Sunday, August 31, 2008

Home Again, Home Again...


But from where from you ask? A nice jaunt around the various & sundry ports of call of the Mediterranean with Princess Cruise lines. Starting in Italy at the docks of Venice, the trip lasted twelve days and terminated in the new Mecca of cuisine: Barcelona, Spain with a great many fascinating, if brief, stops along the way. More on those in my next post (hey, there's quite a bit to remember), first a brief look at my accomodations (from a food & drink standpoint, of course) on the trip...

The Boat
Strictly speaking, more of a floating hotel with a propeller than a ship, the Emerald Princess was truly a massive piece of work, with space for well over 2000 passengers and over 1000 crew members from a diverse mix of countries. As we sailed from Europe, the majority of the passengers hailed from various locales therein; onboard I heard a plethora of languages being spoken - everything from Spanish and Italian to Russian. The ship's impressive facillities included a library, casino (wherein I lost a fair bit), numerous swimming pools, a nightclub (loud, neon & flash, just like any on land), more than a dozen unique bars & lounges and four (immense) dining rooms (as well as a pair of independent restaurants). While not in port, I occupied myself with a variety of activities, among the most interesting of which was a tour of one of the ship's four main galleys (any one of which occupies a similar square footage equivalent to that of my home):

Onboard most any cruise line, as a part of the price of admission, fairly ridiculous quantities of food are made freely available just about 24 hours a day. And somehow, despite such massive volumes of cuisine being served up, quality-wise, it's by-and-large both very good & very well-prepared.

To give you some idea of these quantities, the ship stocks somewhere between 110 and 115 tons of foodstuffs for each voyage! Daily preparations & requirements, on average, include *7000 lbs. of fresh fruit, 2100 lbs. of beef, 1700lbs. of flour (for bread alone, nevermind pastry), 550 Gal of soup and 500 lbs. of Pasta! Now, I've worked in catering & at busy restaurants before, yet even after a tour of the gleaming galley I only have the vaguest notion of how they put forth such high-quality food for roughly 3000 people day-in & out. The best I could come up with was that in addition to well-trained personel and state-of-the art equipment, they (like any successful kitchen) have a tried & true system which is followed to the letter.

All that soup for instance, would be prepared in an industrial apparatus like the ones pictured at left - each capable of cooking over seventy-six gallons at a go. Dinner service is a la carte, with a number of predetermined selections from which to choose, so dishes (with the exception of meat cooked to order) are prep-cooked somewhat in advance of the dinner times (which are more or less set under two seperate seatings) before being placed into temperature-controlled cabinets like the ones pictured here. Long rows of finishing, plating & garnish stations spanning the rear of these containers provide the last-minute touches to individual orders before they are brought to table. And if should you desire a drink with dinner, the point-of-sale system used by the dining room staff calls beverages back to one of two (caged) service bars in each galley, which brings us to the next part of my review - the drinks!

Now, with the cuisine being generally great, I have to say that I was shocked & disappointed to find the bar service more than lacking in many regards. What struck me as particularly shocking was the dichotomy of product qualities. Barring small differences between individual bars & lounges, based largely on theme, every bar had essentially the same range of spirits and mixers available. While hardly exhaustive, I was pleasantly surprised to see Pimm's No. 1, Appleton's V/X Rum, Campari, Leblon Cachaca, Simple syrup (made daily), Passionfruit & Raspberry purées by Funkin, Pomegranate syrup (used for Grenadine) & Angostura bitters at every bar. The bartenders were all friendly, each had a great patter & most seemed to know their spirits more or less thoroughly...

...yet there were no fresh juices *(despite the presence of some 70,000lbs. of fresh fruit on board), only Lime and Lemon pre-mixes, miniscule twists of citrus cut days prior were casually tossed into drinks with nary a twisting motion to be seen, the (already wet) tired ice used to prepare a drink was casually poured into the glass (despite the uniform presence of hawthorne strainers). Even worse, what passed for shaking a drink wouldn't even qualify as 'rocking them to sleep', much less 'waking them up', as the late Harry Craddock would say. Everything except neat spirits, was free-poured despite the uniform presence of jiggers and while glassware was stored in refrigerated units, the lack of a properly-chilled, diluted (or even measured) beverage within made cocktails more or less...unpleasant.

