Published in 'Wine 'n' Dine - Edited by Lucy Mallows, The Budapest Sun May 11-17 2000
At the beginning of the 20th century, rail travel meant romance: Riding across the European Continent in luxury and style on the Orient Express, taking tea in the dining car, swishing one's crinoline along the corridors.
These days, train travel does not always live up to those images, depicted in epic films.
Delayed trains, leaves on the line, the 'wrong kind of snow', sitting stationary for fours in the middle of a field with no explanation, squashed up between two salami-eating uncles in grubby second-class carriages while babies scream and teenagers listen to the relentless 'tshk, tshk, tshk' on their not-so-personal headphones.
However, on a recent trip back from a healing weekend in the spa resort of Hajdúszoboszló, we discovered that there were no seat reservations left for the over-crowded Sunday (back-to-Budapest) train, despite a first-class return ticket booked and paid for, and the only way of getting aboard and back home to the Hungarian capital would be to camp out in the restaurant car for the duration.
Now, I wouldn't recommend this, as signs posted all over state the threatening message that, "You can only stay/consume here for a maximum 45 minutes," and, terrified, we realised that our journey would take just over two hours. What to do? Attempt the world record for the slowest chewing in culinary history? Linger over the soup until the gobbets of fat congealed into a solid carapace? Sup enough beer until the Dutch courage inspired us to stand up to the waitress who looked as if she could take on the entire Welsh rugby team and come out the winner?
We girded our loins and decided to go for it.
Our carriage this time on the Hortobágy Express was more functional than fancy, with neatness rather than nostalgia the main theme.
Clean and painted white, the interior's best features were the giant windows, which afforded a much better view of the flat, endless fields of the Puszta than can normally be seen, even in first class. Framed by the pink curtains, the view of field after field sailed past as we examined the menu.
Multi-coloured, checked tablecloths had been placed at diagonals over white linen and artificial cloth flowers were a nice touch.
A whole range of nibbles awaited tempted fingers: pistachio nuts, salted almonds or peanuts, there were eight petit fours placed under cling film for those who couldn't bear the wait.
The waitress was brusquely efficient, however, bringing each freshly-fried meal within minutes of request.
This was not going according to plan...!
My companion and I both decided we deserved a bottle of Dreher lager (260 forints), just in case the authorities got bolshy about the time limit, and we studied the menu items.
It was encouraging to find a vegetable omelette (350 forints) and scrambled eggs with onions (250 forints) available, but I decided to try the fish fillets (700 forints), which arrived in an instant and were, actually, fish fingers.
However, I didn't mind. I was just grateful they weren't from the poor, polluted Tisza river, which we passed over at Szolnok just as I was tucking in.
The chips were home-made and oily but quite presentable on a long trip.
With a side order of some gherkin pickles (150 forints) to cut through the oil, everything went down nicely, with the main problem being trying not to wolf it down too quickly.
My companion was tempted by the humorous item on the menu, described as 'Utasmáj' ('traveller's liver), which conjured up images of unwitting voyagers being butchered in the back carriage by the Hannibal Lecter of the locomotive industry.
She settled instead for the turkey breast (700 forints) stuffed with cheese, breaded and fried. This came with chips and she also decided on a side orer of 'csalamádé' (150 forints), a piquant miture of cabbage, peppers and onions in vinegar.
Other items on the menu ranged from the usual breaded 'n' fried meats (700 forints) to rice with beef (650 forints). The most expensive offering was lemon chicken breast with stewed fruit (900 forints) and there was also consommé with egg yolk (150 forints) for starters.
My companion finished too early and, in a panic, decided to have a pancake with chocolate (120 forint) to delay the arrival of the bill and stern looks.
To keep her company, I had some chestnut puree, which was very rich but gave us another half-hour's breathing space as I slowly spooned the dense nutty pudding and created little artistic creations in the glass bowl. This didn't go down too well with the waitress.
I have been told off many times for commenting on the frightening aspect of many Hungarian waitresses, but those who criticise are always middle-aged expatriate men, who get quite a different reception and treatment to two young-ish females attempting to dine and communicate in a language not their own.
Ms Train Buffet raised her eyebrows in exasperation every time I attempted to order something, as if to say, "I really don't know why you bother."
Nevertheless, we managed to stick it out to the bitter end, and after an enjoyable meal in pleasant surroundings, tumbled out on to Nyugati Station platform, replete and relaxed, well, relatively...
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