FRENCH LINE CUISINE; THE FINEST AFLOAT

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

‘Bon voyage is always French’ was the motto of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, better known as the French Line. The line asserted confidently that you were actually ‘in France’ the moment that you crossed the gangways of any of their fabled liners, no matter where in the world you actually happened to be.

Competition for the creme de la creme of the North Atlantic trade was always fierce, even at the height of the Depression. Steamship lines inherited and showcased all the values- both real and imagined- of their respective mother countries. Every transatlantic liner was an ambassador of sorts for the nation whose flag she flew, and all were sailed with a sense of fierce, patriotic pride.

But none quite reached the level of elegance, service and panache that typified the French Line; even today, most knowledgeable travellers regard it as the height of ocean liner style and glamour. And a huge amount of that appeal came from the almost relentlessly French ambiance created aboard those fabled liners.

For instance, announcements on board were always first made in French, even though something like eighty per cent of the passengers on any given crossing would be American. Table wine on board was always free in all classes; the French believed that wine was an integral part of any meal. Even the bell boys had scarlet coloured jackets that matched the funnel colours to almost cosmetic perfection.

In first class especially, their ships were staffed- and ran- like the Paris Ritz, or the Negresco. But nowhere did the French sense of art de vivre resound so thoroughly as in the dining experience on board.

It is no exaggeration to say that the first class dining rooms were nothing less than sea going cathedrals, raised to the religion of haute cuisine. They were stunning, theatrical spaces at least two levels high; the idea that ‘low ceilings do not aid the appetite’ was a company mantra.

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

And the food was, naturally, prepared, served, and devoured with theatrical relish and attention to detail. For example, the ground breaking Ile De France of 1927 listed no less than two hundred and seventy five separate items on her first class dinner menu. Twenty two years later, when she emerged as a two stacker at the end of her post war rebuild, the Ile De France still offered French onion soup as an option on the breakfast menu, even in tourist class.

Of course, the Normandie raised things to another level again; that of the truly stratospheric.

Her wine cellar was loaded aboard a full nine months prior to her barnstorming maiden voyage in May of 1935, in order that it should settle properly. It was also placed in such a way that, should the ship ever roll, that the rolling would least upset the wine. Seasick passengers were an occupational hazard for the French Line on any trip, but the idea that the wine should be compromised was, naturally, unthinkable.

The Normandie routinely carried no less than ninety three different kinds of champagne. Her first class dining room was three decks high, more than a hundred yards long. and lined with floor to ceiling hammered glass, back lit by enormous, lalique light fountains that hugged the edges of the room. Above it all, a gigantic gold, gilt and coffered ceiling held a powerful, imperious sway.

With typical modesty, the French Line remarked that this astonishing chamber- still the most beautiful public room ever to go to sea on any ship- was ‘slightly longer’ than the famous Hall Of Mirrors in Versailles.  It was more than big enough to contain all three of Christopher Columbus’ ships at the same time.

Approached via a pair of enormous, bronze doors, this was the first air conditioned room on any ship. Some one hundred and fifty tables allowed every first class passenger on board to dine at the same time. By now, that same menu listed some three hundred and twenty five different items on every crossing.

Sea air always sharpened the appetite

Sea air always sharpened the appetite

But the Normandie also had the more informal Cafe Grill right aft, a kind of supper club with live dancing .With steel and leather chairs and tables, and walls of varnished pig skin, it never really got into its swing until after midnight. You could dance until daybreak, and still savour a perfectly prepared chilli con carne at two o’clock in the morning. Many did just that.

Post war saw the eventual creation of the France, the last true year round transatlantic liner built for the northern route. The French Line described her as ‘the last refuge of the good life’ after her 1962 maiden voyage. In her, all the cherished traditions enshrined on the Normandie, the Ile De France and the Liberte lived again in one final, fantastic display of bravado.

Awed by the France, the American food critic, Craig Clairborne, described her first class dining room as ‘the finest French restaurant anywhere in the world’, and with very good reason. The old standards were adhered to with an almost religious zeal; to the end of her days, the France remained the greatest and best fed of all the Atlantic liners.

For example, Camembert was only offered on the menu on the fourth day of a westbound crossing to New York, when it was considered to be at its absolute best. It was available to order off menu at any time, of course. But tradition demanded that it only be openly advertised when at its absolute best.

