Go Dutch for great food at sea.

Today’s cruisers attach massive importance to the quality and variety of food on board. Nick Harman sees what Holland America’s newest ship has on the menu.

home-bgHolland America is one of the most venerable of cruise lines, but perhaps not the best known in the UK. Founded in 1873 for many years it ran regular passenger sailings from Holland to New York.

In fact when Rotterdam was the gateway to a new and better life for European emigrants in the early part of the last century, it was mostly on Holland America ships that they sailed.

I was invited to Rotterdam to sail and eat on the ms Koningsdam, the newest addition to the Holland America Pinnacle-class cruising fleet, and the largest as well. It was about to be dedicated by Queen Maxima of the Netherlands before we sailed to Amsterdam overnight.

All aboard for ‘free’ food Continue reading

La Cova Fumada, Barcelona

Carrer del Baluart, 56, 08003 Barcelona, Spain

‘There’s no sign outside,’ my informant told me over a beer in the Ramblas, ‘and you’ll think that there simply can’t be anywhere good to eat in that tourist area, but honestly, it’s the bomb.’

bomba6-1Which is a bit of an in joke because the restaurant is known, by those in the know, as ‘La Bomba’ because of one particular tapas it serves that is loved by all who go to this tiny place hidden in the backstreets of Barcoloneta, the port part of Barcelona. Continue reading

Loving Luxembourg

It’s one of the world’s richest countries; it’s also one of the smallest. Nick Harman legs it over to Luxembourg to see what’s cooking.

IMG_4839It’s kind of appropriate when flying off to a country that’s barely 84 km long that I get on board an airplane equally as tiny. Just as France could swallow the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg many times over, you could fit quite a few Dash-8 airplanes into a modern jetliner.

The Luxair turboprop Dash -8 is the plane that makes the daily short hops from London City Airport to Luxembourg, it buzzes down the runway like an angry wasp and then climbs steeply out to minimise noise nuisance over Docklands.

Just over an hour later and we are over the heavily forested countryside of Luxembourg, the country is essentially a rural one and in its south eastern area is a large chunk of the Mosel valley, from where Luxembourg gets its Crémant de Luxembourg sparkling wine, a special type of wine within the Moselle Luxembourgeoise appellation. It’s drunk as an aperitif just about everywhere in the Duchy, as I will find out.

IMG_4849Luxembourg is a country yes, but it is also a city, which can get confusing. The city is a short ride from the airport, regular buses run back and forth and a tramway is being built, although most residents pull a face when you ask about it, suggesting that no one expects it to be ready anytime soon.

Within minutes of landing I am taking my weekend bag into the 4 star Hotel Simoncini, a bright smart and modern place bang in the centre with clean, sharp lined rooms and works of art in every corner.

Out to investigate

IMG_4929The general impression people have of Luxembourg, if they’ve never been that is, is one of lawyers, politicians and bankers all living well off the fat of the European Union, and it’s certainly true that the place has the scent of money. Fancy cars are everywhere and the men and women wear the sort of clothes that don’t scream wealth, but subtly demonstrate through cut, colour and fabric that they are not cheap either.

IMG_4984The city is divided by the deep Alzette valley. On one side is the beautiful old town perched on its cliff top, and once the most impregnable place in Europe thanks to its fortifications. Today it’s protected by Unesco from any attacks by modern day marauders trying to make money in property.

IMG_4956Across the gorge is the Kirchberg district where shiny office towers dominate, but not so long ago this was, as the cliché goes, all fields. And somewhat oddly, fields do still exist just behind some of the more massive shrines to capitalism thrown up by the big banks.

IMG_4966All is not empty hearted money though because here too is the Grand Duke Jean Museum of Modern Art, or Mudam for short, where I wandered happily. The museum is literally built on the old stone fortifications, and it has been done brilliantly so that old and new are equally visible at the same time.

