The muscles of the cook’s forearms were visibly straining as she heaved the cauldron on to the counter top. She removed the iron lid and vanished for a second, behind the cloud of steam that rose from under it.
When it cleared, I found myself peering into an enormous metal bucket full of beans. The cook ladled some up and dropped a ration on to my plate.
Having just spent four days on El Expreso de La Robla, a luxurious new train-hotel run by Spanish state rail company Feve, I knew enough about the contents of that metal bucket to treat it with respect.
La olla ferroviaria (railway stew) is a potage of water, beans and a little chorizo, traditionally cooked in a huge cauldron on the coal fire of El Expreso, the freight train that used to run between the chimney stacks of Bilbao and the cathedral spires of Léon.
In the 1890s she carried coal from the mines of the Picos de Europa mountains.
El Expreso is no longer a gritty coal lugger.
The name now refers to a new, but vintage-style train – a luxury belle époque extravaganza, modelled on the Orient Express. El Expreso travels on three routes.
La Robla, which I took, travels from Bilbao to Leon and back over four days.
The four-day St James itinerary explores Galicia, while the two-day Porte Norte route crosses the Cantabrian coast. Each trip is packed with sightseeing and fantastic meals.
As we left Bilbao, I sat self-consciously in the faux elegance of the dining car as a waiter with gold piping on his jacket poured me a brandy.
Our first stop was at the village of Espinosa de los Monteros, the site of a famous Napoleonic victory during the peninsula war.
In the mountains above it we visited the hermitage of San Bernabé, built into the largest cave complex in the Iberian peninsula.
Many of the walls are covered in paintings, graphically depicting the torture and martyrdom of local saints.
It was dark and primitive art, and in a way summed up the real value of the trip. Yes the train is luxurious, but the route, criss-crossing as it does the fault line between Muslim and Christian Spain, meant we crossed provinces full of hidden artistic treasures.
These dated mainly from the Romanesque era, when Léon was the capital of a Visigoth (Christian) kingdom, and travelling on this train meant we saw that world through the eyes of the peasants who were plucked out of their 14th century-style lives and into the industrial age by the coal lugger.
One evening we ate at the Parador Cervera de Pisuerga, a remote boar hunters’ retreat.
The courses just kept on coming: mushroom soup, suckling lamb, wild boar stew, roast venison and bull’s tail. Then the train continued further into the mountains, stopping by the railway sidings of a former mining village, Vado-Cervera, for the night.
In Léon we took in the Basilica of San Isidoro, a ninth-century chapel where Moorish and Romanesque architecture fuse into the so-called Mozarabic.
The glorious cathedral made the town hall, designed by no less an architect than Antoni Gaudi, look staid and provincial.
Dinner was a feast of cocido Madrileño (chickpea stew with meat, sausage and pig’s trotter) and much wine.
It was a familiar pattern on the trip: a near mystical experience, followed by a fall from grace, followed by a hangover.
By the time we reached the Gothic town of Aguilar de Campoo, an oppressive place with a dark bloody history, home to the hilltop fortress of Peter the Cruel, who slaughtered his siblings to gain the throne of Léon, I was experiencing medieval overload.
But still, I was glad the final fling of the journey involved a visit to the Moorish city of Medina de Pomar, which still had the feel of a casbah.
And finally we were pulling back into Bilbao.
I thought back to the marketing blurb about affordable luxury … they are right in a sense, this journey is a luxury.
But more in the experience and insight it offers than all that gold piping.