The extent of this fierce dedication to the good life was pointed up in the early seventies. Cunard, wanting an impartial opinion on how the French ship compared to their brand new QE2, paid for Lord Litchfield to cross the Atlantic one way on each ship. On his return, this card carrying member of the British establishment shocked his Cunard hosts by telling them that the food and service on the France was superior in every respect to that of their new flagship.

With her withdrawal in 1974, one hundred and ten years of French Line excellence and urbanity was guillotined in a single stroke. Of course, the great France herself would be miraculously resurrected as the show stopping Norway, but the magic of the dining experience had gone. It was a different time, and a different world.

And, truth be told, there has never been anything like it since. Au Revior.

TIMESLIP: THE MAIDEN CROSSING OF THE SS. FRANCE, FEBRUARY 1962

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

When the France was laid down in 1958 as the long term replacement for the ageing Liberte, more than 1.2 million passengers still crossed the Atlantic by sea each year, either on business or pleasure. But that same October, the first ever Pan Am jet airliner flew eastwards across the Atlantic in just six hours, and the apple cart was not so much upset, as reduced to matchwood and splinters.

By the time of her launch just two years later, those same jets had more than seventy per cent of the transatlantic trade, and those numbers were climbing as steadily as a Boeing 707 cleared for take off. So by the time that the France was finally ready for her first passengers at the beginning of 1962, a huge amount was riding on her, both figuratively and literally.

The France was the last true Atlantic liner, designed to make thirty four round trips a year between Europe and America, with  no thought whatsoever being given to ever using her as a cruise ship. She was every bit as much of an Atlantic thoroughbred as the Normandie before her and, to the French, she was intended to be every bit as much a national showpiece as that fabled thirties showstopper. Though her actual cost was astronomical- the American press was already referring to her as ‘an eighty million dollar gamble’- the French invested far more in her in terms of emotional currency.

But this maritime Joan Of Arc (a perhaps unfortunate comparison when considering how many French liners were actually lost to fire) was to turn out to be more of a gilded Canute, fighting valiantly to stem the unstoppable. All the same, she was almost ready by the dawn of 1962 and, prior to her maiden crossing to New York, the French Line decided to send her on a nine day, trial run of a cruise down to the Canary IslandsIt was an idea taken up again by Cunard, when they introduced the brand new QE2 into service in early 1969.

This trial voyage sailed from Le Havre on January 19th, 1962 and, while it was a good exercise in PR, it also served to highlight the numerous potential shortcomings of the France as a cruise ship. It was the equivalent of expecting a premier league centre forward to switch to rugby league, and perform at the same level. These shortcomings- mainly revolving around a lack of outdoor deck space and her glass enclosed swimming pools- would only be permanently addressed during her 1979-80 conversion into the Norway at Bremerhaven.

However, the cruise did serve to demonstrate the excellence of her machinery. The France was the second fastest ocean liner ever built but, with the jets thundering overhead at five hundred miles an hour, any attempt at a tilt for the speed record, held for the past ten years by the SS.United States, was quietly ruled out. The France was expected to excel on an entirely different level.

Finally, at 1400 on the afternoon of February 3rd, 1962, Commandant Georges Croisiele took the flag bedecked France clear of the dock at Le Havre, to begin her maiden crossing to New York. Among the capacity load of 1,958 passengers on board was Madame Yvonne De Gaulle, wife of the president. She was making the voyage in her official capacity as the Godmother of the ship. The young actress, Juliette Greco, was also on the roster.

February was hardly a typical time for a gala maiden voyage, and the Atlantic slammed the new liner with a series of savage, forty five foot waves that forced Croisile to reduce speed from thirty knots right down to six at the height of the gale. That said, the only casualties were a slightly dented anchor housing, one broken window in the first class library and, perhaps most distressingly, some eight bottles of premium scotch. The passengers responded with typical panache, by adapting the dance steps to the brand new ‘twist’ craze to suit the weather conditions and, despite this vicious baptism of fire, France and her surviving, happily ample supply of scotch were able to make up the lost time. She duly arrived off Quarantine in New York on schedule on February 8th, 1962.

The welcome was as warm as the day itself was bitterly cold. A quartet of fire boats arced vast, icy plumes of water into the air all around the France as the last great French liner swept proudly towards her berth; this was the exact same pier where her predecessor, Normandie, had burned and sank some twenty years minus one day before. The arrival date can hardly have been a coincidence.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

A flotilla of tugs and small pleasure craft rode shotgun around the new ship as she proceeded in state past the Battery. Helicopters buzzed her like random, curious dragonflies, filming the event for posterity. Crowds shivered along the freezing banks of the Hudson and banners snapped in the icy breeze as the soaring flank of the France kissed the edge of Pier 88 for the first time. Despite the adverse conditions encountered on the crossing, the France had, indeed, performed flawlessly.

