Among legions of voyagers since the dawn of time, perhaps nothing has raised the hackles of ocean travellers as much as the subject of food on board. Over the decades, dining at sea has gained a reputation as being somehow more enjoyable and inviting than anything offered on land. It is an assertion that no one has ever done much to demolish, pun wholly intentional.
Now, everyone has a different idea of what constitutes good food. Every single person’s palate is as individual as a human fingerprint. Even the idea of trying to produce enough tasty, appealing choices on one individual ship load of, say, 3,0000 passengers is a daunting thing to contemplate. Throw eight or nine different nationalities into the mix, and the equation multiplies massively.
So it follows that my opinions as expressed here are- indeed, can only be- based on my own observations and tastes. Yet I suspect that many people will find much in this article that, at the very least, resonates with them.
Firstly, the hacked to death phrase of ‘gourmet cuisine’, whatever the hell that means anyway. One man’s gourmet feast is another man’s gut wrenching ordeal. But on any mega ship- anything over 2000 passengers- it is simply impossible to create food that approaches any level of that nebulous notion of ‘gourmet’.
Why? Simply because a mega ship, by it’s very essence, is designed to operate on economies of scale. Bulk buying across the board, plus the embarkation of the smallest number of catering staff and stewards able to cater adequately to the numbers on board, is the maxim.
The raison d’etre for these amazing floating resorts is to make as much money as possible, and that does not equate to overly lavish mass provisioning of top quality ingredients. And, before anybody gets on my case about knocking big ships, please read on. Such is not my intention.
Within the parameters set by shore based accountants, these ships in general do a good to excellent job of providing a flood of tasty, often tremendously good food around the clock. It is fresh, plentiful and, thanks to advances in on board technology such as refrigeration and cooking facilities, heightened standards of storage, immensely better hygiene and stock rotation and-yes- some very imaginative sauces- it is probably more varied and enjoyable than in the heyday of the great ocean liners. Progress generally has improved product delivery.
And for those wallowing in the cozy glow of nostalgia for those older, more opulent ships, just remember that even the Titanic had rats. Though not on the menu in first class, naturally.
Of course, the French Line was a byword for the finest food and service. But part of the reason why the Ile De France, the Normandie and the France were so successful is that they were lavishly staffed, and provisioned on a scale that would cause most of today’s cost conscious shore side catering suppliers to spontaneously combust. For instance, the first class dinner menu on the Normandie listed no less than three hundred and twenty five different menu items each night. As with everything on that fabled operator, food on the French Line was gloriously over the top, sumptuous and special.
And yet, passengers being passengers, there were no doubt some strange souls that complained about it even back then. Such is human nature.
True, high quality cuisine can be produced consistently, as the likes of Crystal, Regent, Seadream and Silversea continue to prove, to the delight of their savvy, loyal regulars. But, with numbers to cater for limited to a few hundred at the most, a much higher staff to guest ratio and, crucially, a much higher per person spend- one reflected in the initial price- these ships have much more flexibility, scope for creativity and, generally, a much more obvious display of inventive flair than their more constrained cohorts on the mega ships.
Dining aboard these ships is truly delightful. And even something as simple as a bacon sandwich can be summoned up and delivered with as much flair, style and taste as the finest filet mignon if you are in the right frame of mind. It is, quite literally, a question of personal taste.
And I would also argue that the food itself is only one ingredient that goes into the mix for a great dining experience. A fine meal at sea is about so much more than that. Ambiance plays a huge part; perhaps the crucial one.
A perfect meal involves a beautifully set table, with fine flatware and glassware, an immaculate tablecloth and napkins, and plenty of elbow room. There is nothing worse than accidentally garnishing your shirt sleeve with the soup of the diner sitting next to you.
Deft, unobtrusive service is the key. Attentive without being overly familiar, and all under the watchful eye of a good maitre d’ who conducts the entire operation like an orchestra. And speaking of which…
A little bit of background music- for instance, a Baby Grand piano- can enhance the mood of a meal immensely. So, too, the lighting. Here, less is usually more, but please don’t turn the venue into a gloomy, Stygian crypt. Subtle is the key here.
And, while many people consider assigned, two seating dining to be the first level of Hell, all I can say is that some of my best, most fun overall dining experiences have been in such situations. Some maitre d’s are expert at putting together tables of compatible people, and that makes a huge difference. But if it goes the other way, the wrong table companions can make the last meal in the condemned cell a more appealing option.
But for real flexibility, it is once again the small ships that deliver the real flavour of tasty, tasteful repasts at sea. With generally open seating dining, where a table for two can become a table for ten at short notice, far smaller numbers of diners and a much calmer, unhurried ambiance, evening meals especially can scale almost Olympian heights in terms of enjoyment.
Sometimes, nothing beats dining alfresco, with a side order of moonlight and an exquisitely paired wine. A real treat for both the palate and the senses, and one that is hugely recommended by yours truly. And, of course, the pre dinner martini, garnished with a gorgeous, flaming sunset, is the perfect appetiser to any meal.
So, there we go. Just my thoughts, for what they are worth. Food for discussion, though? Bon Appetit!