Truffles, travel and toboggans on our P&O Cruises culinary adventure with Paul A Young…
It’s a Wednesday night and the sun is slowly setting on board the cookery club of P&O Cruises Britannia. A burnt amber glow puddles over the surfaces and the smell of melting chocolate is rich and heady in the air. We are on board Britannia for guest chef Paul A Young’s cookery series – one of a selection of P&O Cruises food heroes booked in for 2019. He is in the middle of making an entirely chocolate themed dinner, right from the starter to the dessert and anticipation is high. There is a group of 10 of us and the atmosphere is relaxed yet excited. We are holding a chilled glass of prosecco, condensation clinging to the glass and feeling the gentle sway of the sea below. After what has been a rocky few days over the Bay of Biscay, this is a welcome treat.
Paul A Young, an animated and friendly character is a groundbreaking and inspirational chocolatier who is at the forefront of the British chocolate scene. He is the owner of three stores in London and has won numerous awards including the best sea-salted caramel in the world and has appeared regularly on our TV screens, including BBC Two’s Made in Great Britain and popular historic series The Sweet Makers. He places an emphasis on fresh chocolate (after all, how long do we keep an open box of chocolates really) and don’t even think about storing them in the fridge! He is no snob about his craft, making high-quality truffles and bars, yet still enjoying the nostalgic flavours of a Cadbury dairy milk when time sees fit. After all, he says, chocolate is there to be enjoyed and sometimes you just want to recreate that feeling of your favourite sweet treat from when you were a kid. He has experimented (and succeeded) in making chocolate with almost anything, from mustard and Marmite to Yorkshire tea and biscuits (though fish is one ingredient that will just never work!) He tells us this as he puts the final touches to our starters – a delicious Voute of Jerusalem artichoke with pecorino and cocoa nib wafers. We take our seats among our fellow guests who enthuse about just what a brilliant cruise they are having. The sailing in question is one of P&O Cruises Strictly Come Dancing themed cruises, with outfits worn by the contestants out on display in the atrium, dance lessons by some of the professionals and unique dinners hosted in speciality restaurants by the pro dancers.
There is a definite feel of glamour in the air, a fizz of excitement and guests are lapping it up. One lady sat opposite me tells me about her one to one dance lesson with the professionals that morning and she can’t keep the smile off her face as she recounts the steps she learnt and what an experience it was – ‘it’s crazy to see them after watching them on the television, let alone dance with them! ‘ We tuck into the salads and while you’d not imagine that a chocolate dressing and cocoa nib wafers would work on a salad, it does. And it works very well, being both deliciously complex in flavour, yet beautifully light all at once. Once demolished, we head back to the front of the cookery school where Paul shows us how to manually temper chocolate in preparation for our dessert later on.
He pours the silky, molten chocolate to the marble surface and there is an audible intake of breath as we all inhale through our noses. The gentleman next to me and his wife tell me how they booked this cookery club experience after attending Paul’s cookery class the day before. They loved Paul’s work and expertise so much that one visit just wasn’t enough on this cruise. There were two masterclasses on Paul’s one-week residency on the Britannia and both were packed with those wanting to learn from the best. The classes are around two and a half hours long and you learn the process of chocolate making from bean to bar, try different strengths of chocolate, learn about the difference in quality and substance between the cheap bars and the more expensive ones, and make your very own truffles.
The truffle making was a fun process, tempering the chocolate in a saucepan, making our own ganache and choosing our own filling flavours. I decided on a mix of lemon, cinnamon and sea salt and it turned out beautifully well. Paul wandered around, offering guidance and feedback and once we had completed the class, we were sent off with two boxes and around 50 truffles. “they’ll keep until you get home” were Paul’s departing words from the class. Having tasted one, I wasn’t so sure. My restraint was good, but not that good.
At the time of the cookery club hosted dinner, there were three days left of our voyage from Southampton to Gran Canaria and we were excited to be stepping off to explore the next morning. We’d been on board for four consecutive sea days, something I had pondered about before the trip. Would there be enough to do? Would I go a bit stir crazy? Would I lose total track of time? Thanks to the lack of signal at sea, it was a real blessing to not be able to use my phone for a few days. At first, I felt as though I’d lost a limb and imagined logging back on to 1,000 emails and multiple work-related emergencies. After a day or so, however, I found the metaphorical weight of having my phone on me 24/7 begin to lift and I began to value my time and space away.