The subsequent press conference held on board was a curious mixture of euphoria and tempered wisdom. The owners stated that ‘the captain is satisfied with his ship- and the ship is satisfied with her captain.’ They then went on to enshrine her as ‘the last refuge of the good life.’

At the same time, the multi millionaire Charles Cloredisembarking from the France, took occasion to deny to the assembled press that he was planning to buy the Cunard Line.

The press were in general, enchanted and awed by the stunning new ship, but elements of it did reiterate the ‘eighty million dollar gamble’ epithet in their subsequent coverage. They also questioned the fact that the huge beam of the liner made her too large to transit the Panama Canal

That drew a classic, Machiavellian retort from no less than General De Gaulle himself, back in France. He said flatly that ‘the ship is not too big; the problem is that the canal is too small.’ In his grandiosity, Monsieur Le President had also conveniently forgotten (or ignored) the fact that the dimensions of the Panama Canal had actually been decided by another determined Frenchman, Ferdinand De Lesseps.

MUTINY ON THE FRANCE; DOLLARS, CRUDE OIL AND HARD TIMES….

The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980

The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980

As the 1970’s dawned, passenger numbers continued to plummet. By that year, only four in every hundred travellers were still crossing the Atlantic by sea. The jets were unbeatable.

Even the France had started to suffer so, for the winter season, the French Line had started sending her on cruises. These were mainly to the Caribbean, but there was also a couple of special cruises down to Rio for the Carnival. Each spring, she resumed her place on the five day transatlantic shuttle, sailing between Le Havre, Southampton, and New York.

The France was hugely successful as a cruise ship; a role she had never been designed for or envisaged in. The ship had very little usable outdoor sunbathing space, and both of her swimming pools were covered.

These major shortcomings would be addressed during her conversion into the Norway but, for now, the France was a surprising success in the off season cruising scene.

Still, it was on the North Atlantic that she really came into her own. And, even as the noose tightened, she remained a matchless, elegant ambassador for the French way of life; a magnificent, final burst of bravado in the face of the all conquering airlines.

The French Line always asserted that you were ‘in France itself’ the moment that you crossed her gangway. Announcements on board were only ever made in French, even though the bulk of her passengers were American. Onion soup was always available for breakfast and, as on all her ancestors, table wine aboard the France was always free.

In short, the liner clung to her true sense of national identity. Her crew of 1200 was entirely French, including the scarlet jacketed lift boys that whisked madame or monsieur to whichever deck they desired. God forbid that a passenger on the France should actually have to push their own lift buttons.

But the ship was sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink. Only a very generous operating subsidy from the French government kept her sailing at all. But, as the old political guard changed back in Paris, some very different thinking began to emerge.

The France made two stunning world cruises in 1973 and 1974, arriving in such unfamiliar locations as Sydney, Singapore and Cape Town. On each cruise, a special supply ship loaded with fresh, clean, high quality linen had to be sent to meet the France at the half way mark; the table cloths, bed sheets and napkins on board were of such a standard, that no foreign workers or machinery could be entrusted to clean them. So the French shipped replacement sets halfway around the planet.

Both cruises were magnificent, headline making epics, but even then, events in the middle east were conspiring to deal a death blow to this floating fairy tale.

In 1973, OPEC increased the price of crude oil sixfold. The France, which guzzled the stuff like so much cheap table wine, could no longer be immune. On five day crossings, she was burning the equivalent of a million dollars worth a day of crude oil. Crossings were lengthened to six days to conserve fuel and- in a move that really shocked regular French Line passengers to the core- the company started charging for table wine. Many said then that they knew that the end was near.

The government was faced with a stark choice; either to continue funding the joint Anglo-French Concorde project, or keeping the France in service. Doing both was unrealistic. In 1974, it announced the end of the annual, $24 million operating subsidy for the France. What followed was inevitable.

The French Line announced that the SS. France would be withdrawn from service after her October 25th crossing, and put up for sale. One hundred and ten years of unparalleled French excellence on the Atlantic was thus guillotined with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen. But all parties concerned reckoned without the liner’s crew.

While many of the deck and engine room staff had the option of transferring to cargo ships and freighters, the hundreds of stewards, cabin attendants and lift boys were left with nowhere to go. Naturally unwilling to see their livelihoods torpedoed thus, they decided to act.

