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6 posts from July 2012

July 26, 2012

FRANCE VERSUS ITALY: Cooking and Comedy with the Chefs of Oceania Cruises

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The culinary team with Frank Del Rio, founder and chairman of Oceania Cruises.

Any fan of Oceania Cruises knows that our chefs are serious about cuisine. But did you know they can be funny about it too? Culinary demonstrations are offered onboard all of Oceania Cruises’ ships, and as Blogger-at-Large, I had the chance to attend one recently. It would be difficult to say which I enjoyed more – the cooking or the comedy.

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France v. Italy: Chef Garanger on the left and Chef Gjoka on the right.

Fleet Corporate Chef Franck Garanger is one of the “head honchos” of Oceania Cruises’ culinary team and has created many of the recipes served onboard. And he’s French. Executive Chef Alban Gjoka, one of the culinary experts onboard Riviera, is Italian. The two of them decided it might be fun to engage in their ongoing friendly rivalry during a culinary demonstration that they called “France versus Italy.”

Chef Garanger became known for his mashed potatoes at age 17 when he was charged with making lunch for Sébastien Bonsignore, the last working disciple of the legendary chef Escoffier. Bonsignore described Garanger’s mashed potatoes as the best he’d ever eaten. Not surprisingly, Chef Gjoka’s specialty is fresh pasta dishes.


But first thing’s first. They begin by pouring the champagne.

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Once properly hydrated, Gjoka starts the demonstration by recommending Tipo 00 flour for the pasta. The flour is Italian, but Gjoka tells us we can buy it in the U.S. because the Italians actually produce and export things – unlike the French. The game is on.

Gjoka uses precisely measured flour and semolina but quickly adds that, “In Italy the recipes are good, but it’s just a guideline. Everybody cooks with the heart.”

“You cook with the heart?” Garanger asks.


“I try to cook with my brain.”

Undaunted, Gjoka continues, adding eggs to the flour. But he checks the eggs before cracking them, informing us that when he and Garanger cook together, Garanger sometimes replaces them with hard-boiled eggs.

“Sabotage,” Garanger whispers, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He then artfully changes the subject by announcing, “So, potatoes!”

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Culinary Demonstration20Garanger started cooking the potatoes before the demonstration, and they are ready for the next step. “Very important…how do I strain my potatoes? I can use this one, the one from Italy?” he asks, requesting to borrow Gjoka’s ricer.

“No problem. We are good neighbors,” Gjoka says, but we all know he has another comment up his sleeve. “We are so good that we even gave you the wife of the former president.”

“You can have her back now. We don’t need her anymore,” Garanger responds, referring to Sarkozy’s election defeat.

“No, no you always need Italian women. It was another one that taught the French, Catherine
de Medici,” Gjoka fires back.

“Yes, because the Italians, they believe that Catherine de Medici, when she came to France, we were eating with the Huns, and she taught us how to use a fork and knife.” Garanger clearly disagrees with this Italian perspective, so he tosses out another zinger. “What can I say? The Italian girls fall in love with the French. Instead of cooking with your heart, you should use your heart for something else.”

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Amazingly, these gifted chefs are capable of cracking jokes and working their magic at the same time. Because pasta dough needs to rest, Gjoka has prepared some in advance, which he now feeds through a pasta machine. He confides that his grandmother considers this cheating, but he finds the machine useful. You must pass the pasta through at least 10 times, folding and turning it each time and working from level 10 down to level 2. I have the utmost respect for Gjoka’s grandmother, because I certainly wouldn’t want to do this process by hand!


Culinary Demonstration15Garanger has strained the potatoes and is letting them sit so the steam can evaporate. Meanwhile, he turns to his entrée, a zucchini-wrapped chicken breast. For the stuffing, he sweats some onions and then adds garlic, diced tomatoes and green olives.

While the stuffing simmers, Garanger begins to work the potatoes, putting them on the stove so the heat can release any remaining steam. When the potatoes are dry, he gradually adds some cream and milk and a touch of nutmeg while he continues to stir.



Culinary Demonstration13Meanwhile, Gjoka is now cutting cappellini and preparing to make pappardelle and fettuccine. As he works, Gjoka eyes Garanger, who has moved on to his chicken and is pounding it flat. “The chicken is French, and look how he’s beating it,” Gjoka says. “Imagine if the chicken was Italian what he would do.”

Rather than retort, Garanger lowers his voice. As if there were a chance Gjoka might not hear, he very quietly shares that he is layering the chicken with sliced zucchini and (blasphemy!) Parmesan cheese.


