July 31st, 2012

Does My Bomb Look Big In This?

This Week's Column - Mad About Mangan

Published in the City Hub and City News.

As an intrepid traveller, cruising is not the sort of holiday I’d normally consider. Nevertheless, when a chance to board P&O’s Pacific Pearl for a weekend Food and Wine Cruise presented itself, I decided to see how the other half live…

You join the vessel in Sydney on a Friday afternoon. Different to their longer cruises, which tend to ease into things more slowly, the weekend cruisers have a party atmosphere from the get-go. The outdoor cocktail bars are quickly populated by gaggles of women, and corresponding lots of lads. Matching items of clothing help you identify group members. Spying a swathe of hot pink police hats, I inquire after the bride-to-be. The thirty-something women are quick to inform me they’re actually anti-hens, here to celebrate a divorce.

Cabins located, and muster ticked off, it’s straight up to the top deck for the all-important sail away party. A few Pacific Iced Teas make the tight squeeze under the Sydney Harbour Bridge all the more exciting. Most of the passengers are roaming the green Astroturf clutching fluorescent, or (for a small amount more) flashing cocktail glasses. Those after premium spirits may prefer the inner sanctum of Mix Bar, where they serve cocktails like the Gingerbread, made on Buffalo Trace Bourbon.

Seasoned cruisers like Deanne Dennis, from Merrylands know that the first thing to do on board is pick up the phone and reserve your table at Luke Mangan’s popular Salt Grill. Sadly, despite the fact she “got on early and tried to make a booking for this cruise, the whole three nights for dinner were totally booked out.” With approximately sixty-five lucky diners per sitting, and around sixteen hundred hungry folk on board, I start to feel like the girl with the golden ticket…

Deanne likes cruises because they’re “worry free”; especially compared to a hotel’s “colder experience.” On board you don’t have to pick a restaurant, consider transport or even carry money. Working women, like Deanne, relish the chance to avoid cooking, cleaning and making the bed. She’s clutching a well-thumbed copy of the ship’s newsletter, the Pacific Daily. Catching my gaze, she explains, “it’s wonderful - you can lie in bed with a highlighter and plan the next day’s events.” Freedom from choice is a common theme.

We’re watching Rebecca Varidel from insidecuisine.com do her first live cooking demo. She is ably assisted by Colleen from Penrith; Russell, who’s studying cooking at Baulkham Hills TAFE; and Rachel from Rooty Hill. Rachel gets to dip pieces of sponge into chocolate, to her friends’ obvious delight: “Fifty shades, lamington style!” Giggles erupt from the mostly female audience, clearly familiar with Fifty Shades of Grey.

Guests can also watch fruit and ice carving; taste wines with Hunter Valley winemakers; or meet 4 Ingredients author, Kim McCosker. Merchandise is big on board. Anil, a member of Salt Grill’s mostly Indian and Filipino staff, proudly presents a Luke Mangan branded paper bag - yours for just five bucks. Ten copies of his book go while we’re eating lunch. Winemaker Duane Roy quips, that every time he dines he’s scared he’ll walk out and find a brand on his shirt. I toast him with a (branded) glass of his 2008 Glandore Tempranillo TPR (a cracker of a fruit-driven wine).

The highlight of my cruise is a frothy bowl of coconut broth, bearing al dente lobster tortellini. They release an intense burst of ocean and succulent lobster flesh that epitomises what you want to eat whilst bobbing on the sea. Perhaps that’s why for me, the seafood menu items outperform the beef - though you can eat either for your nominal forty-dollar surcharge. It’s still small change compared to the price you pay on land for the same dishes at Glass Brasserie.

The number of repeat cruisers surprises me – proving that if you deliver an audience what they want, they keep on coming back. Deanne provides the low down on P&O’s various Salt Grills. She likes Pacific Dawn’s best, but her experience there was made brighter by meeting the chef himself, Luke Mangan. Despite his food being streets above the ship’s other offerings (as seen below), I’m able to restrain myself from purchasing his apron, oil, cookbook or plate. According to Anil, others have not been so circumspect: “They want to buy his phone number.” Yep, they’re mad about Mangan indeed.