On the evening of September 10th, 1974, the France was approaching her home port of Le Havre, at the end of an eastbound transatlantic crossing. Many of the 1,266 passengers were at dinner. The orchestra was playing in the Restaurant Chambord when, almost apologetically, a steward interrupted them to inform the passengers that the ship had  been taken over by the crew. She would be anchored right across the entrance to the port until further notice. With that, the stunned passengers were served their coffee and, in the best traditions of another moment of desperate shipboard history, the orchestra resumed playing!

On the bridge, Captain Christian Pettre had been confronted by a group of men led by Maurice Roulin, a bedroom steward and former wartime commando. Roulin informed Pettre- nicknamed ‘The Pasha’- that the crew were taking over the ship. Pettre asked him if he was mad, but remained impassive thereafter. No doubt he sympathised with his men and their predicament.

The story made headlines around the world the next day. The France was anchored across the entrance to Le Havre; her huge bulk meant that no other ship could either enter or leave the port. The passengers and their luggage were taken off the next day by ferry. Then both sides settled down to what amounted to a classic Mexican stand off.

The government blustered that they had expected anything but this; the France taken over by her own crew, as if she was some common or garden factory. The crew, in no mood to compromise, proceeded to blow its own slim chances out of the water by demanding the retention of the France in service, plus a whopping great thirty five per cent pay increase.

In the event, it was the strikers- the French were careful not to use the word ‘mutineers’- that blinked first. As the autumn weather worsened, the France was obliged to move to Cherbourg, thus ending the blockade. Supplies of certain foodstuffs began to run out on board. The government simply sat back, and waited.

Finally, in October, the crew voted overwhelmingly in a ballot to bring the France back into port. After a final, touching mass in the ship’s chapel, she arrived back in Le Havre on October 9th. And though the crew continued to picket the ship until December, the SS. France was officially stricken from service that same month.

That should have been that. The liner was taken to a quiet backwater called the Quai D’Oubli- literally the ‘pier of the forgotten’- and laid up. Her furnishings were covered over and, with only a skeleton crew on board, a deathly silence fell over the great, grand France.

It hung over her like poisonous fog for five long, lonely years, As Saigon fell and Britain entered the Common Market, the France lingered in silent despair; lovingly maintained, yet seemingly doomed to the scrapyard. Punk rock came, Elvis left the building, and the darkened ship slipped further from the public memory.

A scheme to sell her as a floating casino fell through, as did a bid from the Chinese government to use her as an accommodation ship, But that vast hull contained thousands of tons of premium grade steel, and it began to receive some very unwelcome attention in certain quarters. Around the world, scrap yard owners flexed their cheque books as they began quietly sharpening their knives.

But these gentlemen were to be disappointed, for the last great French liner was not destined to die after all…..

In early 1979, Knut Kloster, the brilliant pioneer behind Norwegian Caribbean Lines, was desperate to acquire fresh tonnage to bolster his quartet of sold out Caribbean cruise ships. Unwilling to wait years for a new build, he embarked on a radical, far reaching course of action. He decided to convert an already existing ship up to his new cruising standards.

Kloster went for the big top, and decided to buy a laid up Atlantic liner for the job. The premise seemed unbelievable. The experts opined that all four available candidates were far too big for the job. But Kloster pressed ahead.

He first looked at the Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello, and then at the lingering SS. United States.  And then, finally, he came to the SS. France, by a way the biggest of the bunch.

By that time, the France was enduring her fifth, consecutive soul destroying year in limbo. But she was in immaculate condition, lovingly maintained and, as the Norwegians were quick to discover, obviously built to last for decades. The prime candidate. But there was more to it than just that.

Looking up at the still graceful, flaring bow, Kloster said of France: ‘I looked at her, and she smiled at me. I knew then that I wanted to keep her smiling for another twenty years….’

Kloster bought the France for $18 million and, in August of 1979, she was renamed the SS. Norway in a simple ceremony in Le Havre. On the 22nd of that month, four tugs towed the former pride of the French Line out of her home port towards Bremerhaven, Germany, and the onset of the biggest conversion project in maritime history.

The atmosphere was tense. The local French unions, flailing desperately around, had threatened to block the seaward channel in a vain attempt to prevent her departure. On the bridge, captain designate Torbjorn Hauge had been assigned a pair of armed guards.

It was all a lot of fuss over nothing. Two days later, the Norway entered the Lloyd Werft dry dock at Bremerhaven, and a miraculous, eight month transformation began to unfold. A rebirth without an equal…