River cruising is a wonderful way to experiment with local food – a taste, but not total immersion, as it were. Most cruise lines make a real effort to introduce local dishes on their menus, as well as ashore and in cookery classes and demonstrations.
Where could lend itself better to this than France? A week on the Rhône on Scenic Sapphire included a session learning to prepare the perfect Poulet de Bresse, using France’s answer to chicken royalty: hand-reared, organic Bresse chicken. The aromas of the meat bubbling gently with cream, morel mushrooms, herbs and white wine wafted around the ship, not surprisingly, drawing a large and hungry crowd to the lounge. Scenic has since opened a cookery school on Sapphire, so you can have a hands-on attempt at French classics.
A lot of cruise lines take you ashore for a special tasting meal and these can be a real education. I cruised with Uniworld on a week-long voyage out of Bordeaux and had one of the most amazing lunches of my life at the fairytale, 17th century Château d’Arche, in the heart of the Sauternes region, where sweet wines the colour of liquid gold are produced. I’d always seen Sauternes as something to drink with dessert but this lunch was a revelation, with a honey-like wine paired to every course, from smoked salmon with tangy horseradish to corn-fed chicken with asparagus and deliciously salty, rich, wild mushrooms.
Often, it’s the simple dishes that create the best memories. The Douro, a river rapidly growing in popularity, is offered by lines including Scenic, Emerald, Riviera Travel and Uniworld. At the furthest point inland on a Douro cruise, Barca d’Alva, up against the Spanish border, where there’s really little more than mountains and wild forest, most lines stop for a deck barbecue. On my recent Emerald Waterways cruise, we feasted on grilled sardines, fresh from the Atlantic, with a squeeze of lemon, washed down with a summery rosé as the Milky Way arched across the night sky.
Of course, there are endless opportunities to sample port on a Douro cruise but there are other pleasures. One afternoon, we learned how to cook pasteis de nata, tiny tarts of flaky pastry filled with a sweet custard. You see them everywhere in Portugal and although they were available to snack on most of the time on the ship, what followed the demo was no less than a feeding frenzy as the tarts are so delicious fresh from the oven.
On a cruise across central Europe via the Rhine and Danube, different flavours unfold on board as the ship crosses invisible borders. On a recent Rhine cruise with Crystal, the lunch buffet was all you’d expect from an ultra-luxury line but this didn’t prevent the chefs from producing an array of hearty sausages, pork dishes and sauerkraut, as the ship sailed through Germany. On an AmaWaterways voyage on the Danube, we tried Wienerschnitzel with parsley buttered potatoes in Austria and a rich, pungent goulash on the lunch menu in Hungary.
Although river cruise lines in Europe are limited in the number of restaurants they can put on board because ships are restricted in size by the many locks, companies are getting increasingly creative. Top marks to Uniworld for the pretty Le Bistrot on the company’s new Seine cruiser, Joie de Vivre. Le Bistrot is a tiny slice of Paris, complete with red chequered tablecloths, art deco prints on the walls and a genuine Parisian bistro menu. We had a superb French onion soup in here, as well as Toulouse sausage and haricot bean cassoulet and a perfect tarte aux pommes.
Avalon Waterways, impressively, incorporates healthy local dishes, many of them vegetarian, into its main menus in Europe, denoted by the ‘Avalon Fresh’ symbol. These dishes have been created by brothers Leo and Karl Wrenkh, the founders of the Wrenkh Vienna Culinary School. Expect anything from potato dumplings with bell pepper ragout and a chive sauce to sage-sautéed spinach gnocchi served with fried beetroot. Everything is locally sourced and, of course, fresh.
In Asia, there’s even more scope for culinary creativity. Scenic offers some fantastic optional tours, not least a Vespa foodie tour of Ho Chi Minh City by night and a cookery class ashore in Hanoi. APT, meanwhile, has a partnership with Vietnamese celebrity chef Luke Nguyen and offers several cruises every year with Luke on board and in Ho Chi Minh City, a class at the chef’s cookery school, GRAIN. On an Avalon Waterways trip on the Irrawaddy, the chefs taught us to make tea leaf salad (far more delicious than it sounds, with vinegary spices and crushed peanuts) and a spectacular ginger tea, with actual ginger juice and rum, that I still make at home.
Wherever you cruise, though, it’s all about choice. This is one of the joys of a luxurious river voyage; you can go all out to broaden your palate with exotic dishes but there’s always the sanctuary of the ship to return to, with its daily staples of comfort food. After all, sometimes, all you want is a cheese sandwich.
Would you like to tantalise your taste buds on a foodie river cruise? Call our Cruise Concierge team on 0800 197 0854 to plan your perfect voyage.