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12 posts from June 2012

June 26, 2012

TOWN HALLS AND TOASTS ON THE OCEANIA CLUB REUNION CRUISE

Posted by Oceania Club Manager Nick DeSantis

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The fun continues onboard the 8th Oceania Club Reunion Cruise. Riviera spent the past two days in Monte Carlo, so guests had plenty of time to explore the city at length. However, in my case, I was hosting so many events and parties that I hardly had time to get off the ship! Of course, this was perfectly fine with me because Riviera is an absolute beauty, and I’m having such a wonderful time with all of our guests onboard.

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Our guests especially enjoyed the town hall with Oceania Cruises President Kunal S. Kamlani yesterday afternoon. We all gathered in Horizons, and Kunal answered questions and listened to ideas that guests had to share. We got some great insight from our most loyal guests on how to continue enhancing the Oceania Cruises experience. As Kunal said, “There is no substitute for direct and in-person dialogue where we can exchange ideas.”

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Kunal S. Kamlani & Mr. and Mrs. Henry Doble

Last night we took advantage of the beautiful views of Monte Carlo from the ship and hosted a cocktail party on the Spa Terrace behind Canyon Ranch SpaClub. Glasses were raised several times because we have so many things to toast – our loyal guests, the new Riviera, and all the great friends we’ve made on the Reunion Cruise. A wonderful time was had by all.

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Oceania Club Ambassador Cary Arias & Mrs. Youkers
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Mr. and Mrs. Maleche & Oceania Club Manager Nick DeSantis
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Mrs. Moseley & Executive Concierge Randall Abrahams

Afterward we enjoyed a five-course tasting menu created by Fleet Corporate Chef Franck Garanger. While it’s difficult to choose a favorite dish, the Kobe beef in a Valrhona chocolate glaze was outstanding!

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Tomorrow is the last day of the cruise, and it will be difficult to say goodbye to all of the lovely people with whom I’ve spent the last ten days – guests and staff alike. But I don’t have to think about that quite yet. Italy awaits!

June 24, 2012

CHEF DAVID SHALLECK AND KUNAL KAMLANI ENJOY A CULINARY DISCOVERY TOUR

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Chef David Shalleck has just joined the Bon Appétit Culinary Center onboard Riviera. He is the author of Mediterranean Summer, has produced television shows for Jacques Pépin and has appeared on Iron Chef with Riviera’s godmother, Cat Cora.

Today was truly something special for both David and myself. It was our first Culinary Discovery Tour: The Flavors of Provence. Chef David navigated the culinary delights of Provence while I had the chance to observe how much our guests enjoyed this epicurean adventure.

 

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Mrs. Deborah Murphy, Chef David Shallack, Kunal S. Kamlani, Mrs. Debra Clay, Mr. Paul Murphy


IMG-20120623-00375We started at the fish market in the old port of Marseille where the fishmongers were displaying their catch. There was everything from swordfish to shark to moray eels and, of course, the all important rascasse, or scorpion fish, which must always be considered when even thinking about making bouillabaisse!

Afterwards we headed to Chateau de Fontblanche in Cassis about fifteen miles from Marseille, where we were treated to a five-course tasting and wine pairing menu prepared by Provençal Chef Gui Gedda. We enjoyed this casual and delicious meal in the shade of a giant oak tree on the edge of the vineyard with a glorious panorama of the foothills behind us.

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We started with a classic barbajuan paired with a light, dry, crisp rosé wine. The barbajuan was a delightful vegetable beignet filled with roasted and chopped zucchini, onion, tomato and a hint of herbes de Provence.

IMG-20120623-00395Next we enjoyed a purée of eggplant and garlic (lots of garlic!) with a touch of anchovy, scooped out of interesting little ceramic bowls using garden vegetable crudités. This dish was matched with a delightful white wine made from Marsanne grapes.

Then came a version of pissaladière, the pizza-like snack from Southern France made with caramelized onions, anchovies, and olives. It was spectacular. Instead of anchovies, Chef Gui's version was topped with a bite-size mignon of red mullet. The tart was paired with a Cassis white wine, unique in that the grapes had not been pressed as they would be in the traditional winemaking process. The natural weight of the grapes extracts the juices.