Culinary Demonstration23He quickly justifies his usage of Italian cheese by saying that it’s fine to cook with. But in France, the cheese is so good it is served as its own course.

Gjoka just smiles and moves on to his ravioli and tortelloni.

Garanger puts the chicken in the oven to roast. He is now ready for the final touches on the potatoes, but he looks concerned. He asks Gjoka if they have enough butter.

“I make sure we have enough,” Gjoka assures him. “One kilo of potato, five kilo of butter.”

The audience laughs, but Garanger seems to consider this a reasonable amount. “That’s good,” he says, taking another sip of champagne.

As far as Garanger is concerned, this is the moment of truth. “Now that I have the potatoes almost the consistency I want, I have to start to put in a little butter. You start to add the butter little by little and whisk it in. It requires a lot of work with your arms, the mashed potatoes.”

At this point, he adds so much butter that the audience literally gasps.

Garanger looks at all of us as if to say, “What? You expect me to make mashed potatoes without butter?”

It is now obvious to him that none of us know a thing about mashed potatoes. “Listen!” he exclaims. “Very important. Minimum, minimum, minimum, minimum is three part of potatoes, one part of butter. Me, I put two for one.”

To which Gjoka responds, “And afterwards you go straight for a heart check-up.”

Garanger dismisses Gjoka. “No, because you do not need to eat a lot.”

Aaaaahh, there’s the rub. He plans to present us with all this buttery goodness and then insist on portion control. Clearly, Garanger is not aware that we’re all on vacation.

Culinary Demonstration27Gjoka somehow manages to distract us from the butter extravaganza and turn our attention back to the pasta. His selling point is that, unlike the French, the Italians cook very fast. Garanger started cooking at 11am and two hours later hasn’t even finished the potatoes. “Imagine if you had 50 people at home,” says Gjoka. “You need to start a week in advance.”

“It all depends who you invite,” Garanger argues.

“Yes,” Gjoka agrees. “If it is my mother I have at home, I make the risotto in 5 to 10 minutes. But if it is my mother-in-law, I need 45 minutes to 1 hour. You know why? Because I don’t need to talk to her.”

The audience roars at this joke, but Garanger looks indignant. "This is supposed to be my joke. He stole my joke.”

Gjoka tries to distract him, “I think you need some more butter.”

“Okay, one more little piece,” Garanger is easily drawn back to his masterpiece.

The potatoes are now ready to be tasted. Garanger scoops up a spoonful and turns to Gjoka, “Find me an Italian chef that makes mashed potatoes like this.”

“Actually, I can’t, because you know why? Because they are not mashed potatoes. This is butter mousseline with potato,” Gjoka shoots back.

But ultimately Gjoka has to concede, “It’s true. It’s very, very good.”

Culinary Demonstration31 copyFinally, it is our turn to try the potatoes, and we quickly realize Gjoka was right. These are not mashed potatoes, at least not the chunky, bland mashed potatoes that certain family members, who shall remain unnamed, served me in my youth. If ever there were a vegetable meant for butter, it is clearly the potato, because this is how potatoes were born to be served. Each bite melts in my mouth and fills it with warm, rich potato deliciousness. The amazing thing is that it doesn’t even taste like butter; it just tastes like the best darn potato you’ve ever had in your life.

But remember, we “do not need to eat a lot.”

Gjoka realizes he is losing us as we all swoon under the influence of Garanger’s potato glory. He tries to break the spell with a word of warning, “All these people who tried the mashed potatoes should go to the gym at least 15 minutes today.”

But his efforts are futile because he knows we would all happily climb on a stairmaster. These potatoes are worth every calorie we have to work off.

Culinary Demonstration25Garanger has no time for compliments because he is making the Kalamata olive sauce for the chicken, which we’ve all momentarily forgotten about. He announces he’ll be ready in 10 minutes, and Gjoka rallies, saying he can make 10 more dishes in that amount of time. He starts a fresh tomato pasta.

Garanger raises his eyebrows as Gjoka adds garlic. “That much garlic for one portion? Whew!”

“Yes, it’s healthy.”

“It smells bad, but it’s healthy… Don’t put garlic in my mashed potatoes,” Garanger warns anyone within ear shot.

“Don’t worry. I will not put healthy stuff in your mashed potatoes,” Gjoka promises.

The chicken is ready, and Garanger presents it with the sauce and a side of mashed potatoes, “Eh, voila!”

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Gjoka is proudly making his third dish – fettuccine with scampi. “And this is called productivity,” he says.

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Gjoka brings his point home by counting his dishes: “One, two, three.” He counts Garanger’s: “One.”

Garanger smiles. “But, is it better to do one perfect or three average?”

