on the shore of legendary Lake Baikal; and ethnic Tatar dishes in the Republic of Tatarstan on the European side of Russia.
Other meals included classic dishes popular across the entire country, such as borscht, beef Stroganov, creamy mushroom soup, meat cutlets, and little savory pastries (pirozhki). Vegetarian options were available at each meal, too. And on every trip, the passengers fell in love with the first-course zakuski (appetizers): bliny with caviar; shrimp salad; beet-and-walnut salad; mushrooms and fresh tomatoes stuffed with cheese; cooked chicken and colorful sliced vegetables suspended in aspic; carrot salad with walnuts and red currants; cold salmon strips with pickled onions and green olives; grilled eggplant slices topped with sliced tomatoes and rosettes of cream cheese; crab salad with mayonnaise and green peas; and chicken salad with walnuts and cucumbers.
I’ve never understood why so many travel writers have perpetuated the myth that the scenery along the Trans-Siberian tracks is a boring landscape of endless forests and empty steppes. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The trains roll past fields of blooming wildflowers in summer; forests full of trees with flaming leaves of red, yellow, and orange in autumn; snow-capped mountains all year round; golden wheat fields and pale green peat bogs; modern cities and rustic villages; mighty rivers and Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest, largest, and deepest lake.
Likewise, it’s a misconception that the food along the Trans-Siberian route leaves much to be desired. Dine on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express and taste for yourself how good the food in Russia can really be. Then afterward retire to the comfortable bar car for a nightcap of Russian vodka, French wine, a mixed drink, or cold beer on tap, while you listen to a concert of Russian piano music played by a professional musician on board, and watch the sun set over the changing landscape of Russia’s vast expanse.
Sharon Hudgins is the award-winning author of The Other Side of Russia: A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far East (available on Amazon.com). She has logged nearly 40,000 miles on the Trans-Siberian tracks and eaten more than 200 meals on Russian trains. For more of her food-and-travel stories, see http://www.sharonhudgins.com and http://www.fiery-foods.com/chiles-around-the-world/77-europe/3198-dinner-on-the-diner-trans-siberian-style.