A few years ago, on the run up to Christmas, I spoke at a tech conference in Melbourne. It was beautifully warm and sunny, the people were lovely, the coffee was excellent, and I was just mildly confused by the Christmas decorations on the shops next to “Summer is coming!” signs. The organisers of the conference also gifted me with a really sturdy black canvas bag and a coffee mug with a similar design, which I both use often as I fondly think back about that visit.
This year, on the run up to Christmas, we were travelling within the UK and that led me to decide I’d prepare a Train Picnic™️, because the trains in the UK are so ridiculously slow for the distance they cover that the trip will take a sizeable amount of your day and you’ll be inevitably hungry at some point, and then either they do not have civilised features such as a café car, OR whatever food they serve is plainly atrocious. And that’s before we even consider how expensive they are!
A simple comparison to prove my point:
- London to South West England: ~180 km, ~2h in an overcrowded train with a rickety trolley bar, stinky toilets and uncomfortable seats, if you’re lucky and there’s no strike or you don’t mind rushing to the train and fight for your right (to sit). A single ticket for today would cost me £62.60. It’d take ~2.31h by car.
- Spain: Valencia to Alicante: ~180 km, ~1:43h in a semi-high speed train with comfortable allocated seats, café car, and no stink. A single ticket for today would cost me €19. It’d take ~1:47h by car.
As you can imagine, the only way to survive that purgatory on earth is to assemble a decent Train Picnic and pretend you’re actually somewhere nice.
I just follow a few rules:
- the food cannot be stinky (out of respect to other passengers),
- it cannot be liquid (to prevent leaks), and
- it has to keep well all the way to the train station and up to the point when we get to board (because time is elastic here: trains aren’t necessarily departing or arriving when scheduled) and eventually eat it.
The ‘menu’ for this occasion was:
- Salad: cucumber, red pepper, celery, cut in sticks, sprinkled with black sesame seeds; cherry tomatoes
- Onion and ricotta cheese omelette (the ricotta cheese made it moist and subtly cheesy, but not stinky)
- Cheeses with walnuts, sourdough rye crackers: I got some Ossau-Iraty which is full of nuttiness, but not strong smell, and another relatively young cheese which was also very subtle.
- Dessert: a couple individual portions of Spanish Christmas sweets, which I had bought on my last visit, a few weeks ago: turrón de Jijona y Alicante.
I made the crackers to a recipe from the Bread Ahead cookbook; they’re super simple to make and I like making a big batch, breaking them into pieces and keeping them on the ‘biscuit’ tin, as they’re super handy.
I like to top them with a few sprinkles of salt crystals and a mix of seeds: cumin, sesame, fennel and nigella seeds. Although due to my enthusiastic use of these, we had pretty much run out of seeds. So I had to restock, and of course, I took my black canvas bag with me. But when I came back home and took out the groceries from the bag, there was a surprise…
The nigella seeds package had a little hole and it had been sprinkling my black bag with little black seeds!
You have no idea of how difficult it is to see these seeds, let alone remove them from the bag. You put it upside down over the bin, and off they go… falling in all directions except perhaps into the bin! The kitchen floor was full of seeds. The counter was as well, as some seeds had fallen out already, and taking the nigella seeds package out created a ‘path’ of seeds. Some pieces of onion skin fell off as well, which was both to be expected (I try to buy onions by the weight, without bags, so there’s always some skin that falls off in the bag), and also very suitable (nigella seeds taste a bit like onion).
I removed the seeds (or so I thought), I packed my picnic on the same bag, and off I went, all proud of my picnic and my de-seeding efforts. “Well done”, I congratulated myself, as I fought my way around disoriented shoppers in the street.
Of course, as soon as we started taking boxes out in the train, the seeds started popping up, out of the depths of the bag. Perhaps they had been nesting in the folds? In the corners? Who knows? I had thoughts of seeds germinating and growing on the train. After all, it doesn’t feel like the trains are very thoroughly cleaned anyway. Seeds can probably go a long way before a vacuum cleaner disturbs them.
When I took the boxes out again back home: more seeds popped out.
I put the bag upside down again. Even more seeds! How was that possible? Hadn’t I already done this? It was a cornucopia but only with nigella seeds.
I took a cautious look inside and all I could see was nothing. Black canvas.
I have just gone shopping today, using the same black canvas bag—and can you guess what happened?