THE GLOBAL GOURMET
Judith Elen gets an early taste of P& O’s new gourmet sailings
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: www.pocruises.com.au.