Garanger gets the last word, but as we all gather around to try the dishes, Gjoka’s pastas are getting just as many oohs and ahs as Garanger’s potatoes. And I have to admit, there is an advantage to delicious dishes that one could prepare in a few minutes on any given evening, versus Garanger’s more labor-intensive recipes.

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So who won, France or Italy? Call me spineless, but I’m calling it a draw.


July 20, 2012


As the unrelenting heat continues across the United States, it seems like the perfect time to get away with Oceania Cruises in search of a summer adventure and relief from triple-digit temperatures. 

As Blogger-at-Large, I pay close attention to Oceania Cruises' Facebook and Twitter posts on #WhereintheWorld are our ships today?. I couldn't help but get a little nostalgic when I saw that Marina made a recent stop in St. Petersburg, Russia, one of my favorite cities. 

After founding St. Petersburg in 1703, Peter the Great helped build this city of grandeur. It served as Russia's imperial capital almost continuously from 1713 until 1918. Nearly five million people call St.

Kevin 2 004Petersburg home today, and the city is a mere six degrees latitude from the Arctic Circle, making it the largest city in the world in such a northerly location.

The day I visited, our Oceania Cruises shore excursion began at Saint Isaac's Cathedral, the largest Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the city. It's hard to believe that the design of this building was originally criticized by some as dry and boring. During World War II, the dome was painted gray to avoid the attention of enemy aircraft. Fortunately, it worked, and even more fortunately, today all traces of gray are gone!

Our next stop was the Peter and Paul Fortress, the final resting place of Russia's tsars. From Peter the Great to Tsar Nicholas II, emperors and empresses were entombed in this cathedral, elaborately decorated in gold and marble. You would never know by looking at it that this was once a prison for high-ranking political prisoners. Famous inmates include Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leon Trotsky.

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We also visited the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, which is dedicated to the memory of Tsar Alexander II and was built on the spot where he was assassinated. It contains over 7,500 meters of mosaics, second only to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louise in Missouri!

Next to the church is one of many waterways cutting through St. Petersburg, giving it a feel similar to Amsterdam and Venice. The city has 42 islands, which mark the northernmost point of the ancient north-south trading route called the Amber Road. Interestingly, the southern endpoint is Venice.


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Later we ventured into the countryside outside of St. Petersburg to see the tsars' summer home, Catherine Palace. Before entering the palace, we were lead through an exhibit featuring the different modes of transportation used to shuttle royalty back and forth to the city. 

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Exiting this exhibit, the compound opens up to reveal the magnificent palace and grounds that practically took my breath away. The bright blue of the palace is a striking contrast to the surrounding lush green forest and is the perfect backdrop for a spontaneous ballet in the courtyard.

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After being treated as visiting dignitaries at the palace, our excursion led us to a feast that was designed to give us all a taste of Russian folk culture. The food, dance and camaraderie made my visit to the Catherine Palace truly unforgettable.

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Oceania Cruises itineraries often include two days in St. Petersburg so that guests have a chance to explore this amazing city at length. Before heading onto our next port of call, I took advantage of the extra day and enjoyed a shore excursion to the Hermitage Museum.

One of the oldest museums in the world, it was established in 1764 by Catherine the Great. Only four of the six buildings are open to the public, the most famous being the Winter Palace. But with over three million artifacts in the collection, including the largest collection of paintings in the world, there was plenty to see. We had to find the perfect balance between moving fast enough to see as much as possible but still taking the time to soak in the amazing architecture, artifacts and artworks. Thank goodness our Oceania Cruises guide enabled us to bypass the line to get in!

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I am thrilled for Marina's guests who visited St. Petersburg this week. It is truly an extraordinary city, and I have no doubt that they enjoyed a once in a lifetime experience. Not to mention, it has been 68 degrees and sunny in St Petersburg all week. Perfect cruising weather!

July 12, 2012


L1050072Latvia is an enchanting country, and Riga is one of my favorite cities. After a few of my colleagues and I visited the expansive market in Riga last year, I knew that we had to share this with our guests as a Culinary Discovery Tour.

L1050065On our recent tour, we rode along the boulevard of Art Nouveau buildings that are so much a part of the personality of Riga. Each one has an intriguing character all its own. It was a sunny day, and people were already picking their spots in the many parks for a Saturday of lounging and picnicking. There had been a festival the previous weekend celebrating the pig (everything’s better with bacon… right?), so the parks were decorated with beautiful rustic statues of pigs made from wood. L1050070


After a quick bus tour of the city, we took a short walk to the cooking school. I had been emailing the school’s chef about potential recipes for our time together and was excited to see what local seasonal fare we would find today. I had a chuckle at the sign outside the restaurant that read, “99% Latvian Food.” (I later found out from the chef that his love of olive oil accounts for the other 1%.)


