The Bon Appétit Culinary Centers onboard Marina and the new Riviera are the first custom-designed culinary studios at sea offering hands-on cooking classes. Oceania Cruises has now further enhanced its innovative culinary enrichment programs with the addition of Culinary Discovery Tours. The launch of the new tours coincided with Riviera’s recent debut, and this week on the blog, Chef Kelly will be sharing stories of the very first Culinary Discovery Tours ever offered. These tours take hands-on learning to a whole new level, as guests join master chefs in exploring the local markets ashore, learning the techniques used in preparing local cuisine and dining at local restaurants.
As Blogger-at-Large, I had the privilege of joining members of the press for a “sneak peek” at the Culinary Discovery Tours when Riviera was in Barcelona for her christening. Anyone with the slightest appreciation for food should not miss this truly unique experience.
Our adventure began at one of Chef Kelly’s favorite markets, Santa Caterina. While La Boqueria market is a more well-known tourist destination as it stands right on the main thoroughfare of La Rambla, we were here to learn the secrets of the locals.
The secret of the Santa Caterina market is not as well kept as say, the location of Blackbeard’s treasure, because the market received a lot of publicity a few years ago when it underwent extensive renovations. The most striking feature of the market is certainly its undulating roof, adorned with over 300,000 colorful ceramic tiles supported by intertwining steel columns. The structure was designed by the famed architectural team of Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue.
The colors of the roof fittingly suggest the brilliant hues of the fresh produce that is to be found inside. There were shiny purple eggplants, glowing red cherries, luscious strawberries, tomatoes of every variety, and huge bell peppers in vivid green, red and yellow.
And that’s just the produce. The fish market had every kind of seafood you could imagine, from prized prawns to less friendly looking sorts. Chef Kelly gave us some great tips on how to shop for fresh fish, such as looking for bright, clear eyes, rich red gills and firm flesh. Of course, smelling the fish is also important, as a stinky fish is not going to improve with cooking.
Spain produces some of the best olives in the world, and the choices were abundant. There were also numerous varieties of cheese. One item I hadn’t expected to find? Ostrich eggs!
While it was challenging to do anything but gawk at the market stalls and snap photos of their beautiful wares, we did have a purpose to our visit. Chef Kelly was shopping for ingredients that we would use to prepare Spanish recipes upon our return to the Bon Appétit Culinary Center. As you might surmise, one of these dishes would be paella, and Chef Kelly showed us the bomba rice that we would use to make this local favorite. Bomba is the ultimate paella rice, as it absorbs three times its volume in broth while the grains remain firm and delicious.
Chef Kelly also pointed out the jamón Ibérico, some of the finest ham in the world. It comes from black Iberian pigs that are fed on acorns. We were pleased to learn that we would soon be tasting some of this ham.
Chef Kelly made a final stop at the olive oil shop, OliSoliva, which was owned and operated by a local mother and son who shared generations of olive oil expertise. (Note the aerial photo of the market roof in the background. These shop owners were two of the merchants instrumental in instigating the renovation of Santa Caterina.) I wanted to purchase some olive oil but could not possibly make a selection from the hundreds of varieties on display. Luckily, we were about to enjoy an olive oil tasting presented by the son, Daniel Marcade. So I would have both an expert’s advice and my own taste buds to assist me in deciding on my purchase!
It was time for a lovely walk through the streets of Barcelona to the local cooking school, where we would have the olive oil tasting followed by a lesson in making tapas and a wine tasting as well.
Chef Kelly pointed out that olive oil tasting is as serious a business in Spain as wine tasting is in the United States. Olive oils are also similar to wines in that they reflect the terroir in which the olives are grown, just as wines reflect the geology and climate of the region from which the grapes come. On a map of Spain, Daniel pointed out the regions from which the olives for each olive oil came.
Daniel told us that olive oils are typically tasted in a blue glass like the one pictured on the table below, so that the color of the olive oil doesn’t influence the perception of taste. The glass is kept covered until the tasting to prevent the aromas from escaping. However, today he wanted us to see the variety of colors in the olive oils, so we used clear glasses. To release the aromas, we warmed the glass in one hand while gently shaking it, and we covered the glass with our other hand to prevent the aromas from escaping. Then we smelled the olive oil, and finally we tasted it. The resemblance to wine tasting was becoming more and more apparent, although for olive oil tastings, you cleanse your palate with an apple.
The first one we tasted was an award-winning Catalan olive oil by Olicatessen. This olive oil was made from the arbequina olive, and with some prompting from Daniel, we could recognize aromas of artichoke, sweet almond and green tomato.
