What an exciting last few weeks we have had onboard Riviera! I left Marina about a month ago to open the second Bon Appétit Culinary Center in our fleet, and there has not been a moment yet to reflect on all the activities and celebrations… So writing this blog is a welcomed chance to do just that.
Along with all the excitement of opening Riviera’s hands-on cooking school at sea, we have launched a new series of Culinary Discover Tours coincident with the christening of Riviera, and subsequently on Marina. Last year a day did not go by without a guest asking me, “Where’s a good place to have lunch… You know, where the locals go?” or “Where do you shop for fresh produce or fish when you get off the ship?” or “Where can I get that extra virgin olive oil you always talk about, Chef?” So I decided to develop a series of day-long tours where I could show our guests my favorite fresh markets, local merchants, lunch spots, cheese producers, wineries and much, much more. Out of that was born our Culinary Discovery Tours.
We now have Culinary Discovery Tours at Corfu, Crete and Santorini in Greece; Livorno, Portofino, Amalfi and Sicily in Italy; Marseille in France; and Monte Carlo in Monaco. Soon we will be heading to Casablanca, Israel, Riga, Visby and Helsinki, where we have designed tours for the summer.
On a typical tour we leave the ship around 9 a.m. and head out to a market to check out the local fish, produce, cheese and breads. Every tour is different, but there is always a lot of tasting involved, whether it’s local cheese or chocolate, fruits or vegetables or specialty bread or desserts. We usually share a meal, which is a great way to spend time with the foodies on the ship. For me, it’s a chance to answer questions about the culinary culture of Oceania Cruises and meet guests and hear their stories about places they’ve traveled, eaten and explored. After returning to the ship between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. and taking a little rest, we gather in the culinary center to cook and taste things we picked up that day on our travels.
One of our first Culinary Discovery Tours was to Santorini, the beautiful, sun-drenched island in Greece and the home of Assyrtiko, my favorite white wine.
We started our tour with a bus ride up the steep switchback road to the top of the island. Along the way the guide pointed out the unique vineyards of Santorini. Because of high winds and summer heat, the vines are twisted into small circles instead of the typical canopied trellises we see in vineyards elsewhere in the world.
The grapes here grow in pumice soil, so their high acidity and pleasant minerality make them perfect to pair with food. The vines are not only useful for growing grapes; I am always charmed by how they are used as chandeliers as well. During this season, the grapes are tiny, and the guide told us that they would be pruned in the coming weeks.
The bus turned into a tiny cul de sac, and we disembarked at Selene, one of the “hottest” restaurants in Santorini. We were greeted by Selene, who is a gracious hostess, knowledgeable sommelier and inventive restaurateur.
Selene told us all about the amazing foods of Santorini. Famous for its white eggplants brought to the island from Persia, Santorini’s sweeter versions of the popular aubergine are used on the island in everything from traditional moussaka to all sorts of inventive desserts! Selene had selected a basket of spring vegetables, all grown on the island, to share with us. She showed us the local fava beans, zucchini and garlic. And in Santorini, they are particularly fond of their tomatoes. To preserve the prized fruit for use throughout the year, they sun dry their tomatoes and make them into tomato pastes of varying intensities. The lowest intensity paste is similar to the ones we use at home, while the strongest paste has an intense smoky flavor.
The Santorini fava bean looks a lot like a lentil and is the prized indigenous legume of the island. Selene explained that the bean grows in a pod (see the little greyish dried casings in the photo below left) but must be separated from the hard shell that covers the little lentil. She showed us how this removal takes place, a labor-intensive process for sure! Selene also explained how they brine the caper berry as well as the leaves, which we bought and sampled after the tour in class.
After our culinary session, we traveled a short distance from the restaurant to a private museum dedicated to the culinary traditions of Santorini. The photographs and displays were fascinating and passionate in their attempt to give tourists and locals alike an intimate look at agricultural and culinary life on this unique island. Decades-old photos of winemaking were as intriguing as the stories of how local bird catchers trapped migrating parakeets to sell in open arenas like the Agora Market in Athens.
Before leaving the museum, Selene showed us a typical rural kitchen (above right) that also turned out to be ergonomically efficient. It reminded me of some of the vest pocket galleys on the sailboats I used to cook in!
After a tour of the museum, we sat down for a wine tasting by Selene, an accomplished sommelier. We tasted a number of wines from Selene’s wine list, from well-known local wineries like Segalas and Nykteri to smaller boutique producers.
Selene also shared some facts about locally produced cheese and how Greek yogurt is made. The lack of grazing terrain makes cow milk (and beef) quite rare on the island, so most of the cheeses are made from a combination of sheep and goat milk.
Anxious to meet the chefs and see their culinary demonstration of local Santorini cuisine, we spent the next friendly and lively hour with the chefs of Selene. The chef de cuisine spent time at Noma, the famed Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen, and also with Gordon Ramsey, so it was exciting to see a master at work. On this tour we had been joined by Chef Cat Cora’s mother, Virginia Cora, so the chefs were on their toes. Chef showed Ms. Cora a photograph he had taken with Cat Cora some years back. It was lovely to see them connect and hear how well known Riviera’s godmother is around the world, and how respected she is by the most accomplished chefs.
The demonstration (and subsequently lunch) was tomato fritters made with the special tomato paste of Santorini, fava bean puree with smoked fish, moussaka and a cheese pastry for dessert created by one of the restaurant’s pastry chefs.
After the demonstration and lots of questions and photos, we sat on the porch overlooking the sea and were served a delicious lunch of the dishes we saw demonstrated. You’ll notice I have no photo of the dessert because I ate it all before I remembered to snap a photo… Oops!
It was good food and wine shared with new friends. To top it off, the weather was as perfect as the entire day.
In Santorini, there are three ways to get back to the ship: the funicular, the 600-plus steps by foot OR the 600 steps by donkey. Most people choose the funicular.
Being a former equestrian, I chose to try my hand at the donkey. I selected one of the donkeys lined up for the trek down the 600 steps (to whom I gave the name “Linus,” after my adopted bloodhound that stayed behind when I left to travel the high seas), and away we went down the switchback of stairs and stone walls. After leaning back and kicking, I quickly realized my equestrian skills mattered little, as this four-legged animal was taking his own route down. All I had to do was sit back and let him do his job. When we reached the bottom, I patted my new friend between the ears and realized I smelled as bad as he did. So off I went to my beautiful marble bathroom on Riviera to shower and change into a new set of chef whites. Sans donkey scent, I met up again with the group of 24 intrepid culinarians at the culinary center to review the day.
For class, we reviewed what we learned at Selene, made the tomato fritters and cooked fava beans into a puree served with homemade rosemary crackers. We finished a few more bottles of Assyrtiko and made a semolina-almond cake soaked in Vin Santo, the lovely and aromatic sweet wine for which Santorini is also famous. (It was the official wine of the Russian Orthodox church for many decades.) Upon completing a great tour and a great day, I knew the Culinary Discovery Tours were off to a great start!