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We were warmly greeted by Master Chef Karlis and the owner of Viesistaba, Agate Luse. Their facility occupies the second floor of a trendy restaurant and boutique hotel and is a brightly lit, fully equipped teaching kitchen. Cooking schools like this are popping up all over the world, and this one is perfect for a group of 24, the size of our Bon Appétit Culinary Center class.

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After the cooking program and menu were explained, our guests were given several stations and knives to begin preparing the salad, a watermelon and fresh tomato mix with rhubarb vinaigrette and a local Latvian cow cheese, brinza, which has a tart finish similar to feta. Both in season, the tomatoes and watermelon were so flavorful. Chef Karlis pointed out that this is why his menu changes weekly and seasonally. The climate in Latvia is typically very cold in winter with long seasonal summers when bumper crops produce fruits and vegetables that are either consumed or pickled and dried. 

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With the salad, Chef Karlis served a Latvian meatball with a homemade harissa yogurt sauce. Chef explained that the peppers in Latvia are plentiful, and chefs have their own variety of harissa they use to add a warmth and spiciness to their yogurt sauce. Chef served the meatball with fresh beans and carrots he found at the market earlier that morning.

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With our lunch we tasted three beers. Chef explained that beer is very popular in Latvia because of a strong Germanic influence and that wines are an emerging trend.

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L1050101The table was beautifully set and we enjoyed the food, beer tasting and company. As Jacques Pépin says, it is not just about the food – a great meal is a memory of good company, good wine and good food. That was certainly the case on this day.

After lunch we hopped back on the bus with Chef Karlis as our guide and ventured into the sprawling market of Riga. The market is mostly covered and also has several L1050109
outdoor stalls, referred to as the “private sector,” that locals can rent to sell the week’s bumper crop. The stalls inside are owned and operated by butchers and vendors who have been in the same spot for generations. There are five pavilions, all former zeppelin hangers from another era.

The first pavilion we visited was the fish market. Chef Karlis explained that fish in Riga is largely from the Baltic, and that the selection is not as varied as it is in the Mediterranean or in Seattle, where he was a chef for many years. There are both fresh and salt-water fish available, but nothing huge like the swordfish or tuna we have seen in Sicily. What they do have in abundance here is smoked fish – aisles and aisles of it! There is so much fish they make arrangements of them in baskets – like flowers! We did spy some sturgeon and caviar, but as Chef explains, the prices have shot so high that caviar is not affordable for even the wealthiest citizens of Riga.

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L1050121Before exiting the fish pavilion, we noted the beer stand with a tap right into an enormous drum.


After the fish pavilion came fresh produce. We scurried on to the pavilion with the picked vegetables…wow, was that a feast for the mouth and eyes! Chef had arranged for us to have a few tastings, so we stopped at a stall owned and operated by two sisters. They offered us sliced pickles to start followed by curried cabbage and slaws from large, mounded displays. This pavilion also had legumes, dried fruits, cucumbers and dill, ready for this season’s pickling.


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Before leaving the pavilion, we stopped by a vendor who specializes in garlic. He pickles fresh garlic, including the stalks, which are considered a delicacy in Latvia. It seems they pickle and smoke just about anything! In fact, the underground floors of the market not only have lockers to store food at night but smoking and pickling rooms as well.

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Fortified by the various tastings, we moved on to the dairy pavilion where we were treated to cheeses with caraway and sun-dried tomato. Dairy is very important in the Latvian diet, and it is clear that Latvians appreciate both fresh and aged cheeses in their diverse cuisine.

We popped outside to the “private sector” to check out what the local farmers had to offer at this Saturday’s market. What a feast for the eyes: cherries, berries, potatoes (and not just one variety – dozens of new potatoes, fresh and unscrubbed from the garden).

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But what stopped me in my tracks were the chanterelle mushrooms at 2.50 euro per kilo! On the next tour on July 17, I am hoping they are still in season, as I know Chef Noelle and her tour will want to make a stop and take a few bags back to the ship for class. I didn’t have time to stop and purchase some, and I am still kicking myself a day later!  


Before heading into the meat pavilion, we stopped in a section of the market that sells flowers. My mother is a master gardener, and I always think of her when I see lobelia, begonias and hanging fuchsia – as was the case today. Thanks to Mom’s instructions over the years, I am actually as good at identifying flowers as I am produce! Thanks, Mom!

