Monday, December 9, 2013

FoodTrek: Cruise Cuisine, aka, "Cruisine"

You probably already saw a bit of the whirlwind trip we took in early November over Twitter -- we literally hopped aboard a river ship and cruised our way along the Rhine River, through Germany and France. Incredible, right? We were long overdue for a big vacation, and it was a reminder of why a bit of an adventure, even an easy, well-organized one, is a good thing. It had been a stressful, hectic year, and one of the most welcome things about this trip was the fact that we were fully taken care of -- one of the big draws of cruise vacations -- and when it comes to starting a vacation off right, being able to indulge in being looked after is such a glorious thing. And this was one trip where we weren't shy about saying we liked eating on the ship -- honestly, can you beat the view??

Feeling pretty royal on our vacation along the River Rhine - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I credit the Mister with doing all the travel research and planning -- he knew we would be too busy to design a whirlwind trip of Europe on our own, but we didn't want the typical mega-tour that shoves six countries, sixteen cities, into six minutes. We didn't have a ton of vacation days, but wanted to make the most of the time we had, concentrating our exploring to a specific region to make the most of those precious days off. Maybe it's all that Downton Abbey/PBS-viewing, but a river cruise through Europe fit the bill. It's all Viking River cruise ads on PBS, but Brock looked into more options and we went with Uniworld, which seemed like a better fit for us. Small ship, a new city every day, plenty of options between guided tours and independent exploring, with a focus on cuisine. You spend more time off the ship than on, and when you are on board, it's quite a lovely experience. No one can say the decor is understated, but whatever, we're on vacation. Relaxing...Like. A. Boss.

Fancy meets schmancy - enjoying our vacation and an excuse to tie complicated tie knots - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I had been on a short ocean cruise many years ago -- it was on one of the mega-ships, the size of a small city, and frankly... it was overwhelming. The large cruise ships are designed to be like an all-in-one resort, where you're encouraged to spend more time on board than in the locations you're visiting. At least that was my experience. It was relaxing, but I knew if I was going to let a ship take me somewhere, I wanted to make the most of the destination. This was Brock's first cruise experience ever, and while I don't want to speak for him, I think he had a pretty nice time. He definitely appreciated the excuse to learn fancy tie knots from YouTube videos.

Keeping it weird in our floating home away from home - Photos by Wasabi Prime
We spent a good amount of time in our port cities, but we definitely made the most of our temporary home on the water. It was pleasant to have our morning coffee on our room's balcony, wondering what the day would bring, and tea in the evening, as we departed the city we just explored. I woke up early every morning and it was nice to wander around the ship, when it was quiet, to watch the sun rise. And we always made time for silly, bizarre photos because that's how we roll, yo.

River cruising and getting wild at the Bar du Leopard on the S.S. Antoinette - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I'm not going to sugar-coat it: Uniworld cruises have a higher price point, it's not going to be a bargain vacation, but they really do take care of every aspect. And this was what we were looking for -- no fuss, no muss -- given our limited time and patience for planning ahead of time. We knew we were in good hands, seeing them handle a scheduling snag before we ever got on the ship -- our travel agent liaison with Uniworld gave us the wrong departure time of the ship from our departing city. Whoops. With all the coordination of flights, time differences and ship departure times, I'm sure this happens more often than the industry would like to admit, but Uniworld took the reins and made sure we got to where we needed to be, with a nice bonus of a suite upgrade. It eased our minds enough to make the most of our extended layovers at Heathrow in the UK. We got to know the quick deli sandwich stand, Pret A Manger, and had time for a pint and a pie with some fish and chips at Huxley's. Absolutely no Starbucks/Golden Arches for us on this trip, that was the rule!

Making the most of a layover at Heathrow Airport - tis the season! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Our vacation went off with a flying leap -- right onto the S.S.Antoinette. A driver hired by Uniworld picked us up at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and basically chased our ship as it coasted through the waterways, and he got us aboard. The ship literally pulled over for us in Utegard, we jumped on, and we managed to get settled just in time for dinner. The timing was pretty damn near perfect, and I had a tasty river crawfish greeting me atop a lemon-cream sauced fish. Let the river feasting begin!

