Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Smooth Sailing – 10 Days at Sea, Eating All The Way

WARNING: What follows is a ridiculously long travelog. The length goes against many blogging rules that suggest that short and sweet are best. I thought that by writing about ONE day at a time (about my Mediterranean cruise) I'd be safe. Wrong! We did a lot in one day! I would love feedback...was this just too much to read? My intent was to give you a flavor of the boat, the locale and ambiance in general, and of course, the food. LMK

The story begins:

Just a few days ago I woke up to breakfast in bed. My milk was warmed for my tea, as requested; the eggs were over easy. I had a view of the Aegean Sea through the sliding glass door leading out to my balcony from my spacious room on board Le Diamant. Later in the day I ran my fingers across stone that dated to 3,000 BC, enjoyed stimulating conversations with friendly, intelligent fellow-travelers and then I got to do one of my favorite things – conduct a chocolate tasting – and that was one day!

Let me back up a bit.

About a year and a half ago I was contacted by the Thomas P. Gohagan & Company, out of Chicago. Would I be interested in taking a trip in exchange for giving a few food talks on board a Mediterranean cruise, participating in two live cooking demos with the chef and generally being on hand to be the culinary professional for the duration of the tour? I said, yes, I could do that. They asked me to come up with three topics related to our itinerary including France, Italy, Greece and Turkey; I suggested Italian chocolates, Greek honey and French and Italian truffles (the fungus kind). Along with giving presentations, I suggested that we add a tasting component to each talk, which they heartily embraced.

The trip, while I believed would actually happen, felt a bit unreal. It was so far away at that point that it was hard to imagine actually cruising to all of these places. If it never came to be, I would be no worse for the wear. If it did come to fruition, it would be a dream trip. A win win as far as I was concerned and so I tucked it into the back of my mind. When we got to about a month away, it began to feel palpable. A week ahead it hit me that it was actually going to happen. Of course I still wasn’t really sure what “it” was, having never gone on an excursion like this before. The boat, Le Diamant, is a small cruise ship and we would end up with about 160 passengers. What would the passengers, and therefore my audiences, be like? Would they be engaged and ask intelligent questions, or would they rather be sunning on the deck with a margarita? Would the food be any good? What would my cabin be like? Would I get sea-sick? All of these questions came to mind. I am typing this initial installment as I fly back from Istanbul to JFK. It is going to be a challenge to bring all the fascinating details to you as each day was a treasure trove of discovery, filled with visiting ancient sites, conversing with fabulous fellow passengers and eating, eating, eating. The trip was more than I ever could have imagined.

Day 1: Nice, France and off to Florence, Italy

Our trip began in Nice, France. But let me add that it really started in NY. David and I had flown from Hartford to JFK, where we were greeted by a Gohagan affiliate at the gate. It was quite a welcomed surprise. Turns out there were 30+ fellow travelers that were all to be on the same flight to Nice and Gohagan had a representative there to greet us and make sure that all was running smoothly. This was the first of many Gohagan touches that made this trip so special.

We landed at about 8:30 am and I was remarkably fresh, due to the fact that I had found a row of three seats on our flight from JFK. Being 5’1 ½” (on a good day) this allowed me to lie down and to rest better than I would have vertically in my seat. We were whisked away to a hotel, and although we did not have access to rooms, there was a place for us to drop our bags, freshen up and have a hot or cold beverage. We were not boarding the boat until late afternoon, so we had the day to explore. The bus, which had brought us from the airport, had made a little loop through the port city to give us a brief introduction, so we had an idea of where we wanted to go. I wanted to head to the so-called “flower” market.

David and I took off walking along the Quai des Etats Unis, along Castel Beach.We almost immediately passed a McDonalds proclaiming to have a “Big Tasty” meal, which I think was a Big Mac, but I didn’t delve into it.

After about a 10 minute walk through a lovely small park, and across an open area with public art and a fountain, we walked down a narrow, old street which eventually gave way to a long, open rectangular area where we came upon the famed flower market. In fact this market has as much vegetable and fruit produce as flowers and we set about taking in all the sites, smells and sounds.

First a few flower photos, for good measure: There were roses, of courseBut also Mimosa, a small yellow flower I don’t see much in the US and of course bunches of lavender. Both of these are used in French cooking; you can find lavender in many herb mixtures and I have seen little round yellow candied mimosas for decorating fancy pastries.

Here are some lovely, fresh berries that were available.

One idea I loved was this container of mixed berries; what a fabulous idea. In this way the consumer could purchase one item, yet get a mélange of fruit to eat as is, or perhaps to be perched on a tart.

There was a plethora of candied fruits including whole clementines, halved peaches, all sorts of zests, chestnuts, citron and more.

Also the largest knobs of candied ginger I have ever seen. There was a lovely diced, candied fruit mixture (seen in pic below, above the ginger) that would be perfect for my winter holiday cakes, and I considered buying some. I regret that I did not but under the hot Riviera sun I just couldn’t bring myself to think much about those winter treats.

There were many honey vendors and those selling olive oil, olives, soaps of all scents, fish, bread, preserves and cheese. Here are pictures of an olive vendor; there were many.

One vendor had more varieties of calisson cookies that I had ever seen (these being a Provencal specialty with flavors of almond paste an often orange as well).

Look at this next picture. Can you tell what these are?

Marzipan fruits and vegetables with exquisite detail. Across the top there are carrots and cauliflower, peaches and bananas. Next row down left to right, white asparagus (hadn’t seen that one before), tomatoes, grape bunches and green plums. Below that are corn, a few purple tinged artichokes, lemons and strawberries.

The ground spices seem to attract many tourists, but in fact I did not find the quality to be that great. Once spices are ground and exposed to light and air to the extent that these were, I decided to pass on them.