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Chef David, Chef Gui and Kunal Kamlani

Before desert we dined on incredibly tender beef daube – braised beef – accompanied by noodles generously topped with grated Gruyère cheese. Chef Gui's secret for his daube is that it is made with beef cheeks marinated in red wine and bay leaves for 24 hours. It is then seared and cooked at a very low simmer in wine, thyme, rosemary and other herbs for four hours. This was paired with a very well-balanced red wine that was 60 percent Grenache and 40 percent Mourvèdre.

 

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We finished with an apricot tarte tatin served with fresh cream and lavender honey. This was paired with a cuvée made from Ugni Blanc, Marsanne, Sauvignon and Clairette grapes.

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Paul and Deborah Murphy

While Chef David and I will always remember this Culinary Discovery Tour, it was the people we were with that truly made it special. Paul and Deborah Murphy are on their second Oceania Cruise, joining us from Wichita, Kansas. The Murphys shared with us that they are very excited about their Baltic sailing onboard Marina next year. Louis and Christine Lizzadro from Houston are sailing with us for the first time. For a grand finale shared by all, we finished the meal by toasting our good friends Craig and Joanne Houliston, who have sailed with us 18 times. Today was their 30th anniversary, and we were honored that they were celebrating it with their Oceania Cruises family, dining in a vineyard in Provence.

After a very comfortable ride back to the ship, there was a nice break before the introduction to Provençal cooking later that afternoon at the Bon Appétit Culinary Center. With big smiles on their faces upon entering the kitchen, everyone participated in demonstrations and hands-on cooking to put together a simple and very approachable meal of the region: garden vegetables and mesclun salad greens with a Dijon vinaigrette, shrimp Provençal with chickpea-flour-based panisse – very typical of the region – and a classic cherry and plum clafoutis, a popular and easy dessert to make when stone fruit are in season. As an extra treat, Chef David purchased some glistening fresh shark steaks at the market and prepared them in the classic bouillabaisse method for everyone to taste. 

We certainly will cherish these memories forever.

June 22, 2012

POST FROM THE PRESIDENT: Riviera Returns to Barcelona

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This morning Riviera arrived in Barcelona. It was a nostalgic moment for many of us as it was just over a month ago that we christened Riviera in this beautiful city. As we sailed into the port, I confess I got a bit emotional thinking back on all the memories from the christening ceremony.

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While we didn’t have much time to explore on our last visit to Barcelona, this time Daniela and I joined a Reunion Cruise shore excursion to visit some of the architectural masterpieces of Antoni Gaudí. First we visited Park Güell, a garden complex filled with Gaudí’s striking designs. Then we saw Gaudí’s most famous creation, the Sagrada Familia. Gaudí died in 1926 before it could be completed, and work continues on the church to this day.

Besides learning about the history of Catalonia, we also made some new friends. Peter and Elle Hecht from New Jersey are on their second Oceania Cruises sailing. They are having a great time and have already booked their third sailing, a Baltic cruise onboard Marina.

After the excursion we stopped for lunch at Marina Moncho’s, which sits right along the sea. The food was spectacular.

 

The pictures say it all. We had gazpacho, baby octopus and paella de mariscos.

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Tomorrow we call on Marseille, and Daniela and I are looking forward to experiencing our first Culinary Discovery Tour: The Exquisite Flavors of Provence. There will be more stories from the Reunion Cruise coming soon.

June 21, 2012

OCEANIA CLUB MANAGER NICK DESANTIS SHARES STORIES OF THE REUNION CRUISE

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Captain Luca Manzi and Oceania Club Manager Nick DeSantis

Greetings from the Oceania Club Reunion Cruise!

My team has spent the last several months planning special events for this cruise to show our appreciation for our loyal past guests. Over the past few days we have hosted dinners, sail-away parties, a Captain’s reception, shore excursions, cocktail parties – and this is just day five of the cruise! It has been such a pleasure to see past guests with whom I’ve sailed before. So many of them have become dear friends. It’s been equally nice to meet some of our Oceania Club members for the first time and to have the opportunity to thank them for their loyalty.

In short, everyone is having a wonderful time!