Starting our vacation with a flying leap! Chasing our ship in Amsterdam - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I know, I know -- talk more about the food! Because it's a smaller ship, maybe 300 people at most on board including crew, it's not about eating yourself into a stupor at the buffet. The meals were buffet-style for breakfast and lunch, and dinner was always a sit-down affair. Uniworld markets to an English-speaking clientele (primarily American, Canadian, British and Australian), but they try to balance regional cuisine with what their guests are comfortable with. Breakfasts and lunches had hearty and light options; you chose for yourself what kind of food would fuel your day. They offered a hamburger with fries for lunch one day, but you were eating German or Northern French-inspired dishes for the majority of the journey. I also didn't get the sense that much food product was wasted on the trip, unlike those giant mega-ships where you'll see pounds of food made up to be strictly garnish and never eaten. I would see similar ingredients get stretched out through the day's meals, which I appreciated; if there was sauerkraut at lunch, I'd see a sauerkraut soup at dinner, where presumably the extra was repurposed. It's my weird nothing-goes-to-waste mentality at work, but I appreciated that.

Local dishes and drinks, and the wine pours are HEFTY - Photos by Wasabi Prime
While I'm not one for cheesy themes, I liked the food themes Uniworld worked into the evening meals. They mixed Rudesheim-style coffee drinks, which were like boozy Frappucinos when we were in the city of the same name. Locally-familiar ingredients like venison and spaetzle were served. We had buttery-garlic escargot and a classic crown roast of lamb when we reached France. They dressed up the plates with fun things like prawns and vegetables in aspic with a foam finish, and amuse bouche-style bites inspired by French haute cuisine. It was impressive to see the level of detail they focused on such large meal services. For feeding an entire ship full of people, the dinners themselves felt very intimate. And no complaints on the wine pours -- they were pretty large and in charge. Cheers.

Dinner dressiness, with a cocktail finish - Photos by Wasabi Prime
We tried to grab lunch in the cities we visited whenever we could, but I was never disappointed with what was being prepared when we were eating on board. They even had daily tea times, which we were glad to catch one day. I loved that they made a Rhine cake. That's not an official name, that's just what I called it because it was literally a cake with a map of the Rhine River, marked off with all our stops. Sweet, right? It was too cute to slice up, so we filled our plates with tea sandwiches and all the fussy little pastries we could eat, especially the ones topped with the marvelous tart-flavored, paper-shelled gooseberries.

Teatime and a little taste of France - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Even if you're still not convinced eating meals on a boat is a nifty thing, you can't beat fruhschoppen while cruising through a castle-filled wonderland. Medieval and Romantic castles are all over the Rhine, and one of the best views is from the river itself. It can be a chilly view in early November, so having a plate piled high with German sausages, sauerkraut, pickles and fresh-baked pretzels -- and a beer -- is one way to keep the autumn chill away as you coast by some incredible views. This was our very picturesque introduction to the Bavarian-style brunch known as fruschoppen. 

Are you familiar with fruschoppen? You should be. And often - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I'd like to start collecting late morning meal customs from around the world. I've thoroughly enjoyed the varieties of American brunch, the bite-sized food-fest that is dim sum, and now I can add Germany's fruhschoppen. It's so simple, but what a delicious balance of hot, cold, savory and pickled goodness. Washing it down with a simple, clean beer is a reminder why a lot of Germany's beers have such a neutral wheat flavor. It doesn't do to overwhelm the palate with too much hoppy flavor when you're having rich veal and pork sausages or the sharpness of preserved cabbage.

Having our brunch, surrounded by sights pulled straight out of a fairy tale, was one of the most memorable meals I've had. It was a reminder that for all the ways we can dress up a dish, the favorites are so often about the overall experience of how the food was savored, even if it's a big ol' pile of potato salad. When we returned from our trip, everyone asked what our favorite part was. Honestly, there were too many to single out, but brunch and castles was definitely high on the favorite list.

Memorable meals are paired best with beautiful experiences - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I promise I'll share more edible adventures through Germany and France in upcoming posts -- this certainly isn't the extent of our trip, so stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. You know what is taking my breath away? The castle? The vineyard? Well, yes. But most of all, that tie knot! Wow, impressive.


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