Cruising the Mediterranean

On board Ventura

On board Ventura

I hadn’t really made up my mind about cruise holidays until recently. Having never experienced a cruise before, I wondered if I’d like the experience of being on a ship, and more importantly, what would the food be like?

So, last month, I set off on my first ever cruise – a trip around the Eastern Mediterranean with P&O Cruises, on board Ventura, to see what I made of it. We were to start in Venice and work our way around Kotor, in Montenegro, Corfu, Civitavecchia (the port for Rome, in Lazio), Ajaccio in Corsica finishing in Genoa, and flying home from Nice.

One of the most exciting elements about this cruise was that it was one of a number of foodie cruises organized by P&O. The Southampton-based company work with a number of celebrity chefs, including Michelin-starred Atul Kochhar and Marco Pierre White – all of whom have their own restaurants on board, and chefs come on board for selected cruises to join in the fun, cook for guests, hold masterclasses and run selected tours ashore. Atul Kochhar was to be our celebrity chef on board Ventura.

Atul Kochhar on board Ventura

Atul Kochhar on board Ventura

One of the main attractions of cruising to me was actually the places we’d visit en route. Being a fairly intrepid traveller, I liked the idea of visiting so many countries and cities in a week. The experience of cruising would be new to me, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it.

It turned out that I really, really enjoyed the experience. Our home for the week was a Deluxe cabin on board Ventura, which was more than spacious enough for us, with a giant bed, sitting room area and balcony. One of the particularly appealing aspects of cruising was having one base throughout the week. For the first time in ages, I could take the time to unpack and settle in to the room – normally, it’s not worth unpacking for just a night or two when staying in a hotel – and there’s no other way you’d be able to do that and visit so many cities in a week. What was particularly nice was having the cabin available at any time of the day, again, which is a experience you don’t get in a hotel, meaning you have your own private base any time you want it. Guests do still enjoy luxuries such as twice-daily housekeeping, breakfast in bed, should you wish, and full room service, which help make the cruising experience even more relaxing.

The standout experience however, had to be waking up in a new place every day, and enjoying breathtaking surroundings from the comfort of your own cabin. Waking up and watching Ventura slowly enter Kotor, past tiny villages clinging to the waters’ edge, looking out over glorious pine-wooded islands and turquoise sea in Corfu and cruising through the Straight of Messina are memories that will stay with me for a long time.

Kotor

Kotor

I found the cruising experience incredibly relaxing – particularly the fact that you often travel at night, while you relax on board or sleep in the comfort of your cabin, and that there are periods of enforced relaxation – i.e. sea days. In the week-long cruise, we had two days at sea, and both of which were, in fact, perfectly timed, breaking up a few days of intensive sightseeing.  Being the kind of traveller who’s always on the go, trying to see as much as possible, this made an extremely enjoyable change, and provided a much-needed break.

Of course, there is so much to see and do on board, you could choose just to stay on board in port – and many guests do – with swimming pools, a spa, a theatre and a huge array of activities to choose from, you needn’t leave the ship for the duration of your holiday.

If you are a more enthusiastic traveller, like me, you’ll be able to leave the ship at your leisure and do your own thing, or participate in one of the organised tours ashore, which were hugely enjoyable, and of course, an easy way to enjoy the very best to see and do ashore.

Now, I mentioned earlier this was a foodie cruise with Michelin-starred celebrity chef Atul Kochhar on board. Atul’s restaurant on board Ventura is called East, where Atul and his team serve up an interesting and imaginative selection of dishes with origins from all over the East. The curries and lamb rendang were standout dishes for me – with complex flavours, slow cooking and beautiful presentation, a trip to East was one of the highlights on board.

We also visited Marco Pierre White’s restaurant on board, The White Room. Serving classic European dishes with a contemporary twist, and a large deck with outside seating at the back of the ship, this was a particularly lovely spot, serving top quality, perfectly-executed food, both at breakfast time and dinner. Wine lovers will adore the incredible selection of wines on board, offering a selection of really interesting wines from all over the world.

Travellers with food allergies can rest assured that they are well-looked after. The kitchens are experienced at dealing with food allergies and intolerances, and make a heroic effort to cater for anyone with restrictions with the utmost care.

A cruise on board Ventura is one that would appeal to couples and families alike – with plenty of activities and night-time venues for adults, and a day and night kid’s club, meaning that everyone in the family can have a good time, too.

After a week on board, I left Ventura feeling relaxed, refreshed and invigorated having seen and done so much in the last week. I left a cruise convert, already thinking about my next cruise.

And now, here are some thoughts on what to do and where to eat in our ports of call along the way.

