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Slop onboard

all seasons in one day

One of the main events of any time at sea is the cuisine. Whether a container ship or a cruise ship, life almost inevitably ends up revolving around food. It is quite interesting. The QM2 was no exception. The number of options available means that your main daily decisions are often based around where you are going to eat. I have the program for Tuesday 1st to hand, and it lists 5 different locations which I could choose to go for breakfast, nine for lunch and seven for dinner, many of which had several options within them. Should none appeal, room service is a constant extra option, as are “between meal” snacks.

In general, I found Breakfast to be pretty good. Because a majority of people ate casually, the choice in the Kings Court was pretty good: everything from cereal and porridge through continental to full English. Having said that, on the one morning that I braved the 'proper' dinning room, though having some extra options and being fairly tasty, my choice of breakfast (smoked haddock and scrambled eggs – for which it took a long discussion to be allowed to have both together and not individually as on the menu) transpired to be so small – bear in mind that I was essentially ordering 2 breakfasts by this choice - and the fish full of bones, that on finishing I headed up to the buffet for a second breakfast to help me make it through to lunch. Lunch, similarly, had a number of options, from simple sandwiches through numerous cooked options – served or self service - to pub lunches (served, of course, in the pub). Afternoon snacks and late lunch were available, ditto traditional Afternoon tea (with or without champagne and service charge), although options were generally less than I had encountered elsewhere and the inevitable late night snack was rarely hugely appealing. In fact, although not small, in virtually every case I found the food or the available options (or both) to be inferior to other passenger ships I have travelled on, and in cases less appealing even than that which I have experienced on freight ships, which I found somewhat surprising.

It was at dinner that I really struggled. Upon booking, each guest is assigned to one of the three main restaurants: the suites split between two restaurants for (doubtless) fancy eating, and the rest of us in the Britannia; a large double level venue which was additionally spilt into an early and a late seating. The problem was that many of the guests were here for the “full experience”, and Cunard actively advertised that very experience. For many that included dressing up in full tuxedo et al, and I would guess a majority were also paying significantly more money than I was for their journey; this is at odds with how I normally travel, and although paying a not inconsiderable single supplement, I was very much travelling steerage.

Every night on-board, one of three dress codes applies and this is enforced in the Britannia restaurant. The problem is that I am not a hugely formal person, and thus was not up to the required standard and so denied access. In fact, even if I had brought all the clothes that I have ever owned along, I would only have barely qualified for the least formal of the three, the “casual” days (shirt, shoes and jacket) – the semi-formal and formal requirements being well out of my league. I knew this beforehand and thus it was not something I had worried about as I was assured that less formal options were always available. On HAL ships, I had pretty much lived off the less formal options, and still had superb food and choice throughout. But on the QM2, this becomes less friendly. With the main Britannia not open to me, I explored other options. The Todd English restaurant also enforced the dress code, and charged a supplement to dine there. Worse, the casual Kings Court area changed at night, so that 3 of the 4 sectors became reservation only, charged a supplement and though not as strict as elsewhere also enforced a dress code. With certain other options not serving dinner, it left me with room service (food ok, but when your room doesn't even have a window, not necessarily enticing) and the final Kings Court option. Here, at least, I could eat without having to be wearing fancy clothes, although even here t-shirts, jeans etc were banned. There was normally a decent turnover of people eating in this location, and at least a handful of regulars indicated that I was not the only person travelling without approved clothing. But sadly, on most evenings, I found the food here was remarkably poor and generally unappetising. It reminded me more of the bottom end of my days as a student in halls of residence than any type of restaurant, and certainly was below my expectations despite the fact that it was reasonably popular.

After a couple of days had proved to me that it wasn't a one off, I started eating more earlier in the day and not relying on large tasty dinners. But the fact that most other people on the ship were dressed up also made me feel unusually self-conscious and once I was actively removed from a communal area on the first night by exceptionally rude staff who obviously wanted to make a scene (my bag had not even arrived in my cabin by then, so even if I had had clothing to change into, it would have been impossible), in that instant I knew I was in for a long week and was not really welcome on board.

As I am still currently off alcohol, it was not a major issue but I was also disappointed to note that several bars open during the day were closed in evenings (including all outside venues), which meant options were limited to the deck 2 and 3 public areas, all within the dress-code areas. In effect, after dark, people not dressed up were limited to room service for their alcoholic needs. Thus by evenings I generally avoided large parts of the ships communal areas staying in the upper deck casual areas, in my cabin, wandering outside looking at stars (on the clear nights) or being buffeted by the wind and rain (more frequent), or occasionally watch the evening showing of the day's film. That way I could avoid the disapproving looks that some of the crew would give me for how I was dressed, and feel a bit more relaxed. I am sure for the majority of people everything was fine, but for me I just found that the experience was not as relaxing or as enjoyable as it really should be. And therein lies the crux.