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From left: Mr. and Mrs. Doble, Kunal Kamlani, Sheila Brohman, Ken Reycraft, Mr. and Mrs. Grimwood, Daniela Kamlani, Mr. and Mrs. Addleson

On Monday evening, Oceania Cruises President Kunal S. Kamlani and his wife, Daniela, hosted a dinner in Privée for our most loyal Oceania Club members on this sailing. This elegant and intimate setting accommodates just ten guests for private dinners, so Kunal and Daniela invited some of our most frequent guests to join them for a truly memorable evening. These guests have sailed with us as many as 15 or 20 times! Sheila Brohman and Ken Reycraft become Platinum Oceania Club members on this voyage because it is their 20th cruise, which is free as part of the Oceania Club program.

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The next evening Kunal, Daniela, Captain Luca Manzi and General Manager Thierry Tholon greeted guests as they arrived for the Captain’s Welcome Reception, always a favorite event of our Oceania Club members.

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Kunal, Captain Manzi and the Senior Officers expressed their deep appreciation for all of our loyal guests, and Captain Manzi offered a toast in their honor. Following the reception, many of our guests enjoyed dinner in Toscana, and it was my great pleasure to join them!

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Nick DeSantis with Mr. and Mrs. Addleson

Toscana is one of my favorite restaurants, and here is one reason why: Sautéed Jumbo Shrimp wrapped in Prosciutto di Parma Ham with Candied Cherry Tomato. Delicious!

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Kunal and Daniela also enjoyed dining with several Oceania Club members in Toscana that evening.

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Captain Luca Manzi hosted guests in Toscana as well. They enjoyed their evening so much that they asked Toscana Chef Raffaele Saia and Senior Executive Chef Christophe Belin to sign their menus.

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What a wonderful cruise it has been so far, and this is only the beginning. I’ll be sure to share more stories and photos here on the blog very soon!

June 19, 2012

OCEANIA CLUB REUNION CRUISE VISITS CASABLANCA

 

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Today Riviera arrived in Casablanca, a unique complement to the European ports of call on this Oceania Club Reunion Cruise. Oceania Cruises President Kunal S. Kamlani, Oceania Club Manager Nick DeSantis (pictured left) and many other guests enjoyed excursions to the enormous Hassan II Mosque, one of Casablanca’s most splendid landmarks.

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Standing on a promontory overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the imposing mosque is the largest in Morocco and by some measurements the third largest in the world. It can accommodate up to 105,000 worshippers, including 25,000 at prayer inside and an additional 80,000 outside on the grounds. The minaret is the tallest in the world, soaring to a height of over 210 meters. At night a beam from the minaret shines toward Mecca.

The interior is as impressive as the façade. All of the building materials are from local sources, with the exception of the chandeliers, which are made with Murano glass from Venice. The ceiling of the mosque is made from cedar, all of it elaborately carved by hand.

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After the mosque, Riviera guests stopped at the olive market in the Habous Quarter. The variety of olives was astounding with every color, shape and size imaginable. The vendors were very friendly, and guests were able to sample many different kinds of olives. What a treat!

IMG-20120619-00330 IMG-20120619-00332Interestingly, this unique Reunion Cruise itinerary transits the Strait of Gibraltar not once, but twice. Last night Riviera sailed from Gibraltar to Casablanca, and tomorrow she sails for Motril, Spain, where guests will have the opportunity to travel to Grenada and visit the amazing Alhambra. Keep following the blog to read about more adventures on the Oceania Club Reunion Cruise!

June 18, 2012

REUNION CRUISE VISITS GIBRALTAR

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The Oceania Club Reunion Cruise sailed from Lisbon yesterday, and today Riviera called on the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, which is actually a peninsula of mainland Spain. Approximately three miles wide, this small strip of land is dominated by the Rock of Gibraltar, which reaches a height of 1,400 feet. A group from the Reunion Cruise took a shore excursion to go explore the Rock. While you might expect this to be a fairly "tame" tour, think again. Most people had heard of the Barbary Apes that live on the Rock, but no one expected them to jump right onto the bus!

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Bud and Stephana Dean from Bossier City, Louisiana, are on their first voyage with Oceania Cruises, and it has been an exciting one so far. They both were surprisingly calm when one of the apes decided to hop onto Bud’s shoulders for a photo op.