There were these interesting syrups at several vendors, which were not only beautiful to look at, with colors ranging from almost clear to blue, pink, yellow and green, but their applications seemed endless. They could be mixed in drinks, used to enhance sauces, drizzled over ice cream or cake, to mention a few. Some interesting flavors were Rose (pale pink), Violette (purple), Pomegranate (a bright clear red), Mimosa (yellow) and Pistache (green).

Here is a second vendor’s versions.

David and I decided to have our lunch there and we purchased a yeast raised flat bread topped with tomatoes, onions, olives and sprinkled with herbs de Provence from one vendor, some hard aged sheep’s milk cheese from another and some fruit. I found the vendor with what I thought were the best fresh figs and we bought a tiny container of those. They came in a small rectangular cardboard box, which was lined with fresh fig leaves.

And then we chose white fleshed peaches from another vendor. These peaches were perfectly ripe and not only yielded delicately from a gentle pressing of the fingers, but they also emitted a telltale aroma. I couldnt wait to take a bite! The peach vendor was also offering tastes before buying; not all of them were and I took this to mean that he had pride in his produce and was ready to back it up with sweet fruit.

We found a place to sit and with peach juices dribbling down our chins, we ate in record time. I had stowed antibacterial wet-wipes in my pocketbook, so we had an easy clean up. The exhaustion of the trip was catching up with me and walking in the hot sun wasn’t helping. At one point the jet-lag did catch up with me to the point where I had to take a 10 minute nap. David caught me napping on the edge of a fountain smack in the middle of the market.

Below are photos of flavored salts and sugars, the latter not something we see that often in the U.S

We eventually made our way to a café, walking down a typical narrow street

where we searched for a caffeine pick me up. There were many places to choose from, as they ring the market all the way round. Those of you who know of my dog addiction (see will not be surprised to know that I chose the café that had the resident dog at hand. Voila! Introducing Charles Edward (say/read it with French accent), a very docile bull dog who was plopped down in the middle of this café. When I first spied him, he was on top of a plexiglass window in the floor, gazing down at the bakery below. I decided maybe his human daddy or mommy were down there, but in truth, after observing him for a while, I think that the window might had just offered a different temperature and therefore a different sensory variation from the floor itself and he seemed to like it.

He was docile to the point of being comatose. I poked him at one point to make sure he hadn't expired! People would bend down and pet him, as we did, and he would not budge. No flick of the ear or wrinkle of nose. I think he was inured as this probably happend all day every day. No matter, he gave me a sense of comfort and so we sat right next to him so I could soak up the familiar canine vibes. I had a café frappe, which was amazing. It was simply lightly sweetened espresso, which had been beaten with ice to the point of being airy, frothy, opaque and utterly scrumptious. I asked the waiter 3 times if there was cream in it as I kept thinking he didn’t understand my question as he answered no each time. But I know from experience that if you have a heavy duty blender such as a Vita-Mix, that such a texture can be obtained. They had classic apple tarts, small cakes and sweet breads and large crisp meringues in the window, although we didn’t indulge in any of them. I have a recipe for very similar meringues in my new book, Unforgettable Desserts.

After our culinary stroll we headed towards the beach, which is made up of gray rocks, rather than sand.

Here we are finally beginning to relax, getting away from our hectic daily lives.

At the end of this particular beach, high up on a steep hill, is a park with a waterfall fountain way up near the top. The stairs that led up the hill are steep and long, but it felt good to get some exercise (Note to Holly and Patty, my trainers at BeFit in Hadley, MA - I RAN up the first 200 steps. I counted). We walked up into this park, which afforded a view of the beach below. And here are some views from in about the park, to give you a sense of the ambiance.

Before heading back to our rendezvous point I ducked into that same McDonalds to use the restrooms. I go to McDonald’s a lot in the States….for this very same purpose and I have always appreciated the fact that you can run in and out quickly, without feeling the need to purchase any food and without anyone giving you the eyeball if you don’t. This was a bit of a different experience. First of all there was some art on the walls, not great art, but not cheap posters either and there was a general sense of it being a tad more upscale than the ones I’m used to visiting. The bathroom was not easy to find and in fact was upstairs all the way in the back and when I got to it, I read the sign that informed me that the restrooms were for patrons only and that you had to refer to the bottom of your receipt for a code, which you would then punch into the lock on the door. I had no receipt but before I had to think much about it, someone came out and I just went in.

At about 4 in the afternoon it was time to board the ship and here are our first views of Le Diamant from the outside. For more information on this ship and others owned by this company, click HERE.And here is our room, a very comfortable, spacious room on the “Diamond” deck (the top deck), with a sliding door and balcony and a bathroom that is larger than mine at home complete with full tub. David is reading some material left for us on our bed, which would be a daily occurrence. We would get updates every evening as to the itinerary for the following day. We were also greeted with canapés and wine.

I quickly showered (remember we'd been walking around all day since we landed) and took advantage of the fluffy robes; David caught the Nice scenery behind.

We pulled out of the harbor with David clicking away at the sites. Here you can see through our glass sliding door to our personal balcony:

We chose to have dinner that night in the smaller dining room (see below)

as we felt that not being inundated with a crowd would be preferable. Although I didn’t think to take pictures of dinner, we had vichyssoisse, salmon and a lovely sorbet. The fish was very fresh, very high quality and cooked wonderfully. It was moist and delicate and was my first indication that we were in great hands in terms of the chefs on board.

We set out for the port of Livorno for our first complete day, to be spent in Florence. Come back in a few days for that installment. Teaser: we spent the afternoon in a lovely villa having an olive oil tasting.

1 comment:

amyl said...

hey dede,
not too long a blog entry since you started it by saying it was very long. but, punctuating it with lots of pix helped tremendously to keep me from getting bored.