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We moved on to the meat pavilion where we saw many beautiful cuts of meat – smoked meats, sausages and my personal find, lardo. There was also a conveniently located vinoteca, where we could wash down the local smoked sausage with a glass of wine.

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Invigorated by our walk through the market, we headed to the bus and back to the cooking school to taste a beet soup that chef prepared for us as a bon voyage offering.


To cap off our day, we met in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center for our Flavors of the Sea class. It is a technique class where I focus on moist heat methods (shallow poach and deep poach) and dry heat methods (sauté and pan fry) so that our guests can master the art of fish cookery. For this class I took out a salmon I had cured the day before and shared it with the group. They were so intrigued that I got out a fresh piece of salmon and made another gravlax. Guests often email me when they try these techniques at home, and I’m expecting to hear many success stories about their adventures curing lox. Given the price of gravlax these days, it should help save some pennies for the next Oceania Cruises adventure and Culinary Discovery Tour!

July 9, 2012


Having spent two years in upstate New York’s famed Hudson Valley, I thought I had seen the best farm-to-table restaurants, seasonal farmers’ markets and agricultural sustainability. As idyllic as the Hudson Valley is, if I were a vegetable, I would want to live on the Swedish island of Gotland.

L1040900Recently we officially launched the first season of the Baltic series of our Culinary Discovery Tours by boarding our bus and heading out for an authentic farm-to-table day in magical Visby, Sweden. 

Our first stop was Lilla Bjers Farm, 10 minutes from the port, where we met Margareta and Goran Hoas, pioneers in the Gotland organic farming scene.


Lilla Bjers Farm has been in the same family for generations. After Margareta and Goran had their first child 15 years ago, they needed to decide whether they wanted to sell the family farm or become farmers. Goran was born on the farm and was inclined to sell, but Margareta, who comes from upland Sweden, thought it would be romantic to move their young family to the farm and live off the land. Shortly thereafter , Goran's father became ill with ALS, and they felt that his illness was linked to the enormous amount of pesticides used on the farm. So they committed themselves to organic farming, and the rest, as they say in Visby, is history.

When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed by these passionate yet humble farmers. After taking a few minutes to tell us about the property and their mission, we were invited to tour the asparagus patch, where this spring’s harvest was just recently completed.

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Apparently, once asparagus is harvested, it must be left to bolt and go to seed for next season’s crop. Lilla Bjers Farm is famous for their asparagus, and we were promised a taste later in the day. We were told that asparagus season at Lilla Bjers Farm starts on April 13 – Goran’s birthday– and ends on June 17 – Margareta’s birthday. Made sense to us!


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As we strolled through the farm, workers were harvesting everything from red leaf lettuce to brightly colored beets and carrots. Even our sous chef, Veneesh, got his hands on the newly harvested carrots. The fields were lush with peppers, lettuces and the hint of young plants that will mature as the summer progresses.

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Next we headed to the greenhouses that were spilling over with herbs and peppers. Our guide talked about each of the herbs and let us pluck the leaves and savor the intense aroma. Tarragon is a specialty of the island, and we were treated to a leaf to try. They make a tarragon vinegar at the farm that is shipped all the way to Stockholm.


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Three lemon trees had just arrived, and it seemed that there was nothing that would not grow at Lilla Bjers Farm. Even the roses were happy to live here.

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The most recent addition to the farm is a new restaurant. The menu changes daily, and the commitment is to seasonal and local products and producers. We were told that every element of the restaurant was sourced locally, and since opening, the restaurant has been a great success.

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In the chicken yard across from the restaurant, the guinea hens, chickens and roosters were feasting on the cucumbers and dill stalks discarded by the restaurant prep chefs.


Before leaving, we stopped into the little store that the farm operates. By design, Lilla Bjers Farm caters to Visby restaurants and local families who shop there daily. The restaurant uses a majority of the produce, so there is no plan to distribute their products further. The store is stocked with fresh produce, preserves, salts, nuts and breads.

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I purchased strawberries for the Swedish pancakes we planned to make later in the culinary center and dill for the Swedish meatballs.


To ensure we capture a “taste of Visby” in our pancakes, we will use saffron, originally brought to the island from Constantinople by Viking traders.

After a good-bye hug and a wave from Margareta and Goran, we boarded our bus. I told them to keep an eye out for my colleague, Chef Noelle Barille, who will arrive with our next group in about 10 days! By then, Goran tells me, the melon plants will be popping from this magical, mineral-rich island soil.


Our second stop is Ejmunds Gard, which translates Ejmunds Farm, where at the end of a long tree-lined driveway, Maud and her fifth-generation cattle-farming husband are transforming the face of Sweden’s beef industry.