Luxembourg has also realised that an area of town made up of nothing but office buildings is a soulless empty place at nights and weekends, so all new buildings have to dedicate their ground floors to shops and restaurants.

IMG_4908I ate lunch in the Aqua (Hotel Melia) close by to Mudam and it was very good; fine cooking in a stylish, modern glass environment with views out to the city.

IMG_4911Afterwards I went around the corner to see inside the Philharmonie concert hall, designed by the architect Christian de Portzamparc, a place of absolutely stunning design and, I was told, perhaps the finest acoustics in any hall anywhere in the world.

The old town and some stiff walking

Back in the old town there’s plenty to see. Obviously there is serious shopping to be had here but it’s not all Bond Street, even though one place I peered into sold nothing but classic watches and 4500 Euros seemed to be the cheapest one on offer.

IMG_5009If you’re not into clothes and watches there is food in plenty here, from the very finest restaurants serving classic French cuisine to modern fusion places such as Go Ten where platters of easy-eating and stylish Japanese style food are available all day. In the evening it becomes central to the whole busy bar and eating scene for the young Luxembourgers who gather in this charming part of town.

The morning food market the next day, Saturday, in the historic Place Guillaume was packed with good things to lust over and afterward there was a wide choice of coffee and pastry shops to try.

IMG_4897 The locals endlessly debate the merits of the very old and established Patisserie Namur against the very modern Patisserie Oberweis, but both have the capacity to bring you to your knees at the sight of incredible pastries and cakes as art form.

Just as well then that there are great walks to burn some of those calories off. For the less active the Chemin de la Corniche is a pedestrian promenade that runs along the line of the 17th-century city ramparts with fabulous views across the river valley. Or you can descend, fighting the pull of gravity, to the valley floor itself where the small winding streets come alive at night, especially in the old brewery area, the Grund quarter, now home to lots and lots of lively bars and restaurants.

IMG_5018Here too is the massive Neumünster Abbey, a cultural centre where there is always something going on, especially jazz concerts on a Sunday often to be enjoyed for free with a coffee, and if you’re hungry upstairs is Brasserie Neumünster’ where easy eating buffets are served and are good value too I found.

Chocolate and cheeses

IMG_4862Good news is that there is no need to clamber back up the steep winding roads afterwards, an elevator hewn into the rock lifts you back to the old town in seconds. And moments later I’m having a hot chocolate in front of the Luxembourg Grand Ducal Palace, watching other tourists pose with the stony-faced palace guard. The Luxembourg Royal Family, happily retained after a nationwide referendum in 1919, live here much of the time close by their subjects who by all accounts love them dearly.

And I love the chocolate shop dearly. The Chocolate House has more than 60 hot chocolates on IMG_5026offer, with a large choice of pralines, pies and homemade cakes too. Slimming it isn’t. All I can do after is to walk the streets very slowly, poking my nose into the incredible cheese shop at Kaempff Kohler where you can select some cheeses and sit down with a glass of wine from the wine shop and have a taste trip like no other.

Dinner is served

And later, hungry once more I descend to eat at UmPlateau, a charming place in an old house. Upstairs is cosy, the rooms feeling like someone’s sitting room. Downstairs is a bar built out back, a place that seems popular with the more jetsetty style of local and which has over 25 wines by the glass, as well as a whisky menu.

IMG_4971The food is modern European all over, well done without being adventurous and well priced too. Sharing platters of jamon, croquettes, grilled artichokes, stuffed bell peppers vie with a simple but fine steak and chips for attention. It fuels me for the walk back up to the old town very nicely.

After another pleasant night’s sleep, it’s a very quiet city away from the bar areas, it’s off the airport for another ride in the Dash8 and an exciting night-time low descent over St Paul’s before we land. Luxembourg City was a pleasant surprise, a great place for a weekend break and not at all what I imagined I would find.

Thanks to 

Office National du Tourisme de Luxembourg

Les bonnes addresses.