It is an odd conundrum: For a non-flyer such as myself, probably the single most useful ship in the world is the QM2: A regular, scheduled passenger ship, which goes somewhere very tricky to get to by land. But it is also deliberately an extremely formal ship, and I am by nature, generally very un-formal. In addition, even though the QE2 it replaced was a third of the size in terms of tonnage, she had a number of single cabins designed for regular travellers, whereas the QM2 has none – hitting solo travellers instead with single supplement of 90%. Put together, it means that the QM2 is probably the least useful or “user-friendly” ship in the world for someone like me. I simply do not fit with it's desired demographic. It is quite odd, and I find it a bit frustrating and paradoxically, if I do end up based in North America for a while as currently envisioned, the presence of such a ship and a service may end up contributing more to me eventually flying than if no such passenger service existed at all.

In a perverse way, though, I was glad that at least one thing measured up to my past experiences on HAL ships. But consistency can be over rated at times, and sadly the coffee on the QM2 is as truly awful as I remember it being on the Westerdam.

I have never had a sweet-tooth, but even i found some of the cake selections tempting. Sadly, some of the rest of the food did not live up to the cakes

Posted by Gelli 16:11 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged food ships transatlantic Comments (1)

Mmmmm. Tasty.

I have always travelled on my stomach. Actually, that's not quite true. The only times i've travelled on my stomach have been when i've been lying down sliding down something at a great rate of – generally uncontrolled – knots, such as a sand dune. What I mean is that i love to try out the local food and delicacies wherever I go.

Admittedly, this has led to me tying some very strange things in my time (live scorpion on a stick is probably the most unlikely, and silk worm larvae the strangest tasting), but I have always believed that regardless of how evil these things may sound, It has to be worth a try.

St. Helena is spoiling me.

There are no particularly strange foods here, but lots of damned good ones. The standard of fish – and I love my seafood – has been superb and there is variety as well: Tuna, Wahoo and Marlin are the most frequent, but other fish are also available, whilst St. Helena fish cakes (which often include a good sprinkling of chillies) are rightly considered a highlight. I have not yet been entirely convinced by tomato paste sandwiches, despite their omnipotent-ness, although they can be pretty good. I think the thing that gets me is that everybody makes their own tomato paste, yet finding an actual tomato can be nigh on impossible.

Pilau (or Ploe, as it is widely known), on the other hand is the sort of food that i can more or less shovel down as much as is put in front of me. It's basically a dish of curried rice, with chillies, onions, veg and bits of pork or chicken mixed in. It sounds fairly mundane, I know, but it is more than the sum of it's parts, and really really good.

The local beef, pork and chicken and their products are fantastic, and the ubiquitous Braai give ample opportunity to get good barbecued sausages, steaks and chicken legs.

And then there are the desserts. I've never been a big one for desserts and have no sweet tooth, but the pumpkin fritters are universally fantastic, the (normally bright pink) coconut fingers are wonderful, and there are vast amounts of marvellous home-made ice-cream and cakes made every week. One cousin makes 4 or 5 large cakes every week, and yet they still seem to run out frequently.

In fact, i reckon i could happily live off Pilau, St. Helena fish cakes and tuna, with the occasional braai thrown in for variety.

Add to that the wonderful local fruit (when you can get it) and hugely sought after local coffee, and I am a happy man. So happy, in fact, that half of my clothes no longer really fit...

I still haven't found a mushroom though.

Posted by Gelli 08:27 Archived in St Helena Tagged food Comments (0)

You say tomato, I say "where?!!!!"

I will start this tale with a note that despite being aware that it might happen in a way, it is still very disconcerting to enter a new country (effectively), and before you have walked even 5metres, be accosted by some cousin who you have never even heard of before. Hello Faith! I am currently meeting/randomly bumping into cousins, often of whom I have only the vaguest idea who they are, at a rate of about 3 a day...

Your mission, whether you choose to accept it or not, is to eat variety, healthily, and cheaply.

St. Helena is an island of contradictions, and, to me at least, constant sources of amusement, bemusement or down right confusion. I am not, and never have been, a shopper (though admittedly, give me a good book or music store and I can easily lose hours). But in Jamestown at least, it is fast becoming a favourite past time. With few exceptions, shops are, erm, multi-purpose. Which leads to some brilliantly eclectic and often surreal shops. You never really know what will find next: A shelf of tinned fruit might be proceeded by spare car tires/wheels, and followed by shower curtains and weed killer. Even shops that are mostly concerned with a certain type of good, often have some extra bits for no discernible reason: One hardware store also stocks golden syrup, treacle and girls dresses, for example

Naturally, this leads to fun and games, as in addition to the vast variety of things on display, there is also a large aspect of treasure hunt-ing to most shopping. You know that you should be able to find something which fulfils your requirement somewhere even if you will end up using an item for something wildly differing from it's intended purpose. But exactly where to look first (and if you can get it on that day) remain beyond me at this point. For example, it took me a week to find anything vaguely resembling margarine, yet when i did it was almost a full fridge shelf full of Flora. It clearly was not produced on St. Helena, and as the boat hadn't arrived in that time with new supplies, it was obviously here somewhere. But where it came from/why it had been hidden until that point, I have no idea. I haven't seen a Kitchen roll since i've been here, but can buy Tesco reusable shopping bags despite the nearest Tesco being, probably, Bratislava.