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Inspired by the Kobe beef craze, Ejmunds Farm is raising the most prized meat in Sweden. We were greeted by Maud and her amorous chocolate lab, Stella. After a discussion about the philosophy and history of the farm, we began a tour of the property. It was clear these cows were “living the good life,” feasting on potatoes and enjoying a lot of space to roam – even when indoors.

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The Canyon Ranch staff would be impressed to know that there was a large green bristle brush, hanging like a punching bag, for these cows to scratch themselves on. After their shyness wore off, they treated us to quite of show of nuzzling and scratching. 

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We spent some time in the barns talking about hay production and cattle farming and watching the cows enjoy the warm July sunshine.

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L1040979Before we left, Maud showed us the experiment they recently launched – a truffle patch! They purchased hazelnut trees from an up-island source that had successfully harvested a species of black truffle in the 1990s. They are attempting to cultivate these black “stava” truffles on the farm – with the help of some good fertilizer from their furry friends!

L1050008After saying good-bye to Maud (and Stella), we headed to Visby for a short walking tour and lunch. There was a summer festival, so we were warned that it would be a busy day in “the big city.” 


We strolled through a beautiful park that used to be the port.

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Picnickers were lounging under centuries-old trees, and because of the extended spring on Gotland, the flowers were overflowing out of their pots and the roses were climbing the limestone ring walls that surround the old city.

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Lunch was at the famed 50 Kvadrat, hosted by chef and owner Fredrik Malmstedt, the award-winning innovator (along with his wife) of modern Swedish cuisine.

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L1050027We were seated outside on a delightfully warm afternoon and served fresh baked breads and the local Sleepy Bulldog Ale. The first course was asparagus (from Lilla Bjers Farm) and a thinly sliced smoked beef from Ejmunds Farm. Chef explained that he is trying to introduce Visby to non-traditional cuts of meat. Because of the abundance of great beef on the island, most people eat only the prime cuts and grind the rest into burger. He’s not trying to inspire an offal trend; he’s just introducing cuts like hangar and skirt steak to a population that has heretofore feasted primarily on rib eye and tenderloin!


L1050034The second course was another non-traditional cut of beef from Ejmunds Farm and baby vegetables from – you guessed it – Lilla Bjers Farm. Several of us paired this dish with the sommelier’s recommended Spanish tempranillo. Its deep red fruits and mellow tannins were perfection. Dessert was rhubarb and strawberries on a bed of panna cotta, adorably presented in a preserve jar. After autographing his fabulous cookbook, “A Taste of Gotland,” Chef Malmstedt gave us good-bye hugs, and we were escorted back to the ship to rest before our cooking class.

I took a short detour to a recommended cheese store called Wisbyost where I picked up some island specialties: a Salambar berry preserve, truffle salt, salumi and saffron salt. Then I headed to the culinary center where Chef Vaneesh had a display of all our local purchases to use during our class.

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At 4 pm our intrepid group of foodies reconvened for a class in the culinary center. We made authentic Swedish meatballs with a sour cream sauce and cranberry coulis, saffron pannkaka (saffron pancakes) and mulled wine.

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I also demonstrated how to make gravlax at home. We discussed what we saw that day but also what was to come in the markets in Riga and Helsinki – the land of salmon (and gravlax).

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A great time was had by all as we celebrated the farm-to-table lifestyle of Gotland. 

July 6, 2012


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I am so excited about all of our new Culinary Discovery Tours; some of the experiences we have had have been truly magical. Such was the case on a recent tour in Livorno. Because it was a Sunday and the market was closed, we boarded our bus and headed to the Torre a Cenaia winery in the heart of the Tuscan countryside. As we approached the winery on a gravel driveway lined with cypress trees, it was clear this was a very special place. I felt like I was on a Merchant Ivory movie set! 

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The first stop was the quaint winery and cellars, which were impeccably kept. We were shown an oxygen release system on the old barrels that we were told was invented by none other than Leonardo da Vinci. The Pitti family has been making red, white and rosé wines for centuries, and the primary grape is the Sangiovese – my personal favorite of this region of Italy. In one part of the cellar, the private reserve bottles were stored in a unique triangular pattern. We wondered if it was for theft prevention, like oranges at the market – if you take the wrong one, the whole display comes apart!


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L1040524After a half hour in the winery, we were treated to a carriage ride behind a two-in-hand team of beautiful draft horses. There were 24 of us, so we divided into two groups, and two carriages took us to the stone field house where we would have our cooking classes and lunch.