Emails could wait, social media could wait and it was a refreshing realisation to just live in the now. People in the atrium were all speaking to each other over cocktails, no couples craning their necks over their phones instead of talking to each other, they were indulging in ice cream sundaes from Eric Lanlard’s new partnership with the Marketplace Cafe (make sure you try the apple pie flavour it’s to die for!) and making the most of the shops. There are more than enough designer wares here to keep you occupied and for when you’ve shopped duty-free until you drop, there are a number of bars and restaurants to eat and drink at.
Head to Brodies by the atrium for a pint or glass of wine and to watch the football or play a game of pool. We enjoyed a couple of games of Bingo here (so much tenser than you would think!) and a few quizzes. The top pool deck was basking in sunlight after a cloudy couple of days and the pools were full – yet not overcrowded – and I always managed to find a sunbed. There is a main pool which is right by the buffet and Lido grill to enjoy a poolside bite, as well as the adults-only Serenity pool, a more secluded and quiet area with cabanas to escape the sun. There are hot tubs and another smaller outdoor pool at the back where you can sit and watch the ship sail through the water.
Time soon becomes irrelevant, gliding in a chilled haze from a leisurely breakfast to a sunbathe by the pool, to a game or two in Brodies. This is followed by lunch by the pool, in the buffet or main dining room, to a Strictly dance class, more sunbathing, a stint in the gym, then back to the cabin to get ready for dinner. Everything happens at a leisurely pace, there’s no need to rush, for you are being taken care of completely, the captain sailing you towards the first destination, leaving you to relax, unwind and indulge in all the delicious cuisine on board. ‘That’s the thing about cruising’ my fellow diner jokes back in Paul A Young’s dinner class ‘you come on as a passenger and get rolled off as cargo!’
“You can forget navigating Google maps, having to have hundreds of tickets and no entertainment, for cruising makes the journey just as important as the destination.”
There is so much food on offer all the time, and of course, it would be rude not to try it all. I pile croissants and fruit on my plate in the breakfast buffet, savour ice cream in the market place, enjoy freshly baked pizza dripping with hot mozzarella at the poolside grill, fine dine on some of the most impressive cuisines I’ve ever eaten in the Epicurean and enjoy three courses in the main dining venues. Over the week I sip strawberry daiquiris poolside, prosecco from the back of the ship as I watch the calm sea below, and sample new and exciting wines with dinner.
The rest of the ship was carrying on to explore the other Canary Islands before sailing back to Southampton. This freedom to explore the world without having to worry about the logistics of it is one of the main reasons I adore cruising as much as I do. There’s something so comforting about knowing that getting to your destination is in someone else’s hands – and you can have fun along the way. There are no messy transfers, packing up suitcases every couple of days, experiencing dodgy Hotels, waiting for bumpy coach journeys or overpriced taxis – you simply head to bed and wake up to the hazy silhouette of a new country appearing in the horizon. You can forget navigating Google maps, having to have hundreds of tickets and your only entertainment being candy crush, for cruising makes the journey just as important as the destination. In destinations such as those we visited it’s easy enough to head off on your own (as I did in Gran Canaria) but for Madeira and La Palma I booked organised tours as I wanted to find out a bit about the destinations and do some activities. In Madeira, I did the famous Cable Car and Toboggan tour which included heading up a mountain in a cable car and whizzing back down in a traditional wicker basket toboggan, before a spot of wine tasting. (It was exhilarating, unusual and really good fun.) La Palma involved a visit to the island’s active but dormant volcano Cumbre Vieja, a trip to a traditional pottery business to see one of the local craftsmen at work and also a spot of wine tasting. Gran Canaria I decided to soak up the sun and took a short fifteen-minute walk from the ship to the beach for a sunbathe and ice cream.
The cookery club on board Britannia adds a new dimension to cruising and just another reason to cruise with them (if you need one.) It’s a chance to do something you would never get to experience on the outside world, to spend an evening up close and personal with some of your favourite chefs and for them to cook an exclusive meal and eat with you. It’s exciting and it’s something you’ll never forget. Paul A Young was a brilliant host – he was so friendly, helpful and down to earth, it made the experience what it was. The cookery class was brilliant and the dinner even better. One thing was for sure – my sweet tooth had been well and truly spoilt! As I headed home from Gran Canaria, I found myself revelling at just how amazing cruising really can be. There is so much on offer, so many experiences around each and every corner, that no trip is the same. You return with a wealth of experience, memories, photos – and, in my case, the desire to add chocolate to every meal. What more could you wish for?