These days, cruise lines are upping their game in the food stakes. Dining at sea hits a high note as lines tempt passengers with expanded culinary programs, enhanced celebrity chef partnerships and new onboard dining options. Many cruises now also offer the chance to embrace the local cuisine of destinations visited, with innovative food- and wine-themed itineraries and onshore dining experiences.
A cruise on Island Princess took us to some of the Med's most exciting food and wine destinations, with opportunities to savor traditional dishes and even learn how to cook some of them. Follow along, although we warn you -- you might get hungry!
--By Gilly Pickup, Cruise Critic contributor
In Istanbul, I was one of about eighteen passengers who signed up for the "Street Food of Istanbul" tour. Turkey has some of the freshest, most delicious street food in the world, and I was looking forward to sampling it for myself. A coach took us to the city's bustling Spice Bazaar, a gastronomic paradise since 1664, where one hundred or so stalls are piled high with spices, fruit and herbs, their aromas mingling with the scent of freshly ground coffee.
Our guide took us to a shop to taste rosewater-flavored Turkish delight--- the real deal, nothing at all like the bars we buy at home. We wandered down cobblestoned alleyways, stopping to sample local foods including fresh nuts and fat, juicy olives, which are set out on stalls in gigantic plastic containers. Lunch meant a feast of kumpir -- piping-hot baked potatoes wrapped in foil and topped with corn and cheese -- and a local favorite called balik-ekmek, a fish sandwich made with grilled mackerel fillet sprinkled with red pepper and served with lettuce, onion and a slice of lemon to be squeezed over the top. This was all washed down with glasses of hot, fragrant Turkish tea, or cay. Always served black, the tea is made with leaves grown on the Black Sea coast.
A Greek Feast
In Athens, it was time to enjoy an introduction to Greek food and wine. During our excursion, our guide took us along Evripidou Street (which translates as the 'street of herbs'). As we walked, our enthusiastic guide explained how local chefs make use of grape leaves and garlic in local dishes, as well as artichokes, tomatoes, white Santorini eggplants (these are sweet and juicy, not bitter like other types of eggplants), feta cheese, olives, olive oil and honey. Our tour finished with a folklore show and traditional Greek meal. Platters piled high with fluffy flatbreads and olive bread were served alongside creamy pumpkin soup with anise, beetroot layered with creamy Greek yogurt, and sea-urchin spaghetti with ouzo, garlic and ginger. Desserts included ekmek kataifi (custard and whipped cream pastry with syrup) and baklava, a traditional crispy, nutty dessert garnished with lemon-scented syrup. Greece is one of the world's oldest wine-producing regions, and our meal was accompanied by aromatic Greek wines -- hard to pronounce but easy to drink. My favorites were the white, light and spicy Moschofilero and the dry, Barbie-pink, sparkling Amyntaio, ideal for quaffing with fish.
Pasta in Naples
In Naples, our shore excursion visited Gragnano, a town that takes a leading role in the production of Italy's iconic pasta. At a pasta factory, we saw how the town's signature style of pasta -- made by mixing durum wheat with water from the Monti Lattari mountains -- is shaped, dried and hardened. Historically, Gragnano's main-street pasta makers would hang strands of spaghetti from rods to dry in the sun; townspeople say that the secret to their delicious pasta is the combination of spring water, mountain air and sunshine. The average Italian eats up to 90 pounds of pasta a year, and Gragnano's pasta makers contribute roughly ten percent of Italy's national production. Our trip ended with a delicious lunch of tortelli, a classic filled pasta of the region.
Tuscan Cooking School
Our arrival at Livorno meant it was back-to-school time, with an authentic Tuscan cooking lesson from a professional chef. In her cavernous, rustic kitchen, we watched (dutifully taking notes) as our teacher made egg pasta with lightning speed -- she made it look so easy. After donning long white aprons and chef toques, we learned how to prepare three different sauces: one made from walnuts and garlic, one a blend of sage and truffles, and the third a simple tomato and basil sauce. We were also told the secret family recipe for homemade limoncello -- though we were made to promise we wouldn't share it. After the class, we sat down to savor the fruits of our labors, which included ravioli with ricotta, sage and truffle sauce followed by a delicious panna cotta bursting with double cream and Amaretto liqueur.
After docking at Civitavecchia, we drove north past sleepy, topsy-turvy villages to a dairy farm hidden among rolling hills, blackberry-laden hedges and wizened olive trees. Our mission was to learn how the artisans make goat's cheese, and to find out how olive oil is produced. Upon arrival, we enjoyed crostino -- small slices of grilled bread topped with cheese and meats. This Italian appetizer dates back to medieval times, when Italian peasants typically ate their meals on slices of bread instead of plates. We tasted local wines, too -- namely Parrina Bianco, a blend of Terbbiano (a typical Tuscan vine) and the intensely crimson Parrina Muraccio, produced with grapes cultivated at the foothills of the Estate. As they say in Italy, salute!
Our next port of call was Toulon, in the south of France, where we drove through the glorious countryside that is Provence, famous for its wines. We passed lush, green landscapes before arriving at the photogenic medieval village of Le Castellet, with its tangle of stone alleyways and clusters of rustic, amber-hued houses flamboyantly decorated with flowers. After a coffee stop we headed for Bandol, a quiet seaside resort cradled by hills that is a long-popular retreat for artists and writers. Its sheltered location means first-class conditions for grape growing, and vineyards have thrived here since 600 BC. One of the greatest French wine appellations, Bandol produces inky reds, terrific whites and (according to some) the best rose produced in France. Our tour took us to the vineyards of Chateaux Vannieres, surrounded by fields of scarlet poppies, where we learned how to check a wine's color and clarity and how to smell, taste and analyze flavor and aroma. These lessons were made much more enjoyable by ample tastings of the delicious white, rose and red wines!
Spanish Cava Caves
At our last port, Barcelona, a bus took us outside the city to San Sadurni d'Anoia, home to the Freixenet cava cellars. This family business was founded in the early 20th century. Our tour began with an audio-visual presentation about cava (Spanish sparkling wine) after which it was time to go down into the original cellars, built in 1922. As we were walked through the different stages of the production process, we learned that the bubbles in Freixenet cava are due to a second fermentation process after the wine is bottled; the bottles rest in the cool humidity of the underground caves (there are over 12 miles of underground storage here) for up to three years. Next, it was time for us to go on a mini train to visit the modern workshop, where we ended the tour in style with glasses of chilled Freixenet cava accompanied by cheesy nibbles.