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They were not the only brave souls that got up close and personal with the apes.

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This excursion was certainly a memorable one!

June 16, 2012

REUNION CRUISE GUESTS ARRIVE IN LISBON

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Anticipation is growing by the hour as guests arrive in Lisbon for the 8th Oceania Club Reunion Cruise aboard Riviera. Many guests flew in today, one day prior to sailing, so they could enjoy some extra time exploring Lisbon before boarding the ship. As they checked in to the hotel, they were warmly greeted by the Oceania Cruises Hospitality Desk.

Guests have already been sharing so many terrific stories of their adventures in Lisbon. While we can't share them all, there is one in particular that we wanted to pass along. You guessed it – a food story.

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One of our guests came across a pastry shop named Pastéis de Belém and was raving about the delicious tarts. Evidently these delights have quite a storied past. The Pastel de Belém is a crispy puff pastry loaded with a warm custard filling and dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar on top. Legend has it that a group of monks sold the secret recipe in 1837 to the family that now owns this famous pastry shop. As of today, only three people know the recipe, and we are told that they don't travel together. Next time you’re in Lisbon for an Oceania Cruise, you might want to check this spot out!

June 14, 2012

PRESIDENT TO JOIN REUNION CRUISE ONBOARD RIVIERA

In just three days, we will host the 8th Oceania Club Reunion Cruise onboard our newest ship, Riviera.  As some of you may know, we offer Reunion Cruises once or twice a year as a way to express our appreciation to our loyal guests. Whether you’ve sailed with us two times or 20 times, we are always thrilled to welcome back past guests to Oceania Cruises. And on this Reunion Cruise, I’m excited to be doing so personally.

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My wife, Daniela, and I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible when we sail from Lisbon on June 17. For some of you who will be sailing on the Reunion Cruise, this will be your first time experiencing the beautiful new Riviera, and I think you will be as impressed as we were when we first stepped onboard for her inaugural cruise in May.

Those of you who have been on previous Reunion Cruises may have met Nick DeSantis, manager of the Oceania Club. He has put together several special shore excursions for this cruise, including an intriguing one in Barcelona known as Gaudí’s Hidden Treasures. Guests will travel to Colònia Güell, a village constructed by textile magnate Eusebio Güell, who was one of Antoni Gaudí’s primary patrons. The unfinished church here, known as “The Crypt,” is one of Gaudí’s greatest masterpieces.

Photo-36Of course, there will be many special events onboard as well. I am especially looking forward to the caviar brunch in the Grand Dining Room, which promises to be a feast for the eyes as well as the appetite. During the evening, we’re planning an exclusive cocktail party for our Oceania Club members, hosted by the senior officers and myself, and we’ll host several dinners for those guests who have traveled with us most frequently. We’ll have Gold and Platinum Oceania Club members onboard who have sailed with us as many as 15 or 20 times.

One afternoon we will feature a “town hall” where I look forward to your feedback on how we can continue to enhance the Oceania Cruises experience. While we read every guest comment card, there is simply no substitute for an interactive dialogue.

For many, the Reunion Cruise has become an annual event where they reunite with friends they have made on previous cruises. And guests are always telling me how much they look forward to seeing crew members again. It seems that so many people who sail on Oceania Cruises ships make friends who become like family. You might say this cruise is our version of a “family reunion.” That said, it’s certainly on a much grander scale than my family reunions have ever been!

I have a lot of work (and packing!) to do before departure, so for now I’d better get back to it. If you’ll be joining us on the Reunion Cruise, please feel free to introduce yourself in the comments here on the blog. And check back next week as I’ll be posting photos and stories from the ship.

Happy Cruising!

June 12, 2012

CHEF KELLY'S CULINARY DISCOVERY TOUR IN CRETE

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Not an article is written about the healthy Mediterranean diet without reference to the diet of the people on the island of Crete. When we developed the Culinary Discovery Tour for Aghios Nikolaos on Crete, we wanted guests to experience the true magic of the foods of Crete. The only way to do that is to get up into the mountains, so we travel to Zaros, high atop Heraklion, about 45 minutes from the port.