As we approached the little stone house, we could see it was set for our meal – so inviting and lovely. Tables were set in the middle of a field of wildflowers and tall cypress trees, like a Tuscan painting. The house had been converted to an open-air kitchen, complete with a large working table and a wood-fired oven.

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Our host, Chef David, was well prepared to begin his first dish, a focaccia made with olive oil and farina.

He asked for help from our guests, who were happy to dive right in.

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After a good dousing with olive oil the dough went into the white hot oven, and then out it came for us to taste with a lovely white wine made from grapes grown on 200 of the 1,000 acres of vines the family maintains.


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The next item on the menu was pizza. While we waited, we were treated to salumi made from pigs that were raised on the property. L1040549

Fortified, we dove into pizza making with vigor.

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Sitting on top of the refrigerator was a bunch of arugula that had been picked that morning. We couldn’t help but sneak a few leaves, and we were impressed with how zesty and peppery they were. With the pizzas sauced and ready, in they went to the blazing oven, hot enough to create a perfectly crispy, caramelized crust with an intense tomato flavor.

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Not a lot of toppings were needed here! Happy with our accomplishments, we moved to the picturesque lunch setting to sip Brunello di Montalcino and munch on pizza. 

After our lunch, the carriages took us on a 30-minute ride around the property while Chef David prepared our dessert – a family recipe for cantucci, a semi-soft cake made with anise. As we took in the amazing scenery, we all noticed a white horse following us. He entertained us on the entire carriage ride by coming close and then venturing off to torment other horses in their fenced-in paddocks.

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When we returned, Chef David was waiting for us with a cooking demonstration and dessert. I could not resist getting in on the action and helped Chef David with the cantucci. L1040568

You can see Chef here with his anise liquor and his flat of eggs. He was kind enough to share the recipe with us: 1 pound butter, 2 pounds sugar, 14 eggs, 1 packet of yeast, 2 pounds flour and ½ cup anise… You’ll have to come on a future tour to see how it is made!

One of our guests, a physician from the Northeast and a great friend of Oceania Cruises’ culinary centers, made friends with the white horse, who became our unofficial escort for the day.



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After dessert and a lovely dessert wine, we were taken back to the cellar and allowed to purchase wines and delicacies.L1040612

It was sad to say good-bye, especially when there was a family wedding celebration taking place with children running about and delicious pastas and braises coming out of the home-style winery kitchens.


Back at the Bon Appétit Culinary Center, we had a class on pasta making, and it was such fun!

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The magnificent pasta dishes that were being served to the wedding guests at the winery inspired us all!L1040636

It was a perfect Sunday in Tuscany and one I will not soon forget. The wine, the food and the hospitality – as well as the new friendships – are what make these tours so special. I’ve said many times, “I have the greatest gig in the world!” And this was one of the days that makes that statement an indisputable fact.


July 4, 2012


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We are so pleased by the overwhelmingly positive responses to our Culinary Discovery Tours this spring. We have visited markets in Corfu and Nice, had lunch overlooking the Cote d’Azur and enjoyed a lunch and wine tasting hosted by the “grandfather of Provence cuisine,” to name a few favorites.

After the successful launch of over 20 Culinary Discovery Tours in the Mediterranean, we are moving on to the Baltic. On this cruise we will experience a farm-to-table adventure that starts at Ejmunds Farm, founded in 1860, and ends in Visby’s renowned restaurant 50 Kvadrat, all the while dining on dishes from local farms. Also, we will visit the impressive markets in Riga and Helsinki. 

I am often asked, “How do you find these locations?” So I thought I would share some of my most memorable moments exploring different locations for possible Culinary Discovery Tours.

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L1040724After spending time in the sunny Mediterranean on Riviera, I traveled to Dover for our Northern Interludes cruise to Ireland, Iceland and Norway. It was time to switch gears, and I was excited to join Chef Noelle, who had already begun scouting locations in Dublin, and concentrate on the cuisines of cooler climates. First up was Iceland. I took the “Golden Circle” tour and enjoyed the geysers and waterfalls, but I was even more fascinated by the use of geothermal energy in Reykjavik. They use it to bake bread and to warm greenhouses for vegetable farming! I’m recruiting one of the master bakers from the Culinary Institute of America to join us on a future cruise to explore this island and the culinary and farming traditions.

Next I was off to Kristiansand in Norway, where we were greeted in the port by a giant moose! The fish market here is legendary. After a short stroll from Marina, I crossed a little wooden bridge to a too-quaint-for-words village and found a red wooden clapboard building housing a tiny fish market.