Venice

Venice

At Venice, the ship docks a short distance away, so from there, it doesn’t take long to get in to the heart of this world heritage site. We caught a boat, which dropped us just a few steps away from St. Mark’s Square. Top recommendations for Venice are a trip to Harry’s Bar for one of their famous Bellinis and an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere in one of the most iconic bars in the world. Don’t miss their delicious bar snacks, too. Caffe Florian in St. Mark’s Square is a must visit, too. Yes, it is very, very expensive, but it really is the nicest spot in which to soak up the atmosphere in the square with a drink. Sailing away from Venice is a truly breathtaking experience, passing past St. Mark’s Square and other famous landmarks. From the top deck, you get a full view of the islands – quite simply a unique and magical experience.

Kotor is a very compact walled town, set in an inlet close to the coast in Montenegro. Kotor town is just a few steps away from the port. Cruise ships don’t dock in the harbour, Instead, they run a tender service ashore, with a journey time of just a few minutes.

Konoba Ćatovića Mlini

Konoba Ćatovića Mlini

Konoba Ćatovića Mlini is, without doubt, one of the most stunningly positioned restaurants I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. Set on the site of an old mill, the restaurant provides a verdant and shady oasis on a hot day in which to enjoy many delicious Montenegrin delicacies, including mussels, octopus, hams, cheeses and generous main courses, such as steak tagliata and monkfish in saffron sauce. It’s worth making the 20 minute drive from Kotor to enjoy a leisurely lunch. Without question, it’s the best place to eat in the Kotor area, and indeed, one of the best restaurants in Montenegro.

If you have time, take a walk up to the San Giovanni Castle – although it’s a half-hour trek up to the top, the views will provide a sensational reward for your efforts.

Corfu

Corfu

Our point of call in Corfu was Corfu Town’s old port. It’s not far from the town centre, but it’s a good idea to take a taxi or shuttle bus into the town centre if that’s where you’re headed to save time and energy – it’s a fair walk in the heat. I’d recommend taking a wander around the narrow streets up towards the Old Fortress. Allow yourself time to get lost and you’ll stumble upon interesting churches, delicious bakeries and shady cafes set away from gift shops and more touristy cafes. The Old Fortress is very interesting and offers the best views in Corfu Town from the top. Wander down to Veranda tavern for a spot of lunch, again, enjoying gorgeous views out to sea. The service is slow, but the views and good traditional Greek dishes more than make up for it. The feta dishes and spanakopita were all excellent. Alternatively, try En Plo restaurant, occupying the far-northeastern spot at the edge of the town. Faliraki beach is a must – it’s so close to the ship, and the clear warm water is divine. Corfu’s island beaches are in reach of a day trip from the ship – a taxi to Glyfada beach is the most popular option.

Roma

Roma

Civitavecchia was our next stop – the port for Rome. If you’ve been and done Rome before, you may with to explore ‘Civi’ as it’s known, or further afield in Lazio, which is a very interesting area. Look out for regional delicacies include gnocchi alla romana, guanciale, porchetta and Roman artichokes.

Rome is around two hours drive away, and a tour from the ship is recommended. We chose a ‘Rome on your own’ tour, which would take us into the city, but allow us to do our own thing. There are organised tours available, both walking and by coach. I’d recommend a visit to Trattoria Tritone, just a short distance from the Trevi Fountain for lunch – delicious pastas (gluten free available) and excellent regional specialities, such as bucatini all’amatriciana and bucatini carbonara. If you spot a branch of Lemongrass gelato, do call in. Their gelato and dairy free sorbets are heavenly. Food lovers will enjoy a browse in Castroni coffee shop and delicatessen – a treasure trove of goodies just a short walk from Vatican City.

Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica is an enchanting stop. First of all, the ship stops right in the thick of it, so you have virtually no walking or travelling time once you arrive. The market in Place Foch is one of the very best farmers markets I’ve ever visited. The vast majority of products are either grown or produced in Corsica. The market was so good, we made our own picnic up and took it to the beach to eat. Fruit and vegetables are stunning – fresh green figs tasting of honey, ripe peaches and sweet tomatoes in a rainbow of colours. Then there are beautiful bunches of fresh herbs – wild fennel, thyme, myrtle, all picked freshly from the hills and brought down to the market, although some are sold dried as tisanes. Tomme is the local cheese – made from ewe’s milk, semi-soft with a delicious gentle tang. It is a gorgeous match with freshly baked bread from the markets – look out for the rose-shaped loaves. Chestnut flour is made on Corsica and widely used – look the bakeries offering 100% chestnut flour cakes for a delicious and wheat free treat. A beautiful beach is just a short walk away if you fancy catching some rays. Alternatively, the town centre is interesting for a shady stroll and some shopping. Stop off at a French-style café in the main square for a coffee.

Thank you to P&O Cruises for inviting me to experience a cruise on board Ventura. We travelled on an 8-day cruise around the Eastern Mediterranean on ship Ventura, which runs as a 7 or 14 night option. For more information, please see the P&O website.

