Julie Peasgood enjoys the company of master pâtissier Eric Lanlard as well as spectacular scenery on a P&O Cruises Norway cruise.
On my P&O Cruises Norway cruise, there’s an excited queue forming as I board the ship, a line bursting with anticipation. In my experience an event that generates this level of interest usually has something to do with free alcohol, but this time it’s complimentary cake rather than Champagne that’s the cause for celebration.
It might also be something to do with the fact that handing out the confections is the charismatic Eric Lanlard, award-winning TV chef and as Gallic as it gets. Passion fruit and white chocolate cake pops, velvety sachertorte, salted caramel macaroons and tiny matcha and yuzu tarts adorn the Market Café counter. It’s certainly the sweetest welcome to any cruise I’ve experienced.
Brand new to P&O Cruises’ Britannia is an appealing seating area located by the Market Café; all ice cream pastel shades and inviting chairs, this is Eric’s brainchild along with his inspired ideas for the design of the exclusive Cookery Club up on deck 17. We are to have a morning masterclass here tomorrow to discover techniques the professionals use, but first we start our cruise with a private dinner in the Club, hosted by the master pâtissier himself.
Sitting round a huge table with a stunning view of the sea, we’re treated to a mouthwatering menu featuring strawberry fraisier for dessert, Eric’s mum’s favourite. We learn a lot about Eric’s mum and indeed Eric himself over the next couple of days as he intersperses funny anecdotes with culinary advice, proving himself a polished raconteur.
We discover chefs’ knives are so important they wrap them lovingly in cloth every evening. Also, every ingredient needs to be at the same temperature for the best results; oven thermometers are a worthwhile investment for absolute accuracy when baking; soufflés are more likely to misbehave in fan ovens so are best cooked in a traditional one; unrefined golden caster sugar should always be used (it must say unrefined otherwise it’s just white sugar disguised) and good confectionery chocolate is a must for baking (never use the stuff marked baking chocolate). Last but not least, we’re told to always use butter – margarine must be shunned – and never use the word ‘moist’. Ever.
Fortunately ‘moist’ isn’t an adjective that can be attributed to the lemon meringue cupcakes I make the next morning. Ever enthusiastic, I don my apron and apprentice chef’s hat with gusto, but my sponge lacks a spring in its step and my soufflé doesn’t rise to the occasion. Undeterred, I attempt the signature cake pops, but somehow end up with more chocolate on myself than on the pop.
The third day sees us all on dry land where Eric accompanies us on an artisanal foodie adventure. We take a walk on the epicurean side of pretty Stavanger, our first port of call. Hailed as the gastronomic capital of Norway, we drool over a sensational blue cheese, Stavanger Ysteri. It’s only in its infancy as a cheese factory, but founder Lise Brunborg is already supplying her produce to Maaemo, the only restaurant in Oslo with three Michelin stars.
In nearby Fermenten (a collective of fermenters and preservers) the Yeastside Brewing Company is also growing fast. Its pioneering Australian owner, Craig Norman, has managed to produce no less than 65 beers in just two years, including the only beer I have ever liked in my life. Raskit (Ras for raspberry, kit for neighbourhood) is bright red in colour and contains so many raspberries I’m certain it qualifies as one of my five-a-day.
We then head back to central Stavanger to the testing kitchen for Fish and Cow, the innovative Scandi-chic eatery. Here we are to make hay ice cream, a regional delicacy and the culinary love child of Eric and Heston Blumenthal. This is a typical example of the rediscovered Nordic kitchen, which is all about getting back into old traditional recipes and reclaiming the Nordic identity. Hay tastes much better when heated, which is quite a relief. I don’t see it making my shopping list as a regular ingredient, but as new experiences go it’s certainly different.
There are other differences on our cruise through the spectacular Norwegian Fjords and the most notable is the silence – which is total. Not just when we stand on our balcony, dwarfed by the magnificence of the mountains and filling our lungs with clean, regenerative air, but right through the night too. This is possibly the most peaceful cruise I have sailed on; there are very few announcements, the bed is unbelievably comfortable and there is no engine noise or night-time clanking.
Which brings me to the other main difference and that’s the flexibility of mealtimes, particularly breakfast. To my knowledge, I haven’t ever experienced a full English brekkie served between 7am and 12 noon, as staff are usually anxious to start serving lunch at midday. But the Horizon buffet-style restaurant manages to dovetail the two, just as seamlessly as it overlaps lunch and afternoon tea, which is greatly appreciated as for once I am allowing myself to sleep in (another first).
My other favourite dining venues on board are the renowned Indian restaurant Sindhu (I can’t resist their soft shell crab) and Olly Smith’s sophisticated Glass House; I love the small bites menu and extensive choice of wines, particularly his colourful descriptions. The Limelight Club is fun too – I’ve always liked Gareth Gates and he croons a variety of romantic numbers with effortless charm.
Special mention though has to go to an onboard speaker whose books I have admired over the years. A prizewinning Penguin novelist and a consummate speaker, to see Gervase Phinn performing extracts from A Wayne in a Manger and Mangled English is an unforgettable experience. He has the delivery of a seasoned comedian coupled with the ability to make his audience laugh and cry at the same time, and I would forgo other treats to see him on stage again.
There is one experience I definitely wouldn’t want to miss, though, and that’s the piano recital at Grieg’s house just outside Bergen. Our final destination before sailing back to Southampton, Bergen itself is beautiful with a spectacular setting and a waterfront of quirky cobbled streets lined with medieval wooden houses.
But I recommend taking an excursion to Troldhaugen, the small museum and former home of eminent Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. There are a number of enchanting piano recitals in the purpose-built concert hall adjacent to the museum and Grieg’s haunting melodies seem to summon the spirit of the fjords, the countless waterfalls cascading untamed down the hillsides and the otherworldly nature of this magical landscape.
Back on board though my most memorable activity is definitely the Cookery Club. I realise I’m not a natural contender for Bake Off but Eric is an excellent teacher, full of patience and praise – even in my case where I’m not sure the latter was warranted. Twice winner of the prestigious Continental Pâtissier of the Year award and designer of cakes for Madonna, the Beckhams and Elton John, Eric moves in high circles – and I shall always treasure my time circling his state-of-the-art cookery school at sea.
Now, where’s the caster sugar – I refuse to let a cake pop get the better of me…
P&O Cruises is offering a 7-night cruise on new ship Iona from £749 per person for an inside cabin. Sailing on a round-trip from Southampton from 13 June 2020, the price includes full-board meals and entertainment on board. Ports of call include Stavanger, Olden, Geiranger and Bergen. To book, call 03453 555 111 or visit pocruises.com.