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L1040868I often demonstrate fish fabrication for my classes, but these enormoussalmon would be a challenge. They were twice the size of the salmon we normally see in the States. There were many varieties of fish swimming in tanks, including something I had never seen – a winter flounder settled comfortably on the bottom of the tank.

Staring at the huge lobsters swimming freely in their tanks, I imagined them holding signs that said, “Pick me!” There were vats of pickled fish and beets and other delicacies that would make for a lovely picnic. An impressive little fish market indeed!

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L1040872I wandered in to town on the recommendation of several guests who had mentioned a local produce vendor in the center of town. There I found brilliant white and mystically purple cauliflower, conical shaped cabbage, seasonal strawberries and cherries and my personal favorite, celery root.

The radishes were huge, evidence of the magnificent growing season here in the “land of the midnight sun.” (Not great for sleeping through the night, by the way, but they tell me that’s not an issue for the locals.) It was a great day exploring and definitely a Culinary Discovery Tour prospect for 2013.

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When we visited Copenhagen on the first day of the Baltic Treasures cruise, I took a trip to the meatpacking district, a trendy new neighborhood with artisanal food shops, fish mongers, sausage makers, wine bars and great coffee houses.



I stopped along the canal for a cup of coffee at an adorable little truck that the barista drives to and from her locations. (At six feet tall, I would never fit into the tiny driver’s seat!)

Afterward I stopped for some granola at a neighborhood café, aptly named Granola. I talked with the owner about how the dozens of varieties of preserves that lined the walls were made. Of course, they were made right there in the shop!





Earlier this season on one of our Mediterranean sailings, I had an amazing opportunity to scout a new tour in Venice. We will be offering the tour in the fall, and I am really excited to share it with you. As many of you know, our onboard venue known as La Reserve pairs the perfect wines with the creations of our brilliant executive chef, and my culinary twin, Franck Garanger. The newest menu for La Reserve was launched this spring, and for the Kobe beef and chocolate sauce dish (yes, you read that correctly!), we found the most magnificent pairing in an Amarone from the Fumanelli winery.

In addition to making some of the most velvety and sensuous wines in Veneto, the Fumanellis have also turned part of their property into a culinary school. The winery has been in the family for centuries, and the current owners are an enchanting couple that travels the globe promoting their wines (in addition to playing polo, racing cars and hobnobbing with celebrities).





L1040245You can imagine how excited Franck and I were as we set out to scout this new venue. After a 90-minute drive through Veneto, we were greeted by the cellar master and a local cheese master, who offered us several cheeses to sample with the Fumanelli Valpolicella. We had never heard of most of the cheeses, and we were delighted to learn that they were named after the owner of the sheep or goats from which the milk came! Then we were led up narrow stairs to the attic where hundreds of wooden flats lay ready for this year’s grapes. Amarone is made from “raisinated” grapes, which means that after the grapes are harvested, they dry in the attic for several weeks before being crushed.

After a tour of the cellar, which housed an underground tunnel, Mr. Fumanelli treated me to a ride to the cooking school in his vintage Aston Martin. He was racing in the Mille Miglia the next day with the president of BMW, so I figured I was in good hands.

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Off we went down a little gravel road to a farmhouse that had been converted into a cooking school and inn. We spent time with the chef and learned about many of the unique ingredients of the region, one of which is a rare breed of small chicken that makes a lovely ragu. (As a former poultry farmer, I know that all good things come to an end!)

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After a tour of the school and an hour with the chefs, we sat down with the Fumanellis and several of their guests to enjoy an unforgettable lunch. It was the beginning of cherry season, so the table was spilling over with fresh cherries.

We had pasta with white ragu followed by a cookie made with semolina and nuts and topped with grappa. (I was glad I was not driving). The Fumanellis were wonderful hosts, and our day could not have been more perfect.


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Needless to say, the tour will be amazing, and we are thrilled that our first guest chef to host this tour in the fall will be none other than Barbara Lynch, the owner and executive chef of six restaurants in Boston, as well as a judge for the U.S. team competition for the Bocuse d’Or, the Olympics of cooking. I know this tour will be a huge hit with our guests who are diehard food and wine lovers!

I hope this gives you some insight into how we scout locations and venues for our Culinary Discovery Tours. I couldn’t do this without JoAnne Skrukrud of Oceania Cruises’ destinations team, who connects me with our brilliant operators in various ports and regions. I’m also grateful for chefs Annie Copps, Noelle Barille, David Shalleck and Susie Heller, the faculty of the Bon Appétit Culinary Center. Like me, they are always on the lookout for great tours.

Now I’m off to an open house to greet our new guests. It will be an exciting cruise, and I will post lots of pictures and happenings from our three new tours. Until then, bon appétit!