The second olive oil was Masia El Altet from the Alicante region. This blend of arbequina and picual olives created one of the most renowned olive oils in the world. Masia El Altet has won awards in Italy, Israel, China, and the U.S.
The third olive oil, Castillo de Tabernas, was from Almeria. This one was made from the picual olive and had a very strong, bitter taste. Picual actually means “to scratch,” and this olive oil literally scratched your throat a bit as it went down. Daniel pointed out that this one wasn’t for everyone, and yet it was interesting to taste such a distinct variety and see first hand how the diversity of olive oils did indeed compare to that of wines.
Speaking of wines, it would soon be time for the wine tasting, a pastime that most of the group seemed far more familiar with. But before we would be allowed to taste the wines, there was chopping and dicing to be done, a task best completed before the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
It was time for our tapas lesson, and Chef Beatrice took the helm. Within a few minutes she had explained and demonstrated the preparation of seven different tapas, from a Spanish omelette to fried squid to gazpacho Andaluz. We were able to observe the process in the mirror mounted over the cooking area. Recipes in hand, we then began our own preparation of the ingredients as demonstrated, chopping peppers and ham, cracking eggs, and whisking the gazpacho as instructed.
After we completed the prep work and assembled the cold tapas, Chef Beatrice was kind enough to finish the cooking of the hot tapas because it was time for the long-awaited wine tasting. Elena and Alberto led this tasting, and by the time they had addressed the colors and aromas of the wine, I noticed that many had already forged ahead to the taste. They graciously continued to pour the wine, and in between sips we did learn quite a bit. For instance, over 90% of Cava wine comes from the Penedès region near Barcelona, and small bubbles are a sign of a quality wine.
While many Americans may think of sparkling wines as dessert wines, Cava wines are actually great to pair with food, as the bubbles and acidity make a nice complement to rich flavors. “We serve this with Thai food in Red Ginger, and people love it because it’s very light and refreshing,” said Chef Kelly.
We decided to put the theory to the test because some of the highly touted jamón Ibérico had arrived at the table. After sampling several slices, I decided that the Parxet Cava was indeed a great wine to pair with food.
Next we were to try a Rueda wine, a delicious white wine made from the verdejo grape. Finally we sampled a Rioja, the oldest Denominación de Origen in Spain. The Nabari Rioja was made from the tempranillo grape, the most widely produced grape variety in Spain and one that ages very well. Chef Kelly described tempranillo as the “Spanish counterpart to Italy’s sangiovese.”
Surprisingly, it was growing increasingly difficult to focus on the wine, because the tapas were beginning to arrive. Please don’t ask which I enjoyed more as I could never choose between the wine and the tapas, and together they were absolutely delectable.
One of my favorite tapas was the simplest – pa amb tomàquet, which is literally “bread with tomato” in Catalan. We simply halved a clove of garlic and rubbed it around the edges of a piece of toasted bread, and then halved a tomato and rubbed that on the bread as well. Add a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt and you have one delicious tapa.
Of course, we were using the fresh market tomatoes bursting with flavor and some of the finest olive oil in the world, so I’m guessing that may be the key to success with this particular dish. And it doesn’t hurt to have a few slices of jamón Ibérico lying around either. Do beware, the garlic will be much stronger than you might think from just rubbing it on the bread, but personally, I didn’t find that to be a problem at all.
The other tapa in the photo above is a ham croquette – ham, onion, butter and milk, breaded and fried. The process is only slightly more complex than it sounds, and the result is every bit as delicious as it sounds!
Chef Kelly and Chef Beatrice with guest Chef Dolores
Obviously, I could go on and on about the tapas, but all this talk of food has made me hungry so I need to go make lunch. Suffice it to say, our experience on the Culinary Discovery Tour in Barcelona was fabulous. And this wasn’t even the total experience. While we media types had to go prepare for the upcoming christening festivities, most guests on these tours would follow their time ashore with a brief siesta onboard. Then they would meet in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center and use the ingredients they’d found at the market to create some local dishes themselves, such as the paella I mentioned earlier.
That is the best part of the Culinary Discovery Tours. You not only enjoy a fantastic experience, but you also learn to recreate that experience when you return home. Okay, so maybe nibbling on tapas at home won’t be quite the same as cruising to Barcelona onboard Riviera, but trust me, a ham croquette and a glass of Cava will still be delicious!
Be sure to check the blog again tomorrow for Chef Kelly's stories of the first official Culinary Discovery Tours launched onboard Riviera.