Léa Linster Delicatessen

Gourmet shop of Luxembourg’s famous female Chef

4 rue de l’Eau, L-1449 Luxembourg www.lealinster.lu

Patisserie Namur

Family company in the 6th generation

27 rue des Capucins, L-1313 Luxembourg www.namur.lu

Patisserie Oberweis,Purveyor to the court

16 Grand’rue, L-1660 Luxembourg www.oberweis.lu

Maison Kaempff-Kohler

Founded in 1922

18 Place Guillaume, L-1648 Luxembourg www.kaempff-kohler.lu

Pâtisserie Cathy Goedert

8 rue Chimay, L-1333 Luxembourg www.cathygoedert.lu

Golden Bean Coffe Experience

23, rue Chimay, L-1333 Luxembourg www.goldenbean.lu

Kaale Kaffi coffee & vintage shop

9, rue de la Boucherie, L-1247 Luxembourg.

Dipso – the Wine Republic (wine bar)

4 rue de la Loge, L-1945  Luxembourg www.dipso.lu

The Wilderness Festival is my kind of festival

blanc2The love the mob feels for Raymond Blanc is remarkable. He emerges from the back of the Banqueting Tent at the Wilderness Festival looking, as usual, eerily like Dudley Moore but in chef whites and the crowd immediately goes bananas.

He becomes the epicentre of a horde, dare we say a swarm, of phone-toting fans keen to get selfies with the grinning Raymond. As many of horde are young girls and women scantily dressed to allow for the day’s heat, his grin becomes even wider. My wife grabs her phone and disappears into the crush as fast as anyone else and eventually emerges triumphant with her own personal memento of what has been a very memorable occasion. Continue reading

Sing to me of summer. A picnic at Glyndebourne

Ex 70s punk and eternal fan of indie music, I’m lured down to Glyndebourne by the promise of a picnic in the sun and an aria or two.

IMG_0098They call it an earworm in Germany, the song that won’t get out of your head even if you don’t actually like it. Well I’m stuck with Toreador from Bizet’s opera Carmen and I’m actually finding myself making up my own words to it. ‘Stupid iMac, why won’t you pick up speed. That’s what I need. That’s what I need.’ It’s the result of just seeing Carmen at Glyndebourne, a magical afternoon and evening in the heart of the most beautiful English countryside, one spent in blazing sun and adorned with a superb picnic from Leith’s

I had never thought of going to Glyndebourne before, I had vague ideas of it being somewhat elitist, expensive and as far as opera went somewhat incomprehensible too. I have now changed that opinion radically. The audience was wonderfully mixed, the price not too bad considering the wonderful time we had, and opera, at least in the case of the accessible ones like Carmen, a magical thing to behold.

IMG_0088Glyndebourne is unique; a self-sustaining and self-financed, by ticket sales and private sponsorship, modern opera house attached to a stately home, the creation of John Christie back in the day as almost a hobby. It has grown since then to have a state of the art opera house, built a short while back, and has gained an international reputation for excellence while still retaining its uniqueness and is run by Christie’s descendants.

Situated a couple of miles outside Lewes in East Sussex, Ringmer is the nearest village, the opera house is powered by its own wind turbine and made almost entirely of natural, recyclable materials. It’s big enough to house a reasonably sized audience yet small enough to be intimate for performers and audience alike.

IMG_0070Outside the gardens and countryside of the South Downs sprawl languorously away from view, begging to be enjoyed with a glass of chilled wine and fine food, and that is exactly what the majority of Glyndebourne goers do. The men in evening dress, the ladies merely in dresses, they lie on picnic blankets or at folding tables with their cool boxes pouring forth food and drink, to be taken before the performance, or during the long interval as the sun slowly slides behind the great house.

Well we didn’t have to bring our own picnic because Leith’s had it all laid on. Recognising that in the week many people come straight from work and have no time to prepare food, but at the same time don’t want to eat in the range of indoor restaurants, Leith’s have a range of options that can be collected on arrival.

