Cruise cuisine has experienced a proliferation of flavours and variety in recent years, awakening the taste buds of seafaring travellers the world over.
Yet some things never change: cruise dining etiquette is still firmly entrenched in the traditional, but this only enhances the epicurean experience of a cruising holiday.
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Variety is the spice of life
The cruise food factor is more than ever a focal point for prospective passengers. With the global cross-pollination of produce and cuisine we've seen on land in the last 20 years, the cruise industry has smartly followed suit.
And this seems only right. After all, cruising is usually a multicultural experience. With stopovers in exotic ports the world over, why shouldn't chefs make the most of locally inspired dishes and market-sourced ingredients?
Menus are often designed through a well-considered collaboration between top chefs from a multitude of countries and cultures.
And the sheer volume of fresh produce needed to feed the masses means that ingredients must be sourced at numerous ports throughout a voyage.
On larger ships, especially those that accommodate thousands of passengers, you can expect extensive food courts offering a wide selection of cuisines.
This may include tapas bars serving delectable Spanish delights, sushi bars offering meticulously crafted Japanese dishes, American-style grills for connoisseur carnivores, Italian trattorias providing hearty pizza and pasta dishes, and gastro pubs serving an impressive selection of nouveau bar snacks that more resemble a tantalising tasting menu than the salty yellow pub grub of old.
Cruise lines will also cater for a large variety of dietary requirements too, for example providing gluten-free, vegetarian and sugar-free options.
Styles of dining
It depends, of course, on how big your ship is as to what sort of dining selection there will be on offer. The smaller the ship, the fewer venues you'll have to choose from.
Yet chefs on even the smallest ships are impressively inventive when it comes to offering menu variety for all types of taste.
There will usually be one main dining room on your ship. These can sometimes feel more like conference halls than restaurants, but many cruise lines know how to cleverly design these large spaces in ways that create a more intimate atmosphere.
And whilst you'll usually be seated at a large table with fellow passengers, in a well-designed main dining room, you can enjoy some sense of seclusion through the smart use of interior decor like screens and plants.
Even on a small ship, you'll usually have at least one or two other dining options. Whilst the main dining room will serve meals that are included in the price of your cruise, the smaller venues may cost a supplementary amount.
So always check to make sure you won't be stretching your budget if you decide to dine anywhere other than the main dining room.
You'll usually have the option of a casual dining venue, too. This may serve lighter snacks that you can enjoy al fresco, and let you relax a little on the attire front too.
And if you simply want to spend mealtimes relaxing in your cabin, you can always make the most of room service, with many lines offering it free of charge 24/7.
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Locally sourced produce
Cruise chefs are now more than ever looking towards sourcing ingredients locally from the ports they visit, including seasonal fruit and vegetables.
Not only does this mean they can guarantee freshness from a continually refreshed food storeroom, it also means they can enhance their menus with local flavours to enrich each passenger's travel experience.
After all, a river cruise down the Douro is made so much more enjoyable when you're immersed not only in the beautiful scenery, but also in the flavours of local cured meats and melt-in-your mouth manchego, washed down with a perfectly complementary red.
Not only are chefs looking more towards locally sourced produce, they're focussing on finding sustainable and organic ingredients.
This marries with a growing consumer awareness of produce provenance; even the most ubiquitous food chains on land now proudly shout about any ingredients on their menus that are from sustainable farms or fisheries, or are certified organic.
Feeding the masses on a floating city
Food for thought...some of the things our passengers ate and drank aboard Saga Sapphire's 66-night cruise earlier in 2017!
Provisioning for a cruise ship is a serious business. Incorporated into their design will be multiple cold store rooms, and the inventory of produce will be monitored and managed with military precision.
To give an idea of the sheer volume of food required to feed the masses, the provisions required for one 7-day cruise on a ship carrying almost 2,000 passengers and 1,000 crew include over 24,000 pounds of beef, 5,000 pounds of lamb, 7,000 pounds of pork, almost 26,000 pounds of fresh vegetables, 20,000 pounds of fresh fruit and 108,000 eggs – plus comparably large amounts of all other types of ingredients.
A growing trend amongst cruise lines is to invite celebrity chefs, Iron Chefs and Michelin-starred chefs to oversee their menus – even their restaurants.
This ensures inventiveness and a quality of cuisine that matches any celebrated restaurant on dry land. Jamie Oliver even has a couple of restaurants on ships run by a large well-known cruise line.
A hands-on experience
What's more, not only can passengers savour the culinary creations of celebrated chefs, the gourmands amongst them may have the opportunity to participate in cooking master classes, which are now offered by many cruise lines as on-board activities.
Here, you have the chance to witness the culinary wizardry of top international chefs first hand, learn tricks of the trade and try your hand at creating new and exciting dishes you've maybe never attempted before.
What to wear on a cruise
With the world of cruise dining now on par with the variety and quality you'd find on land, some things never change. What you wear to dinner is subject to the strict sartorial rules that have applied for decades.
Whilst a playful disregard for the rules may be okay in the kitchen – it's not when it comes to evening attire. Dinner jackets and ties for men are de rigueur.
For women, smart dresses, skirts or slacks are expected. And under no circumstances should you ever grace the dining areas with your fresh-from-the-pool swimsuit look. Jeans are out too, unless specifically acceded by your cruise line.
Other dining areas on your ship like a bistro or grill may be more flexible in their dress code. The normal, unwritten cruise fashion laws will still, however, apply.
That means smart casual: chinos, linen trousers, shirts and dresses that don't leave too little to the imagination.
Tipping on a cruise
The rules on tipping are not as universal as the code for clothes. Each line will have its own way of working – whether that's charging a flat gratuity each day of your voyage, or leaving you to make a contribution to your key waiter on the final day of your cruise.
To remove any possible confusion, some lines will incorporate gratuity into the total pre-paid price of your holiday.
This can be a welcomed relief as it means you don't have to carry more cash than you have to whilst on board, and you know that waiting staff are guaranteed to receive a tip regardless.
You are, however, always able to make additional tips for truly outstanding service on top of your included gratuity.
A reason to cruise
From lavish spreads by top international chefs, to experiential master classes: food now lies at the very heart of the cruising world. Each line offers their own take on cuisine, and it's exciting to discover the stylish and often elaborate settings within which you can dine.
With the added sophistication of formal evening wear, the dining experience on board beautiful ships is one of the many reasons passengers keep coming back to cruising.
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