Travelling long distances by train or car can be both exhausting and monotonous, usually involving extended periods of sitting. Time seems to pass more quickly when the journey is accompanied by views of mountains, lakes or forests. Not so though when the view outside your window consists solely of swathes of flat green fields as far as the eye can see, or an unrelenting grey asphalt strip stretching ahead of you with embankments on either side of you that only sporadically offer a clue of what lies beyond. This is when we tend to seek distraction and our thoughts often turn to food, even if we don’t necessarily feel hungry, and very often we will make food choices that we later regret.
On our recent trip to the UK and back, there was no alpine or lakeland scenery to enchant us. Of course, we already knew this, and the anticipation of what was in store over the course of the next week and a half was sufficient distraction, such that we rarely felt bored. Nevertheless, as we set off and sped by rail towards Brussels on that first day, our thoughts gradually turned to the subject of lunch. We were well prepared. We'd brought apples and had made cashew cheese sandwiches with our favourite artisan gluten-free bread. To round this off, we had a pack of plump dried figs, which we both adore. Somehow, the food you eat on a moving train very often tastes even better than normal (perhaps it's the gentle rhythm of the train on the tracks that creates a feeling of relaxation; or could it be that we simply have more time to really savour and enjoy it?). This was no exception and we both felt thoroughly content.
It's a useful strategy for us to be prepared in this way, because we've become accustomed to the relative lack of healthy food options on trains. We find that this is particularly so on trains in Britain, especially if you're vegan and one of you has an intolerance to gluten, in which case you'll be fortunate to find anything suitable other than a packet of nuts or crisps. This was in fact borne out a few days later when we travelled from Nottingham to London on an East Midlands train. Fortunately, this time, we were able to sidestep this particular hurdle as we'd eaten a substantial breakfast and it wasn't yet lunchtime.
It's also the reason why we were pleasantly surprised to see the buffet car menu on the Berlin to Brussels train. The range of vegan and vegetarian options was impressive. This is definite progress and it left an impression on us.
Arriving in Brussels late on a Sunday afternoon, we found the station was still very busy, not surprising perhaps as people were travelling back home after a weekend away. Preferring not to go out again to find a place to eat once we'd checked into our hotel, we were each hoping to buy a ready-made salad bowl from the appropriately-named Super Bowl, a food shop in the main station concourse. However, a cursory glance at the menu board left us feeling disappointed as we were unable to identify a single vegan or gluten-free option. There was also a queue and so we decided to look for another vendor instead. We spotted a Prêt à Manger franchise close by and headed over. Again, a quick examination of the shelves revealed no suitable options, with one exception, a gluten-free and vegan salad combination. We decided to share it back at the hotel and supplement it with some of the foods we'd brought with us.
We are surprised that such a mainstream company like Prêt à Manger offers so few vegan options and apparently only a single vegan and gluten-free option.This was also the case when we checked another branch in London. This is a constant thorn in our side and it appears to be something of a blind spot where mass market food suppliers are concerned - perhaps it's simply not worth their while? But can they afford to do this over the longer term if they wish to be inclusive? We can only hope this will improve in future, especially given the level of awareness now about food allergies and intolerances.
The following morning, having again enjoyed breakfast in our hotel with our own supplies, we returned to the station to catch the Eurostar to London. Our plan was to eat lunch on the train before we arrived, owing to the fact we had a tight window in which to pick up our hire car at St.Pancras and drive north to York in time for an early evening meal with family. We decided to revisit 'Super Bowl' and ask if they were able to provide a vegan and gluten-free salad option. The willing response from the man behind the counter confirmed this was certainly possible and he invited us to choose what we would like included in our salad from the selection displayed in front of us. It turned out it was a family company and it was evident that they were more than happy to accommodate our specific dietary requirements. We ended up leaving to catch our train with two enormous bowls and the feeling that we'd been treated as individuals.
Our luck was certainly in that day because we not only managed to get on an earlier train, but on arrival at St. Pancras, our hire car was upgraded from the cheapest model to a much more expensive model at no extra cost! As a result, we were able to get a head start on our journey north. The fact we'd eaten sufficient food to last us until our meal in the evening was fortunate, since in our experience, the foods on offer at the majority of British motorway service stations are abysmal. It is clear that the priority of the businesses that have franchises at service stations is to make money, and that means focusing the offering on the tried and tested mass market favourites. Unfortunately, these foods are usually highly processed foods that fill stomachs and provide instant pleasure rather than healthier whole foods. A brief pit stop and stroll around Watford Gap Services to stretch our legs confirmed this. We really couldn't get out of there quickly enough, it left us feeling depressed.
In recent years, there has been a proliferation of high street retail outlets in the service stations - M&S Simply Food and Waitrose in particular. Sadly, if understandably, they tend to follow a similar route to that taken by their fast food relatives, serving foods that the average less discerning customer will be looking to buy. There's scant consideration for a minority who value minimally processed whole foods. A walk around a Waitrose store at Woodall Services in South Yorkshire on our way to Nottingham confirmed this fact. A substantial percentage of the shelf space (including fridges) was even dedicated to alcoholic drinks! It left us feeling bemused. How can it be deemed appropriate to sell that level of alcohol at a place that is partly aimed at those driving vehicles? Is it for their bored and thirsty passengers? Is it to ensure there is alcohol on hand when they arrive home?
Admittedly, It's not all bad, especially where station dining is concerned. St.Pancras in London, the gateway to the UK for many hundreds of thousands of overseas passengers arriving in the capital of England, has rolled out the proverbial red carpet.
There is an impressive range of restaurants and cafés to choose from. One such example, and on our list of favourites, is Le Pain Quotidien (we will devote more time to this in our final post on this subject coming soon). St Pancras sets a standard for others to follow. But perhaps it's because of its unique location and the fact it's a Eurostar terminal that sets it apart and will continue to do so.
On our return journey to Brussels, we arrived in good time to have a brief sit-down lunch before catching an onward train to Cologne. This time, being a week day as opposed to a Sunday, we had more options than on our outward journey and we were delighted to see that Exki, a café we had regularly frequented in the past, had reopened following refurbishment. Organic vegan and gluten-free salads were readily available. And one of us was additionally happy since the fresh crusty French bread on offer is a personal favourite!
Our final overnight stop was Cologne. As our plan was to buy a meal at the station on the following morning for the 4 hour journey on to Berlin, we did a quick advance reconnaissance of the station to find out what was on offer. We soon found the ideal place which advertised a delicious-looking vegan salad bowl with quinoa. But appearances can be deceptive. When we turned up the following day and each ordered a bowl, we were informed that it wasn't gluten-free. Despite containing quinoa, a gluten free grain, it also contained rye, which does contain gluten. This wasn't mentioned in the description and we struggled to grasp the logic, wondering how many people may have been caught out by this unnecessary addition of another grain. One of us was able to eat it whilst the other had to formulate a quick plan B. The situation was rescued by Dean & David, a chain that originated in Munich providing healthy, sustainable fast foods . It proved to be the perfect solution!
In summary, travelling for those who prioritise healthy whole foods can pose significant challenges. The catering industry is geared towards providing quick fixes and the demand for fast and highly processed foods is perpetuated by the slick marketing machines of the fast food giants and by consumers' own desire for taste and texture in the form of fat, sugar and salt. It's very easy to fall prey to this and to be forced to make compromises. But remembering why you have made the choice to eat healthily and consciously in the first is a good way to resist temptation.