I have never previously before been willing to spend a good 45minutes in the search for olive oil, just because I happened to overhear a fraction of a conversation which included news of a third party rumour that somebody had been told that a friend of somebody's brother had seen a cargo manifest which suggested that a small quantity might have just been unpacked somewhere from the last shipment. I mean, that number of people in a rumour is practically half the islands population. You also learn that bread can be got from Spar on Thursdays in vast quantities but then seemingly not again for a week; but from the bakery next door most mornings between 9.30 and 10.15 or 10.30 if you are lucky, and, allegedly on occasions (though never yet seen), in Thorpes.

As for fruit and veg, that's a whole different ball game. Certain items, such as cabbage, cabbage and cabbage seem to be constantly available. Other things such a potatoes and apples are available most days, especially if you are there early enough. Yet other fruit and veg retain a kind of elusive quality that the yeti has: Occasionally you will see something which might suggest that it was once there, but it sure a heck isn't still there now. I had that relationship with Bananas for a while - local bananas are small, absolutely delicious and grow in reasonably large amounts on the other side of the island, yet are elusive b*ggers in shops. I realised early on that the small market was a good chance and took to staking it out. Every morning I would go down and inquire, without success. Twice, I went there and was told i was too early, only to reappear 20 and 30mins later too be told I was too late. Eventually a cousin took pity and gave me a small stash from their own supply. To this day I haven't seen one for sale, despite virtually everybody seemingly having some around. I have thus far managed to acquire only a single tomato (and now wished I had taken a photograph of it as proof) which came a similar way, though I later cracked up the girl in the excellent local sandwich shop (a cousin, naturally) by spying a load chopped up and changing my order to a tomato sandwich with extra tomato.

It was not a cheap sandwich.

I harvest small yet tasty and potent chili's from both my own garden and a public garden down the road, though mushrooms and onions are now just fading memories, and as for fresh milk, that is just a sad tale of EU beaurocracy having (presumably) un-forseen circumstances.

As those more experienced readers (yes, ok, i do mean old) may remember, a good few years ago, the EU brought in rules that said that all milk that was to be sold had to be pasteurised. This was heavily fought by small farmers throughout the UK and France, at least, who argued that the cost of the required equipment was prohibitive and they would be forced to stop producing milk if it was brought in, as indeed happened. St. Helena were not able to get an exemption, and the British government declined to provide a subsidy on the grounds that it would discriminate against other British farmers who could not get such a subsidy for the equipment. The result being that all farmers on the island were forced to stop producing milk, and it is now (that I am aware of, anyway) not possible to purchase fresh milk anywhere on St. Helena.

Having said, contrary to UK law you can still smoke more or less wherever you want, and 'Best Before Dates' are almost entirely there for comedy value. In the UK (and, i'm sure, under EU law), stuff which is close to, or after it's sell by date gets increasingly heavily discounted and thrown away within a few days or week of it passing its date. Here, it's not even particularly hard to buy stuff where the best before was in 2007...

Prices are also interesting, to say the least. Obviously, the island has to either produce or import everything it needs via the single ship that serves the island. And importing stuff by boat obviously adds dramatically to the costs which have to get passed on to the consumer. Stuff coming from South Africa is generally cheaper than stuff which comes from the UK, but not always. Thus, a packet of value spaghetti which in the UK would cost about 20p, costs £1, and a pack of frozen peppers which might cost 99p or £1.50, costs over £4, and i can get two different sizes of cans of cokes, but not a bottle of any size whatsoever. I can get Duracell batteries for maybe half their price of Europe, despite the fact that they have been imported from Europe, whereas a box file that you might get in WHSmith for £1 costs almost £10, and deoderant is much cheaper than Europe. South African eggs, bizarrely, are cheaper than local ones, though I did make the mistake of asking for 8slices of local bacon to subsequently discover they cost me 53p a slice (though admittedly they are big fat juicy rashers). Alcohol is also cheap: A beer in a pub will cost you only 90p-£1.20 the same as in the supermarket, though there is no draught beer on the island (I have heard rumours of a small country bar which does, but think it is just that. A rumour) and variety is distinctly lacking - I can't even find a can of Guinness, which is unusual. A Whiskey or Gin and Tonic in the local pub, using imported British gin, is 90p. In the UK, you pay more than that just for the tonic water.

The whole pricing structure is just bizare and you really have to watch what you pick up in case it accidentally costs you a fortune. And yet despite all that, I can still amble down to the excellent Anne's place near the harbour, where the lovely proprietors, Anne's son Richard and his wife Jane (naturally, more of my cousins) can sell a huge T-bone steak, a mound of chips and a pile of salad for a fiver, and at lunchtime, the same but with 2 or 3 big chunks of Tuna, Marlin or Wahoo for only £3, and still, somehow, make a profit. That same amount fish in the local shop - when available - would cost more than that.

It all just adds to the fun

Posted by Gelli 14:55 Archived in St Helena Tagged food Comments (1)

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