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L1040057On our recent tour, the guide pointed out wild thyme and salvia (sage) growing in massive bunches along the road. We then arrived at a restored Cretan village perched on top of a mountain.

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This beautiful village depicted the lives of people who lived in simple but functional homes decorated with beautiful woven goods. Weaving was not only a functional part of life in this village, but it had religious overtones as well. After a stroll through the village we arrived at a lovely, large room where we spent the next few hours cooking and learning about Cretan cuisine.

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The menu for this day was dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves), gemista (stuffed vegetables) and fyllo (stuffed cheese pies). We also prepared rusk with tomato and feta cheese, the food of shepherds.
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L1040088We started class by gathering around a large table and meeting our hosts, two Cretan women who shared their families’ cooking secrets!
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L1040064Our first task was to hollow out tomatoes and zucchini so we could stuff them with onions, zucchini, tomatoes and fresh oregano. We quickly learned that the secret to the Cretan diet is olive oil and more olive oil. In fact, one third of the calories in the traditional Cretan diet come from olive oil. (Another factor that may contribute to their general good health is that the average Cretan walks 13 kilometers a day!)

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Next the ladies brought out rock-hard bread called rusk, a twice-baked barley bread carried by shepherds into the hills where they tend their flocks for months at a time. We soaked the bread in water for a few seconds to soften it up and then topped the rusk with shredded tomatoes, feta cheese, oregano – and of course, MORE OLIVE OIL. Everyone had a job to do. Below you see one of our guests (a veterinarian from Alaska, no less!) shredding the luscious local tomatoes for the rusk, and Iria from Destination Services sprinkling on the oregano.

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L1040072Next we moved on to the dolmadakia… And what fun that was! We used fresh grape leaves (not the kind in bottles and jars) to wrap our vegetable and rice stuffing. We learned how to hold the grape leaves properly (smooth side down) and not to use too much stuffing. I think we did very well for our first try. Doused in olive oil, of course, they went into the oven to bake for our lunch.

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Last but not least were the cheese pies, which looked like cinnamon buns, made with fyllo. (That’s how they spell it!) The dough is made with flour and water and a bit of raki, a local liquor that gives the dough the ingredient it needs to be soft and supple. We learned how to roll out the fyllo and had fun making the swirls when it was filled with the local tart sheep cheese, myzithra.

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L1040103After all that work, our reward was to enjoy what we made together as a class. We sat at a beautiful table in the courtyard and enjoyed each other’s company as well as the fruits of our labor. We were treated to some local wine and the enchanting hospitality of our hosts.

L1040099After the bus ride home, we returned to the village to shop for local oregano, olive oil and Cretan cookbooks. Then we headed back to the Bon Appétit Culinary Center for our “Healthy Mediterranean” cooking class, where we learned several new healthy and savory recipes. We made a white bean hummus with roasted garlic and L1040105chickpea crackers, shallow-poach fish with a lemon butter sauce, and a quinoa-semolina-spinach cake.

It is easy to see why the Cretans are so healthy. They live on an idyllic, sunny island with loads of fresh fruits and vegetables and LOTS of olive trees. But as important, they seem to enjoy each other and are always interacting. Our guide was very informed about the vegetation of Crete, and we all enjoyed hearing his stories of growing up on Crete  – what has stayed the same and what has changed.

 

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As always, we were thankful to the team of sous chefs in the culinary center who accompanied us on the tour. They enjoyed seeing the vegetation in the village and pointed out that much of it reminded them of their villages at home in India.

L1040333The world really is a small place, and food is a wonderful way to bring us closer together!

June 8, 2012

CHEF KELLY'S CULINARY DISCOVERY TOUR IN SICILY

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Our adventures on the new Culinary Discovery Tours continued during Riviera’s recent call on Sicily. Guest Chef Francesco Milana and I took 24 students to the bustling market in Catania last week. As the bus left the port that morning, we were lucky enough to catch a view of the steaming Mt. Etna, which is often eclipsed by clouds.

L1040359BWhile the market in Catania is referred to as the Pescatore, or fish market, there is a lot more than just fish to be found here. Our students broke into teams with an envelope of 10 euro and an assignment of produce or product to purchase. Our sous chefs, Daniel and Shamal, had brought both our market carts, knowing that they would be completely full after our hour in the marketplace. 