What’s in your fridge? With Jo Wheatley

Jo Wheatley (Martin Poole)

I’m really pleased to bring you the first in a new series of posts on the blog today. Some of you may remember a while ago, I did a couple of posts called ‘What’s in your fridge?’. The response was brilliant, with so many of you sharing your essential ingredients to have to hand.

With that in mind, I thought it would be a lot of fun to take a peek into some of our most-loved foodies’ fridges, and find out what they love to cook. I’ve been busy interviewing some of my favourite food writers, chefs and bloggers over the last few months, and I will be bringing the contents of a famous foodie’s fridge to you once a week.

I’m delighted to kick things off this week with Jo Wheatley one of the nation’s favourite bakers, who was the winner of the Great British Bake Off in 2011.

So, here’s what you’ve been waiting for – a sneak peek into Jo’s fridge!

Jo's fridge

First of all, I asked Jo what her top ingredients are to have in the fridge and why. “I have a baby blue SMEG fridge that my brother sent me the Christmas after I won Bake Off. It was such a lovely surprise. Three days before Christmas, the delivery man turned up on my doorstep at 8am. I was covered in flour and had a very full old fridge – he must have thought I was a little crazy as I had no idea it was for me! So we had to empty all the Christmas supplies then move the old fridge before we popped it into the space. All day I kept wandering past and smiling, and nearly 3 years on I still love it. I keep it well stocked with Stork, Lurpak unsalted butter, milk, cream, cream cheese, lemons, limes, a water jug, fresh ginger and garlic and harissa paste.”

When it comes to baking, Jo tells me she buys Lurpak butter, “as I find this makes perfect scones and pastry at a moment’s notice. I use Stork for light fluffy sponges. Milk and cream are essential baking ingredients. Cream cheese is handy if I want to knock up a quick cheesecake. I also use it in my chocolate mud cake.”

“Lemons again are a baking essential, also if a recipe calls for sour cream I add a teaspoon of lemon juice to fresh cream for a quick alternative. I love Thai inspired dishes so fresh limes are a must at all times.”

Cold water is also another must-have. “I am a water fiend I drink it by the gallon but also when making pastry you need a supply of icy water. Harissa paste is my go-to when sometimes I don’t have time to think, spreading it over good pork or lamb chops but it’s equally amazing on chicken or steak”.

When it comes to cooking in a hurry, Jo has loads of go-to meals, and told me “as long as you have a well stocked fridge and cupboard I think most meals don’t really take long to make or prepare. Crab linguine is a big favourite in our house along with piri piri chicken and halloumi kebabs”.

For those of you interested in trying Jo’s recipes, you’ll find them over on her blog, Jo’s Blue Aga.

Since Jo won the Great British Bake Off, she has written two excellent cookery books based around baking, and runs her own cookery school from home, which was recently voted one of the UK’s top 5 cookery schools by the Guardian.

Thank you to Jo for participating. Follow her on Twitter @JoanneWheatley, and keep up to date with me on Twitter and Instagram @CharlotteKDiary. Please pop back next week for the next instalment.

Photographs reproduced with kind permission from Jo Wheatley. The photo of Jo was taken by Martin Poole.

Butter and milk buns

1Buns

There’s something special about a really good bun. Home made burgers are a wonderful thing, and I published my best-ever recipe in one of my cookery books. I think most people will now recognize that a bad burger patty is just not nice, but I think more and more people are coming to realize that a bad bun is just as bad.

This is a great, easy recipe for an enriched dough, made with butter and milk. It’s half way towards a brioche, which I also really like, but I feel as though this is a slightly more versatile bun, which also goes extremely well with the aubergine burger recipe in my vegetarian cookbook.

Butter and milk buns

Makes 12 large buns

Ingredients

550g strong white bread flour, plus extra for kneading.

1 tsp sea salt

2 heaped tsp quick action dried yeast (I find Doves Farm the best)

300ml full cream milk

50 butter, melted

2 egg yolks

You may wish to glaze the buns with 1 egg yolk and a sprinkling of sesame seed

Method

1)   Place the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the centre.

2)   Then, put all the remaining wet ingredients into a jug and whisk together.

3)   Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix to form a sticky wet, dough.

4)   If using a stand mixer, knead for 10 minutes on a medium speed. If making the buns by hand, then turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for around 10 minutes until smooth and ever so slightly tacky to the touch. Try not to add too much extra flour.

5)   Place the dough into a large mixing bowl and cover well with cling film. I like to put a tea towel over the top, too. Leave for around 4 hours until the dough has doubled in size.

6)   Knead the dough again briefly now, knocking the air out of it. Divide it evenly into 12 pieces and form evenly shaped balls.  Place on a floured tray, cover with clingfilm again, and allow the buns to rise again. This will take around two hours.

7)   Preheat the oven to 230C or equivalent.

8)   Glaze the buns with egg wash and sprinkle over some seeds if you’re using them.

9)   Bake for 25-35 minutes until they feel light, but crusty. They will be a deep, glossy brown.

10)  Allow to cool on a wire rack and devour.