Ju­dith Elen gets an early taste of P& O’s new gourmet sail­ings

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

RUIS­ING comes in many shapes and sizes and some­thing new is al­ways turn­ing up. The ship I’m on this week­end is one of those tow­er­ing white leviathans, P& O’s Pa­cific Dawn, but the cruise is pocket-sized. It’s a taster in two re­spects, a Fri­day night to Mon­day morn­ing out­ing that is also in­tro­duc­ing a food and wine pro­gram.

There is no des­ti­na­tion and it’s never re­ally an­nounced where we are, though we’ve left Syd­ney and are pointed in the di­rec­tion of Bris­bane. The cruise is the thing, sail­ing the Pa­cific, the Aus­tralian coast­line al­ways on the hori­zon. With the open sea, wide skies and that sliver of land in the dis­tance, we could be any­where, me­an­der­ing up a Nor­we­gian fjord or off the coast of South Amer­ica.

A re­cent P& O Aus­tralia move has been to fo­cus ex­clu­sively on lo­cal wines for all its cruises (ex­cept cham­pagne); Aus­tralian and New Zealand wine­mak­ers fur­nish the lists and re­vamped cruise menus show­case lo­cal pro­duce. This new food and wine pro­gram shines its spot­light on the Hunter Val­ley.

The cruise leaves Syd­ney’s King Street Wharf 8 on Fri­day evening, board­ing from 3pm for an 8pm sail­ing, and re­turns to Syd­ney at 7am on Mon­day. I am on the first of two test cruises but there is al­ready a com­mit­ment to sched­ul­ing th­ese spe­cialty week­ends across the fleet in 2010. Su­per­liner Pa­cific Jewel will de­part Syd­ney on a three-night Hunter Val­ley-themed cruise on Jan­uary 29 and Pa­cific Dawn sails from Bris­bane on May 12 for a three-nighter.

As I head for Wharf 8 from the far end of the prom­e­nade, I don’t have to ask which one it is. The bul­bous white bow of the ship seems to float above the wharves like a hov­er­ing space­craft. The crush at checkin is like board­ing an air­line without the calm and on board is so vast it might be daunt­ing. But it doesn’t take long to get a fix on where ev­ery­thing is, with restau­rants, bars and shop­ping ar­eas grouped log­i­cally.

The at­mos­phere is like a big night out at the lo­cal club. Though not gen­er­ally in fam­ily groups, ev­ery mem­ber of the fam­ily is rep­re­sented here, from grand­par­ents to chil­dren, and there are groups of women friends of ev­ery age. There is a cel­e­bra­tory mood from the beginning; as the week­end pro­ceeds and the ship sails on, the party never be­comes too rau­cous or out of con­trol, al­though every­one seems to have fun.

As I’m leav­ing, I ask a group of women in the lift: ‘‘ Have we had fun?’’ The white-haired grand­mother is first to an­swer: ‘‘ It’s been a won­der­ful week­end.’’

The food and wine theme, with cof­fee work­shops and bou­tique beer tast­ings, is one strand of many on­board ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing spa treat­ments, ex­er­cise and dance classes, games and shows, all well pa­tro­n­ised, but the de­gus­ta­tion din­ner is the high­light.

An­drew Clarke, head chef at Pokol­bin’s three-hat Rock Restau­rant in the NSW Hunter Val­ley, has drawn up a seven-course menu of dishes served at Rock. I can only be­gin to imag­ine the chal­lenge in trans­lat­ing a meal usu­ally served in a pro­vin­cial restau­rant to one ca­ter­ing for 1800 peo­ple. Dif­fer­ent kitchens, dif­fer­ent equip­ment, dif­fer­ent staff. Clarke lets me and my friends tour the ship’s gal­leys on Satur­day af­ter­noon. He ex­plains that his dishes will be a lit­tle ‘‘ pared back’’ on board, some of the stages will be deleted, gar­nishes may be re­duced, but his cui­sine es­sen­tially will be un­changed, with the same fo­cus on in­gre­di­ents and fresh­ness.

Black truf­fles, for ex­am­ple, from Man­jimup in West­ern Aus­tralia, were flown in Fri­day morn­ing af­ter be­ing har­vested on Thurs­day, and were im­me­di­ately packed into air­tight con­tain­ers with eggs, just as they are in rus­tic French house­holds, to in­stil the por­ous eggs with the un­mis­take­able, pun­gent aroma of the fungi. This is for Clarke’s truf­fle-in­fused creme brulee.

Other dishes at Sun­day evening’s de­gus­ta­tion are a lit­tle cup of jerusalem ar­ti­choke veloute with a wafer of the crispest pancetta, a shell­fish bisque, coral trout with as­para­gus, a suc­cu­lent nugget of duck breast with raisins, ap­ples and hazel­nuts at its heart, a small cut­let from a roasted lamb rack, Hunter Val­ley washed-rind cheese with rose­mary mousse and fi­nally that truf­fle creme brulee.

It would be fab­u­lous in any restau­rant but is an

Sea change: Chef An­drew Clarke from Rock Restau­rant, Hunter Val­ley, pre­pares a de­gus­ta­tion din­ner for 1800 pas­sen­gers aboard Pa­cific Dawn

Ship shape: En­joy great tastes on P& O’s Pa­cific Dawn food and wine-themed cruises ab­so­lute tri­umph here, per­fectly served to so many. And it is in­cluded in the price of the cruise, though wines are bought sep­a­rately.

A se­ries of for­mal wine-tast­ings and mas­ter­classes over the week­end in­volve Hunter wine­mak­ers Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell’s Wines and Duane Roy of four-yearold Glan­dore Es­tate and Craig Stans­bor­ough, chief wine­maker at Grant Burge Win­ery in the Barossa. The for­mal Palm Court Din­ing Room is set with round, linen-draped ta­bles and we take our places in front of six glasses to hear the mak­ers talk and taste the wines.

At one ses­sion, Tyrrell and Roy take it in turns to in­tro­duce their wines. They ex­plain their re­gion and its grapes, how it com­pares with other ar­eas. Spring in the Hunter, for ex­am­ple, is four to five weeks ahead of Tas­ma­nia, af­fect­ing the ripen­ing of the fruit and har­vest­ing. They ex­plain char­ac­ter­is­tics of wines pro­duced in par­tic­u­lar re­gions and how they de­velop; is­sues such as corks and cork-taint are dis­cussed.

At his tast­ing, Stans­bor­ough re­lates anec­dotes packed with his­tory and the pro­cesses of wine­mak­ing, even the chem­i­cal re­ac­tions in the mouth that gen­er­ate Fares for three-night cruises next year on Pa­cific Jewel from Syd­ney on Jan­uary 29 and Pa­cific Dawn from Bris­bane on May 12 start from $699 a per­son twin share. More:

Pic­ture: Phil Hill­yard

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