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Chef Milana, who was born and raised in Sicily, headed out with his group to the fish section. The sea urchin was fresh, and the merchant standing there opened them one by one for us.

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We were all amazed by the presentation of a scaleless eel that was curled in a circle. We found out that the way to cook this eel was to sauté it over high heat in olive oil (Sicilian, of course).

L1040371It’s mussel season, so there were boxes of fresh mussels for us to enjoy, presented beautifully with sliced lemons. Snails were going for 4 euro per kilo, but I couldn’t find any of our guests who wanted to try them back at the culinary center. Haha! According to Chef Milana, they are quite a popular snack in Sicily!

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Swordfish season was also upon us, and I was so impressed with the fresh steaks that were being sliced for the locals. Guess who would like to come for dinner?

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Chef Milana explained how the fishing industry has changed so drastically in his lifetime alone.  As a boy, the fishermen would leave in the morning with their nets and catch hundreds of tuna as they made their way into the Mediterranean Sea. Now there are quotas, and the number of fishermen and boats has been considerably reduced. But they still use the tambourines to tap-tap-tap the fish into the nets. 

I had my eye on some pecorino cheese, so my team and I headed off to purchase a wedge for the arancini recipe we were going to make later that day in the culinary center. We found some great cheese made from sheep’s milk and laced with pepperoncini peppers, which are ubiquitous in Sicilian food. We were also making a caper sauce, so one of the students found this fabulous container of plump capers in a coarse grind salt.

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We were also going to prepare one of Chef Milana’s signature recipes, Pasta con Pesto di Pistacchi e Gamberi (pasta with shrimp and a pesto of pistachio), so we were on the hunt for a fresh pistachio that is harvested once every two years in Sicily. And we found it! The pistachio di Bronte is a prized nut and costs, as you can see if you look closely, 70 euro per kilo. That’s $35 per pound! After tasting the final product in class, we decided it was worth the expense. The pesto also called for fresh basil, and we found a young, beautiful green selection at the herb vendors.

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L1040436It’s still late spring in Sicily, so there were wonderful beans, like the broad bean in the striated red casing here. We opened and cooked these beans, and they were delicious with a little Sicilian olive oil, fresh olives and sundried tomatoes. Chef Milana shared that Sicilian dishes typically have no more than five or six ingredients and are quite seasonal. So we thought we’d try our hand at making up a recipe for the beans – we didn’t do too badly!

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The produce was beautiful. Fennel, tomatoes, onions, wild strawberries, long pale zucchini, cherries and lemons were a treat for the senses. The merchants could see our four chefs in whites wandering through the market, and they all wanted us to taste something from their stall.

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I finally caved when we came to the stall with fresh melons. The melon flesh was bright yellow, and the watermelon was pink – signifying the beginning of the season. Daniel and I had to sample both melons. Luckily, we didn’t get juice on our clean chef whites!

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L1040390I came upon the smell of sweet garlic and saw this young man cleaning garlic that had obviously just been plucked from the ground earlier today. The dirt was still on the roots, and the flesh was so soft it could have been an apple. We took the garlic back to the ship and used it in our pasta pesto. 

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I try to purchase something from most of the vendors when we visit these local markets, as a sign of respect and also in appreciation of their allowing us to photograph their produce, fish, meats and products. Today I made a new friend; he had a stall with fresh string beans. I hope to see him again when we return with another group.

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After finishing our shopping, we all met back at the elephant statue outside the market to walk to our next spot – where we would make cannoli! The shop was called I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza, which translates to Grandma Vincenza’s Sweets, and the tagline was “Amore per la Tradizione,” or love of tradition. When we entered the quaint shop, we were greeted with a little tray of confections and warm, friendly smiles from the family, whose matriarch started the business 50 years ago. Her photo is on the brochure, and they tell us she stops by sometimes to check on her children and grandchildren, who manage the shop today.