IMG_0073The choice is wide and tempting but must obviously be made in advance. We went for a sharing platter – three courses, porter service and picnic furniture option. This provided us with a sturdy chap to carry the cool box and set up the table and two chairs in a nice spot in the Sunken Garden, but there are lots more lovely spots to choose from. Here we gazed out over the lake, a cheeky breeze occasionally threatening to blow us in, but in England one is grateful for the fact the sun is blazing down, or indeed shining, at all. Glyndebourne does have plenty of sheltered spaces to eat when the weather really acts up though.

IMG_0093We ate the shared starter platter first, after a bit of a struggle getting it out of the cool box. The platters were very tightly wedged in and so very prettily laid out that it would have been an awful shame to tilt and mess them up on extraction.

Underneath came the crockery, the linen napkins, a range of glasses and cutlery of very classy kind and we tucked into the starter platter accompanied by a bottle of wine from the bar: Chargrilled asparagus, mange tout, pea shoot salad, smoked tomato mayonnaise, Langham cured smoked salmon & mackerel salad, Heritage beetroot, horseradish dressing Confit chicken & duck terrine, Dukkah crust, artichoke, orange & mint salad.

IMG_0095All very nice and as I say, excellently presented. Others looked on with what I feel was justifiable envy as we ate and then it was off to the opera house for the show.

This is not an opera review site so all I can repeat is that it was superb, quite superb. We came out for the long interval, around ninety minutes, to eat the main platter and dessert with the sun now fading and the grounds looking even lovelier.

The main grazing platter was a selection of continental sliced meats, glazed figs, pressed quince, marinated olives, dehydrated plum tomatoes, chargrilled artichokes, parmesan shavings

1jpgCheesecake with herby goat’s cheese, caramelised balsamic red onions, rocket leaves, all again excellent and despite not looking all that much, very substantial.

A trio of dessertsofdark chocolate black cherry dome, pistachio custard, Kent strawberries & cream, salted caramel panna cotta, gingerbread crumble were delicious.

Coffee and chocolate came forth; we finished off the wine and wandered back to the opera house for the last acts. One of the very big advantages of the Leith’s picnic is that somebody else clears up after you.

IMG_0065And so an hour later, still humming the tunes, and with dickey bow loosened, we headed happily home.

Glyndebourne is quite magical, well worth the money for a once a year treat and Leith’s have the picnic sorted superbly as you might expect

Now all together, ‘Toreador, L’amour t’attend! Et songe bien, oui, songe en combattant’.Discover more about Glyndebourne and Leith’s picnics at their website


A symphony of restaurants on the Anthem of the seas

Up until now to experience 18 restaurants at sea, you had to head to the Caribbean or the Far East. Not anymore because the new Royal Caribbean ship Anthem of the Seas will be sailing the route from Southampton to Europe. I boarded for a trial run

japLast year I went aboard the sister ship to Anthem of the Seas, the Quantum of the Seas, so you’d think I’d be a little blasé about the size of these ships by now but I’m not.

Eager to catch my first glimpse of this brand new big beast from Royal Caribbean I was driving somewhat erratically down the dock road at Southampton, constantly glancing sideways out the window until I saw it. Fifteen stories at least in height it was easily the biggest thing around, the sun dazzling back off its myriad glass balconies and glazed stern.

Parking in its shadow was like parking next to a block of flats but getting in is easy. Royal Caribbean staff armed with wireless tablets scan your downloaded barcode which shows them the selfie you uploaded earlier and you’re on and ready to be impressed.

wineGlass lifts rise and fall in a giant atrium next to a mall that could grace a small town and which is packed with designer goods shops. Time to quickly grab a fortifying snack from Michael’s Genuine Pub, an American idea of what a pub should be from James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schwartzthat dominates the area. Craft own-label bottled beer, as cold as only Americans seem to know how to serve it, and a bite from his menu of a perfect Scotch egg – warm and with the egg slightly runny – a slippery pork slider and a  crunchy falafel and then off down miles of corridors to find my cabin and get settled in.

