Stephen Jardine: Must eating on the go be a lottery?

Service stop food can be hit and miss. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Service stop food can be hit and miss. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Travellers are being badly served by eateries that need to try harder, writes Stephen Jardine

It’s summer holiday time and that means most of us will be on the move at some point. Ahead, days of sunshine, relaxation and good food and drink. The only problem is what lies in the way.

Travelling ,sadly, involves a return to the bad old days of eating otherwise lost in the mists of time. If food and drink in this country has been transformed, someone forgot to tell our major transport operators.

On a drive south this week I stopped at a couple of service stations on the M6. From the surroundings to the food, it really was a throwback to the 1970s. Curling sandwiches and watery coffee was acceptable when we didn’t know any better but nowadays the choices are endless.

If good food has bypassed the motorway service station, the situation on trains is no better. I remember being stuck for hours on an old British Railways train at Carstairs Junction and the only options in the buffet car were sausage rolls and Kit-Kats. A few years ago, the food moved up a gear with dishes that you might actually recognise from a menu. Although it sounded better, the quality was as poor as ever and the price remained somewhere between astronomical and stratospheric. To this day there remains a serious lack of ambition.

On their website, Scotrail illustrates their new menu showcasing Scottish produce with an image of shortbread, Irn Bru, whisky and crisps. Is that really the image we want to promote to travellers and visitors alike ? Nowadays Scottish food and drink is so much more than those clichés.

Airports have done more than most to embrace the changing tastes of travellers by handing over eating space to the big food chains. Not only do they know how to deliver good food on the move, they also know how to package it well. That said, no one has ever been able to explain to me the appeal of the seafood bars you see in every airport. Why would you want to eat oysters prepared by a stranger before boarding a nine-hour flight with 300 other people and just a few toilets?

If most transport operators need to try harder, a few are proving it is really not that difficult. CalMac have made huge strides with their onboard menus in recent years and the ferry firm has now received Visit Scotland’s Taste our best accreditation. Over 50 per cent of the menu now features Scottish produce, with Barra landed haddock, smoked salmon from Argyll Smokers and cakes from Cobbs Bakeries regulars on the menu.

There is hope. Last night, I drove back north and stopped at a new motorway service station on the outskirts of Gloucester. Approaching, there was very little to see. No brutalist towers or peeling arches over the road, just a series of low, flat buildings covered with grass to blend in with the surroundings.

Inside was even more outstanding with a farm shop and butchers counter alongside a coffee shop and fantastic restaurant serving really good food. Let’s hope this is the shape of things to come and stopping to eat on a journey can eventually be a pleasure rather than a lottery.