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Being Sicilian, Chef Milana takes charge and works with the pastry master to show us all how to make the cannoli shells and then stuff them. Not too much time had passed before our students had mastered the skills of filling the cannoli – and enjoying them! What fun we all had with the different fillings: pastry cream, ricotta and chocolate as well as pistachios and chocolate shavings to touch up the open ends of the cannoli. Our guide, Caterina, was delightful. Here she is inspecting the baked cannoli shells.

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After enjoying a tasting of the cannoli and some local liqueurs, we were back on the bus and off to our winery visit. Benanti is one of the premier Mt. Etna wineries, and we were excited to see the winery and taste the wine. We arrived in the lovely village of Monte Serra and walked to the facility through a beautiful tree-lined canopy. I was struck by the many things in bloom. The prickly pear, which is abundant in Sicily, was flowering, and the petunias in a wine barrel were already hanging down and abundant.

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I was also fascinated by the tiny vintage Fiat in the driveway. Thinking it was meant to be on display, I was promptly told it belonged to one of the winemaker’s sons, who had driven it to work today!

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As we entered we were greeted by our knowledgeable winemaker, a sommelier who impressed us all with her knowledge of wines and her passion for the grapes of Benanti and the unique soil and growing conditions on Mt Etna. We sat down in a beautiful stone-walled room to enjoy a tasting of two wines paired with cheeses and salamis, olives and sundried tomatoes, and of course, freshly baked bread. The wines we sampled were Pietramarina, made from the indigenous Carricante grape that is grown only on Mt. Etna, and Serra della Contessa, a Negrello grape variety harvested with intense minerality and best paired with the kinds of mature cheese and meaty salami we were served. 

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After our snack we were treated to a walk through the vineyard on this beautiful, sunny day. We also had the chance to visit the old winemaking house, where many decades ago the grapes were pressed by women in their bare feet. Apparently there are still occasions at the winery where the old traditions can be observed, but we were assured these methods were not used to produce the bottles we were served! I was reminded of the I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ethyl stomped the grapes. I’m sure many of us have enjoyed a hearty laugh watching those reruns – although I have to admit, I do remember the originals as well!

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With our bellies full and our spirits high, we returned to the culinary center for our Sensuous Sicily class. We arranged all of our purchases on the main countertop, so we could discuss them and have Chef Milana share his knowledge of Sicily and the cuisine of this beautiful island. We had purchased some zucchini flowers, so we made chickpea fritters with them in the traditional Sicilian way. I think they will be the last of the zucchini blossoms we will see this spring, and we were delighted to find them so fresh and well kept. We used the pecorino cheese we had purchased to prepare arancini, the delicious fried rice ball snack from Sicily.

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L1040451We also enjoyed Chef Milana’s pasta with shrimp and pesto, as well as calamari from the market that Shamal stuffed and sautéed for us.

We always have such a wonderful time in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center. After spending the day together, we all become good chef-buddies and enjoy exchanging our favorite foodie adventures and must-see recommendations. And everyone was quite proud of the delicious Sicilian food they made.

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In this class we also enjoyed an additional treat. Chef Milana is known as “The Singing Chef” so he treated us all to a song at the end of class (and a few times during class), which was enchanting.

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What fun it is to have a guest chef who can share his passion and knowledge about his boyhood home with our students and guests.

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Our deepest thanks to Chef Milana, and we look forward to seeing you again soon on Riviera!

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June 6, 2012

CHEF KELLY TELLS OF THE FIRST CULINARY DISCOVERY TOUR IN SANTORINI

  L1040136What 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.

L1010448We 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.

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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.

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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.

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L1040142Selene 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.

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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.

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L1040147After 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.

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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!
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L1040317After 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.

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L1040138Selene 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.

L1040329The 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.

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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!

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It was good food and wine shared with new friends. To top it off, the weather was as perfect as the entire day.

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L1010494In 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.IMG_2436
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. L1040177Sans 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!

June 5, 2012

A SNEAK PEEK AT THE NEW CULINARY DISCOVERY TOURS

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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.   

IMG_6462As 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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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IMG_6534While 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.

IMG_6579Chef 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.

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IMG_6530Chef 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!

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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.

IMG_6605Chef 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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 thiIMG_6617s 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.”

IMG_6628Surprisingly, 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.

IMG_6635One 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!

 

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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.