River cruising is a wonderful way to experiment with local food. Most lines genuinely make an effort to introduce local dishes on their menus, as well as ashore and in cookery classes and demonstrations.
A taste of the exotic
Deep in the gorges of the Upper Irrawaddy and Avalon Myanmar’s chefs are teaching us to make pickled tea leaf salad. Outside, misty hills studded with shimmering golden stupas drift by. I’m sceptical about the pickled tea leaf element, although the crunchy beans, fried garlic and roast peanuts seem recognisable enough. But my finished salad is delicious; nutty, sharp and sour.
Over the course of the week, we sample one amazing Burmese dish after another on board, blending the flavours of India and Thailand with new, indefinable tastes. In fact, a week on Avalon Myanmar turns out to be the perfect way to immerse yourself in Burmese cuisine without taking any risks with street food. I left the ship with a whole new collection of taste memories and a recipe for ginger tea that I make to this day.
The perfect chicken
A week on the Rhône on Scenic Sapphire included a session learning to prepare the perfect Poulet de Bresse, using hand-reared, organic Bresse chicken. The aromas of the meat bubbling gently with cream, morel mushrooms, herbs and white wine wafted around the ship and even those passengers not booked into the cookery class followed their noses in the hope of a sample.
A lot of cruise lines include some meals ashore and they can be a real education. I cruised with Uniworld on a week-long voyage out of Bordeaux and had one of the most amazing lunches of my life at the fairytale, 17th century Château d’Arche, in the heart of the Sauternes region, where sweet wines the colour of liquid gold are produced. I’d always seen Sauternes as something to drink with dessert but this lunch was a revelation, with a honey-like wine paired to every course, from smoked salmon with tangy horseradish to corn-fed chicken with asparagus and deliciously salty, rich, wild mushrooms.
A year later, I visited the area again on an APT cruise, where the culinary adventures continued. While I opted for a cycle ride through the vineyards with a wine tasting, some of the hardier passengers headed out for an afternoon at a sturgeon farm. Later, they told us they’d actually got into one of the fish breeding pools, wearing waders, and had been shown by the enthusiastic owner how to catch and even hug an enormous, smelly sturgeon. Their reward? Large dollops of caviar at a tasting. On this cruise, APT went all out on its lunch buffet, too, offering one rich French classic after another (alongside lighter fare). Although a glossy boeuf bourguignon and sizzling steak frites attracted more customers than garlicky frogs’ legs.
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Sardines by starlight
Almost any river journey can provide a culinary adventure and often, it’s the simple dishes that create the best memories. Portugal’s Douro, a river rapidly growing in popularity, is offered by lines including Scenic, Viking, APT and Uniworld. Douro cruises start from the gorgeous old city of Porto, heart of the port wine industry and close to the Atlantic coast. From here, they sail deep into the wild Douro valley as far as the Spanish border at the one-horse town of Barca d’Alva, where there’s really little more than mountains and wild forest. In this beautiful setting, the crew barbecued sardines on deck, fresh from the Atlantic, with a squeeze of lemon. We washed them down with a local rosé wine as the Milky Way arched across the night sky. It really was a magical moment.
All Douro cruises make the most of the local produce, with endless opportunities to sample the port wines, both on board and on winery visits, but there are other pleasures. Scenic, for example, offers a tour to an olive and almond grower to taste oils, tapenades, jams and sweet almond desserts. On board, we learned how to cook pasteis de nata, tiny tarts of flaky pastry filled with a sweet custard. You see them everywhere in Portugal and although they were available to snack on most of the time on the ship, what followed the demo was no less than a feeding frenzy as the tarts are so delicious fresh from the oven.
Strudel and sausages
On a cruise across central Europe via the Rhine and Danube, different flavours unfold on board as the ship crosses invisible borders. On Viking’s Grand European Tour from Amsterdam to Budapest, for example, you can expect anything from hearty sausages, pork dishes and sauerkraut, as the ship sails through Germany, to the perfect Wienerschnitzel with parsley buttered potatoes in Austria and a rich, pungent goulash on the lunch menu in Hungary. Plenty of the shore excursions have a tasting theme, from fruity wines in the Moselle to the smoked beers brewed around Bamberg. In Regensburg, Viking even offers an excursion to a sausage factory where you’ll make your own weisswurst, stuffing the sausage skins and later, enjoying the fruits of your labour with a wheat beer, pretzel and the local Händelmaier mustard.
Culinary immersion isn’t only for adults. Tauck, one of the best river cruise lines for families, has some fabulous foodie activities for kids on its European cruises. On the Danube, there’s an apple strudel making demonstration (and tasting) and a marzipan workshop, where kids can make their own creations. On Rhine family cruises, Tauck includes a fondue night in Lucerne and a chocolate tasting in Strasbourg. Almost all cruises include a dinner ashore, too, in one of the many dramatic-looking castles along the Rhine, giving you a sense of what it was like to feast by firelight in a medieval banqueting hall, back in the day.
Although river cruise lines in Europe are limited in the number of restaurants they can put on board because ships are restricted in size by the many locks, companies are getting increasingly creative. Top marks to Uniworld for the pretty Le Bistrot on the company’s new Seine cruiser, Joie de Vivre. Le Bistrot is a tiny slice of Paris next to the main lounge, complete with red chequered tablecloths, art deco prints on the walls and a genuine Parisian bistro menu. We had a superb French onion soup in here, as well as Toulouse sausage and haricot bean cassoulet and a perfect tarte aux pommes (apple tart).
Avalon, impressively, incorporates healthy local dishes, many of them vegetarian, into its main menus in Europe, denoted by the ‘Avalon Fresh’ symbol. These dishes have been created by brothers Leo and Karl Wrenkh, the founders of the Wrenkh Vienna Culinary School. Expect anything from potato dumplings with bell pepper ragout and a chive sauce to sage-sautéed spinach gnocchi served with fried beetroot. Everything is locally sourced and, of course, fresh.
Crystal River Cruises gets round the issue of diversifying its culinary offering by taking passengers ashore for world-class food in Michelin-starred restaurants in cities like Amsterdam, Budapest and Lucerne. If you’re booked in a Penthouse or above, this is included; otherwise, it costs US$189 per person but either way, it’s a chance to experience the very best of European cuisine with worrying about joining a waiting list to get a reservation.
Spice it up
In Asia, there’s even more scope for culinary creativity. Scenic offers some fantastic optional tours, not least a Vespa foodie tour of Ho Chi Minh City by night and a cookery class ashore in Hanoi. APT, meanwhile, has a partnership with Vietnamese celebrity chef Luke Nguyen and offers several cruises every year with Luke on board. In 2018, for example, a Mekong cruise starts in Ho Chi Minh City with a class at the chef’s cookery school, GRAIN. This is classy Vietnamese – you might learn to make anything from fresh rice noodles with sautéed beef to sea bass with galangal, lemongrass, turmeric and banana leaf. There’s also a night at Xu, one of the city’s top contemporary Vietnamese restaurants, for a degustation menu designed by Luke himself. The chef’s influence extends to APT’s Myanmar cruises, too; on the RV Samatha, APT’s Irrawaddy ship, there’s an eight seater dining room where guests can sample modern Burmese wine-paired menus, designed by Luke, at no extra charge.
Wherever you cruise, though, it’s all about choice. This is one of the joys of a luxurious river voyage; you can go all out to broaden your palate with exotic dishes but there’s always the sanctuary of the ship to return to, with its daily staples of comfort food. After all, sometimes, all you want is a cheese sandwich.
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