Chef Kate Jennings’ fresh fruit cornmeal cobbler is made with berries from the local market. // © 2016 Valerie Chen
Feature image (above): On the Asturian cider excursion, guests experienced an espicha with traditional tapas and Asturian cider. // © 2016 Valerie Chen
By the time Windstar Cruises’ all-suite Star Legend disembarked in Lisbon, Portugal, the numbers had stacked up: eight ports, two sea days, 184 passengers and 1,456 opened bottles of wine.
Allow me to do the math — divided equally, that’s about 3/4 of a bottle of Europe’s finest varietals per cruiser, per day. Indulgent, perhaps, but this was no ordinary cruise. The third and final sailing of the 2016 James Beard Foundation (JBF) Culinary Collection, our itinerary from Dublin through several port cities in Spain, France and Portugal promised wine tastings, regional specialties and overall gastronomic excellence — and it delivered.
“We had done a wine cruise before, but we knew we needed to take our culinary experiences to the next level,” said Michael Sabourin, corporate executive chef for Windstar. “With an association such as JBF, we wanted to show how important food has become.”
In the company of two chefs selected by the nonprofit culinary arts organization and a sommelier chosen by Windstar, passengers discovered firsthand the line’s high standards, paired with an exciting new culinary emphasis.
This cherry on top of our journey began as soon as chef Matt Jennings took the stage for the first of three demonstrations at sea. Jennings — who co-owns Boston-based restaurant Townsman with his wife and talented fellow chef, Kate Jennings — instantly put passengers at ease with a pleasant blend of humor and humility.
A graduate of JBF’s Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change program (a prerequisite for the selected chefs, as well as a beneficiary of the partnership), Matt also could probably navigate a kitchen blindfolded. For example, the second demo’s dish — a spicy monkfish chowder topped with a crumbly cheddar biscuit whipped up by Kate — was the stuff of dreams. Come nightfall, with nary a moment’s hesitation, I ordered a full serving at Amphora, Star Legend’s main restaurant.
But what’s fine dining without wine? Led by Denver-based sommelier Kelly Wooldridge, six wine tastings were available to cruisers throughout the voyage, as well as a calvados (apple brandy) tasting. Between swirling, sniffing, swishing and sipping, Wooldridge waxed poetic about each local wine and deftly answered questions from attendees. Like clockwork, the day’s three complimentary wines would later appear on dinner menus throughout the ship. And at a private event in Bordeaux, France, all guests dallied as they should while at a stunning chateau — with live music, hors d’oeuvres and, of course, a glass of wine in hand.
In addition, passengers received two complimentary culinary shore excursions and could join the chefs, including Star Legend’s executive chef Rohit Dimri, on two local market tours. In Gijon, Spain, I toured an Asturian cider factory before devouring an espicha (family-style tapas meal). The fresh oysters I slurped at an oyster farm in St. Malo, France, left me yearning for more, and at a market in Porto, Portugal, I mulled over the ramifications of transporting fresh figs home.
When the showstopping wine-pairing dinner rolled around on day seven, passengers were singing the praises of the Windstar and JBF partnership and wondering how soon they could sign up for the next itinerary. And they won’t have to wait long — as of press time, 2017 cruise dates are being discussed.