Most if not all cruise ships use ID cards so you can charge items on board, open your cabin door and generally be identified. Royal Caribbean use the WOWband. These watch-like rubber devices manage room access, on board purchases, dining and tour reservations and never demagnetize, unlike the usual smart cards which can sometimes leave you the wrong side of your cabin door at 2 am with the depressing prospect of a few mile hike back to customer services.

IMG_3812With just under two days on board on this demo sailing there’s no time to lose and so it’s down to the creative restaurant Wonderland for lunch one of the nine speciality restaurants on board. It’s a small, at least for this ship, restaurant that serves what might be called El Bulli lite type food.

wonderland-1Just as the outrageous catwalk fashions eventually filter down to the High Street so Ferran Adria’s outrageous cuisine has filtered down to the masses. And it’s very well done; lots of surprises smoke and mirrors and the main point is achieved – diners start to laugh and talk and have fun. Oh and the food’s tasty too, so it’s definitely one to visit when sailing.

More conventional food can be found all over the ship, from the self-serve global cuisine immensity of Windjammer Marketplace, where you can eat until you burst, to pizza restaurants, burger places, hot dog food trucks and a smart deli/cafe. And then there are the speciality restaurants

anthemofseasmainI loved Izumi where star chef Travis Kamiyama demonstrated his impressive knife skills and served up stunning sushi that was the equal of any I’ve had on dry land and also Devinly Decadence where a healthy menu of favourites under 500 calories, from bestselling author and chef Devin Alexander was served high up on a deck which is open to the air on the warm evenings.

tableOur very own Jamie is adding to his vast personal wealth with a Jamie’s Italian on board, but I knew what to expect there so instead I tried Chops Grille where you can eat the first dry-aged steaks at sea, each aged for nearly four weeks, as well as Maine lobster, veal parmesan, grilled branzino and other classic dishes.

The dining on board Anthem is called Dynamic Dining and, as far as could comprehend, it works thusly:

cocktailDynamic Dining Choice gives you the freedom to pick and choose your restaurants and dining times each day and night. The venues’ menus change throughout the cruise, with guest favorites and new specialty dishes.

Dynamic Dining Classic is the option for those who prefer the traditional main dining style with the same dining time each night, with the same wait staff and dining companions throughout the cruise and is available on a first come, first serve basis.

pass48 hours is not long enough to really get to grips with the food choice on offer, not when there is so much else to do on this floating city including stunning shows, solariums, dodgem cars, Flowrider surfing, a sky diving simulator and North Star, a giant pod on an arm that swings you vertiginously out and above the ship.

The brand new Anthem, so new it was still awaiting its official naming ceremony when we were aboard, will be cruising the routes around the Mediterranean and Canary Islands out of Southampton until October before moving to farther- flung places so this is a rare chance to get aboard and get into those restaurants.

A magical meal at Giffords Circus

Run away to the circus? I feel that I very well might after eating at Giffords circus.

img_4390_18551034158_oI’ve had some odd dining companions in my time but these people are particularly unusual. A clown, an exotic ringmaster (with a mysterious accent) and a charming chap  of ‘restricted growth’ and these are just the people nearest me. All around the tent are all kinds of exotic creatures and all, like me, are falling on the sharing plates of food with cries of delight.

This is Circus Sauce, a restaurant tent attached to a mobile kitchen; two large showmans’ wagons painted in Giffords Circus colours. The tent is candlelit, fitted with large oak tables and decorated all around with Giffords vintage tapestries and odd eclectic items. It is, on this warm summer’s night in the enchanted grounds of Chiswick House, a fabulous place to be. Continue reading