I visited each of the ship's bars to try and determine if perhaps there was a well-trained 'tender, one willing to make the effort. The folks in the "Martini Bar" were fairly appalled at my request of a stirred Martini (which was tossed exactly three times with watery ice before being strained into a cold glass), and were even more appalled that I had ordered it with Italian vermouth (which was far beyond stale). That they offered me a drink from their list of some forty-five "Martinis" was small consolation, let me tell you. An attempt at talking another barman through preparing a Hurricane resulted in a combination of Appleton's Rum, Lime sour mix, Passionfruit puree & no Simple syrup, all casually built over more melted ice. What was a cocktailian to drink under the circumstances, without becoming a hated "difficult customers"? Stick to Caipirinhas (the only drink which guaranteed fresh Lime as it was plucked from the garnish tray), simple Highballs & Cuba Libres (made with European Coca-Cola, which, much like Mexican Coke, is not made with HF Corn syrup).

Just as despair began to set in, I visted one of the ship's smaller on-deck bars, where I struck up a conversation with the South African bartender on duty. After a short exchange about food-service and bartending (& observing that he actually used the jigger at his station) I asked him if he would be willing to make a cocktail by my specifications - nothing outrageous, just a proper Whiskey Sour. With juice culled from wedges of Lemon in the garnish tray, a proper measure of Jameson's and a good hard shake it was fantastic. After noting his shifts, for the remainder of the cruise I went only to that bar for my cocktails & I introduced him to a number of classics which the bar's stock was abe to produce - an Americano, Bronx cocktail, Roman Punch, even a close fascimile of a proper Mai-Tai (sans Orgeat). He was curious to know where I had learned many of my recipes & I was happy to lend out reprints of the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, as well as Charles Baker's The Gentleman's Guide, which I had brought along to read. He devoured them in just four day's time and was quick to ply me with recipes of interest he had seen. All that just goes to show what a bartender who cares can do, even under less than optimal conditions, and I'm honored to have met & been able to share a few recipes with the man.

And so, with cuisine & cocktails squared away onboard the ship, here's a brief look at the first of my destinations:

Venice, Italy
Harry's Bar
Venice is a place of many wonders; the city itself is an engineering marvel, essentially standing on water. The buildings are hundreds of years old, built in a magnificent variety of architectural styles, and there is something very pleasant & peaceful about visiting a place where the streets remain unclogged by cars and traffic.

Chief (in my humble opinion) among the many marvels of Venice is Harry's Bar, a venerable & renowned (despite its discrete exterior) establishment opened in 1931. The dimly-lit interior is small & cozy, elegantly decorated in handsome wood tones with a tiny stone-top bar and white-jacketed staff. Though a bit expensive, the atmosphere (to say nothing for the phenomenal cocktails) was worth every Euro...

My Americano (pictured at left), Bellini & Old-Fashioned were prepared pefectly & efficiently by the fastidious barman and served in the house's beautiful engraved glassware. While seated, I (gleefully) watched the bartender press fresh oranges & purée a batch of white peaches (for the bar's most famous invention, the Bellini) in the manner of a well-practiced ritual, all while effortlessly keeping up with the busy lunch rush's liquid demands. Equally interesting about the experience, was the service - at once formal & intimate. All these elements combined under one roof - the gleam of knowledge and amusement in the otherwise silent bartender's eyes when an order came through, the quiet sounds of dishes and glassware - led to a truly fantastic experience...

Between a spot of writer's block, a poor memory and after noting the length of this post alone, I have opted to detail the remaining stops on my journey in my next post. Adventures with the cuisines and cocktails of Istanbul, Rome, Naples & Barcelona and others will be along shortly , so stay tuned!


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