Dinner on the MS Amsterdam

Louise with the Amsterdam's main dining area in the background. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Louise with the Amsterdam's main dining area in the background. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 Fifa World Cup is but a whisper away, and on Tuesday, March 2, it’ll be 100 days before the official opening ceremony.

World Cup fever has been spreading through the land, including the Eastern Cape and Garden Route where several teams will be hosted, so imagine the excitement when Salvelio and I received an invitation for an evening on board the MS Amsterdam! This majestic ship, which was in the Port Elizabeth Harbour this week before continuing on to Durban as part of its 114-day Grand World Voyage for the super-wealthy, is very similar to the MS Westerdam and MS Noordam. These two global top 20 ships are among the Holland America Line’s finest, and will be chartered for the World Cup by the Germany-based One Ocean Club. Imagine catching the games live in the coastal cities of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban, then retiring to a ship famous for its exquisite luxury and non-stop pampering – and this time round South Africans and even Port Elizabethans (albeit those in the pound seats or with padded expense accounts) can also enjoy the experience.

The Pinnacle Grill fine dining restaurant. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

The Pinnacle Grill fine dining restaurant. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

The MS Amsterdam, too, is an ultra-luxurious floating hotel, or “flotel”, if you will. Spending even just one evening on board it is the kind of treat that rarely comes across your path – even if you are writing food and travel features every other day! Salvelio and I were enchanted from the minute we stepped on board, our visit facilitated by the infinitely capable Margot Gutteridge from One Ocean’s PR partner Magna Carta. We had an unforgettable evening, right from the classy canapes and cocktails in the Crow’s Nest at the top of the nine-storey vessel, to dinner in the beautifully appointed Pinnacle Grill with its rich velvet upholstery, stunning artwork and exquisite French table linen, its Riedel crystal glasses from Austria and its exquisite Bulgari plates (who knew that Bulgari also made plates!), not to mention unparalleled service from the ship’s Indonesian waiters and Filipino wine stewards.

Dungeness crab cake. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Dungeness crab cake. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Broiled king salmon. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Broiled king salmon. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Filet Mignon. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Filet Mignon. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Raspberry cheesecake. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Raspberry cheesecake. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Our dinner began with delectable Dungeness crab cakes (made from a species of crab that occurs on the US’s West Coast, all the way from Alaska to California) served with spiral-shaved cucumber and sweet chilli-mustard sauce. This was followed by a refreshing baby aragula salad tossed with sliced red onion, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and a warm bacon dressing, topped with bits of smoked bacon and chopped egg. For the main course Salvelio had the Filet Mignon – 200g of perfectly-prepared premium beef served with a vegetable bouquet and potato gratin – while I practically had an out-of-body experience so divine was my broiled king salmon, troll-caught for sustainability in icy Alaskan waters, then quick-seared and broiled, and served with sesame-soy kalbi. None of my three food dictionaries could tell me what kalbi was so I presume it’s really just a fancy Eastern name for a marinade or glaze! Dessert was a pert little raspberry cheesecake served with fresh berries and a chocolate cigar, the perfect end to a truly perfect meal.

Then there were the wines which (not to take away from South Africa’s fine viticulture tradition) were among the best we’ve had in years. Made mainly from grapes grown in the state of Washington, all six wines selected for pairing with our six-course meal were astoundingly good. Salvelio’s favourite? The Columbia Crest Grand Estate Cabernet Sauvignon which was dripping with juicy, savage fruit, as our friend Julio would say, and had the lingering seductiveness of finest dark chocolate. My top choices for the evening, on the other hand, were the riesling and sauvignon blanc from the Chateau Ste. Michelle – widely regarded as Washington’s oldest and most acclaimed wine estate.

Yes, the deal was sealed following a guided tour of the ship – so enamored were we by our entire Amsterdam experience that we decided there and then to start saving for the world cruise – which perhaps by the time we get to 93 will be a little more financially achievable than it is right now!

Cellar master Jacques Louw. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Cellar master Jacques Louw. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

For the purposes of The Global Table our main focus during the visit was on the foodie side, and Margot introduced us to the Amsterdam’s assistant culinary operations manager, Rico Wessels, and its cellar master or sommelier, Jacques Louw. The surnames of course were a giveaway and we were  delighted to learn that these two hospitality specialists were both South African – Rico from Kroonstad and Port Elizabeth-born Jacques now based in the Mother City (when he’s not on board the Amsterdam, that is)! Jacques told us about the thousands of superb wines which are kept in optimal conditions below the water line in the ship’s vast food and wine storage area. And somewhere in that magical space you’ll even find a few bottles of Spain’s legendary red from Ribera del Duero, the Vega Sicilia ‘Unico’, which gladdened the heart of my Spanish husband no end! True to its name, the Unico is a unique wine in all respects – and it can be yours at “just” $600-something per bottle!

Assistant culinary manager Rico Wessels. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Assistant culinary manager Rico Wessels. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Rico and Jacques provided some fascinating insight into the ship’s culinary operations. Up to 1316 passengers are served at a time, whether for breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea-time or the customary late-night snack, and for a journey like the four-month Global Grand Voyage no single meal is likely ever to be the same. This demands constant innovation from the ship’s 70 chefs, among them promising Canadian kitchen maestro Shawn McKerness who was instrumental in preparing our menu. Add to that the pressure of serving consistently good meals of the standard that these premium-class travellers expect, and you realise what true culinary excellence really means.

Chocolate volcano cake from the Pinnacle Grill. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Chocolate volcano cake from the Pinnacle Grill. Picture: Salvelio Meyer

Recipe: Chocolate Volcano Cake from the Pinnacle Grill

While we didn’t have this dessert on the night of our visit, the chefs of the MS Amsterdam were kind enough to share the recipe, as it’s a popular choice on their excellent Pinnacle Grill menu. Holland America Line is US-owned and so the recipe was provided in US measures; however I’ve added the metric equivalent in brackets. I’ve kept them pretty precise as this is always useful if you have an electronic scale as I have – they are exceptionally useful so if you don’t have one then stick it on your birthday or Christmas wish list this year! However if you only have a regular scale it shouldn’t do any harm to round off the grams.

Ingredients

3 lbs (1.36kg) butter; 2 lbs (907g) bitter-sweet or dark chocolate; 1 lb 4 0z (567g) white sugar; 10 whole eggs plus 10 egg yolks and 10 egg whites; vanilla; salt; 13 oz (369g) flour; 5 oz (142g) cocoa powder; 5 tsp baking powder; 3 oz (85g) Grand Marnier; 5 orange zest

Method

Melt together 2 lbs (907g) of the butter and the chocolate, set aside.

Mix the remaining 1 lb (454g) of butter and 1 lb (454g) of the sugar until fluffy. Add the whole eggs and the egg yolks one by one to the butter-sugar mixture, mixing about 30 seconds between each.

Add the melted butter and chocolate – it needs to be just lukewarm. Add the Grand Marnier and orange zest.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking powder. Add to the mixture and mix for 3 minutes at high speed.

Make a meringue with the egg whites and the 4 0z (113g) sugar, and fold it into the chocolate mixture.

Fill a ramekin dish with about 7 oz (199g) of this mixture. Bake it in a 190 degrees Celsius preheated oven for between 15 to 20 minutes.

The MS Noordam above is a sister ship to the MS Amsterdam. Picture: Supplied.

The MS Noordam above is a sister ship to the MS Amsterdam. Picture: Supplied.

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