Culinary Capers on Land and Sea

By Ginger Dingus

I never tasted a limoncello I didn’t like. A glass of the silky Italian liqueur flavored with lemons is the perfect ending to an evening meal. Your limoncello moment might be in a trattoria in Italy, or it could be at an Italian restaurant aboard a cruise ship. In fact, it was on board a cruise ship that I was first introduced to limoncello.

But wait. It gets better.

Nurturing my inner chef at sea

Thanks to a cruise to Central America aboard Oceania’s lovely Marina, I’ve discovered a delicious new way to imbibe—drunken limoncello cake. I’ve even learned how to make it. Now that’s amore, and it all happened in a cooking class called “Love of Lemons” offered in the ship’s professional-style culinary center.

Mid-way through class, I felt a bit tipsy, though we hadn’t yet left port. The recipe for the aptly named cake did call for a generous portion of limoncello for soaking purposes. Then there was the welcoming flute of bubbly to get the dozen or so of us participants in the proper mood to create culinary delights. And what chef doesn’t like a sip of wine now and then while working? Our instructor, Executive Chef Kathryn Kelly, obliged, noting that “cooking wine is any wine you actually drink.”

When launched in 2011, Marina was the first cruise ship to offer hands-on cooking classes in a purpose-built culinary center. The ocean-view room has 12 well-equipped stations, each meant for two cooks to share. I partnered with my husband in making chicken scaloppini, lemon risotto and that marvelous limoncello cake which we later topped with lemon basil gelato. Be forewarned, skip your dinner reservations on class day. You’re expected to eat what you cook. Believe me, it’s so yummy you won’t be able to resist.

Culinary adventures ashore

The culinary experience is the cornerstone of Oceania Cruises, and that includes time spent ashore. It’s here that Kathryn Kelly is in her element, creating the line’s 50 culinary discovery tours in ports worldwide. “I ask where would I like to go if I had one day in the port? The magic of these tours is meeting the people who are behind the scenes,” she said.

Docking in Roatan, Honduras we sampled Kelly’s version of an ocean-to-table dining experience and met the chef behind the local shrimp scene. Roatan is an island, 36 miles long, four miles wide and housing a population of about 110,000. Our first stop, Blue Harbor Tropical Arboretum and Hydroponic Farm, is where much of the island’s fresh spices and lettuces are produced hydroponically. Using nutrient-rich water and no soil, the farm’s crops take just 52 days from seed to harvest. We gathered fresh salad greens for our lunch and moved beachside to Big French Key where we met Chef Sam.

Pink shrimp are a specialty of Roatan, and Chef Sam was the local man ready to show us how easy it is to cook them. He prepared shrimp cocktail with a tangy sauce freshly made with tomatoes and a small dose of a hot, bull nose pepper. Next came garlic shrimp cooked for three to four minutes in butter with garlic and parsley. Saving the best for last, Sam dipped the shrimp in a light batter and freshly grated coconut before quickly frying them in oil. He proudly displayed his hand-made grater, fashioned with “a hammer, a nail and a tin can.” Our lunch was a plate of shrimp three ways, rice, beans, cassava chips and hydroponic salad.

Dining choices galore

For a ship of 1,250 passengers, Marina offers a remarkable number of dinner venues, eight to be exact, plus room service. Of these, all but two are complimentary. Due to their outstanding cuisine and popularity, the four included specialty restaurants require reservations in advance.

During our week on board, we sampled six venues, discovering new treats each evening. At Jacques, the shipboard restaurant overseen by Master Chef Jacques Pepin, fresh bread is baked daily from flour specially purchased from France. That bread paired perfectly with the after-dinner trolley of French cheeses. At Red Ginger, the Asian restaurant, our waiter offered us a choice of chopsticks from a special presentation box. At Toscana, the place for Italian dishes, we carefully selected our olive oil from a menu of 10 varieties, all from Italy. We also had a choice of three different balsamic vinegars. Did I mention the head of roasted garlic accompanying our basket of breads?

Manatees to Mayan ruins

Enough of the foodie talk. There’s more to cruising than floating between breakfast, lunch and dinner tables.

Our Tropical Tempos itinerary, round-trip from Miami, called in four countries, including the U.S. In Harvest Caye, Belize, Oceania’s parent company, Norwegian Cruise Line, recently opened the cruise industry’s newest private island. There’s nothing like having seven acres of white sand beach reserved for the passengers of one smallish ship. We had our pick of hundreds of lounge chairs, hammocks and umbrellas. The large pool’s swim-up bar beaconed, but we opted for fish tacos and tropical drinks at a bar overlooking the zip line and our docked ship. Later, we hopped in a boat to tool around the lagoons in search of manatees, which we saw frequently breaking the surface to breathe.

While I was off learning to cook pink shrimp in Roatan, Honduras, my husband visited the only cameo factory in the Americas. Founded in 1851, Stone Castle Cameo Institute produces fascinating cameos from large seashells. You might even see your cruise ship or a Harley motorcycle carved as a cameo. No subject is off limits when it comes to art.

In Costa Maya, Mexico, we boarded a modern bus for the hour’s road trip to the Mayan ruins of Chacchoben, meaning the place of red corn. Dating back roughly 1,500 years, Chacchoben’s temples were overgrown with vegetation as recently as 1972. In fact, excavation only began in 1992. The site is now a national park with six exposed temples and plenty of work still to be done. You might say that’s food for thought.

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