Monday, 28 December 2015

NORTHERN IRELAND: A guide to eating and drinking in and around Belfast

a lot of sea foam at Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland - great fun
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It's almost 2016. Even if you think eating is the last thing on your mind right now (if it is, don't worry - it will pass), allow me to divulge this tasty nugget of information: next year is Northern Ireland's Year of Food and Drink.

Each month will host a different theme of events across the region, ranging from celebrating the charms of a real Northern Irish breakfast throughout January, to paying homage to tasty things hauled from its wonderful waters in July, to all things bread and baking in September. Did somebody say black pudding potato bread (see St. George's Market below)?

This all roughly translates to: if you like your food and appreciate quality artisan culinary craft, get the heck over to Belfast and its surrounding areas and eat until you drop or have to leave, whichever comes first. 

I spent three nights over there with Discover Northern Ireland and Dee Tours of Ireland to experience what culinary delights this part of the world has to offer. There's a lot, so here's a little guide to get you going.

Where to eat in Belfast


Hannan Meats at James Street Bar & Grill


Peter Hannan is known as the Meat Merchant for a good reason - his life work is all about perfecting his award-winning products that include beef and lamb dry-aged in a Himalayan salt chamber - swoon. We were treated to three courses of endless Hannan meats at Belfast Bar and Grill, with the head chef using some innovative cooking techniques to show them off in all their glory.

Cured ox-cheeks were given the sous vide treatment then finished on the grill, sporting an incredible deep ruby colour and gorgeous texture. Then there were sugar pit-cooked beef ribs, and chateaubriand. There was probably enough to generously feed 20; we were but eight. Such is the generosity of the Belfast people, I quickly came to realise. 

Hannan's meats can be found in some of Northern Ireland's top restaurants, as well as further afield - top London chef Mark Hix is a huge fan himself, using the exclusive Glenarm Shorthorn steaks throughout his restaurant group. And Fortnum & Mason's have just got their hands on the goods too.

It's nice to know I don't have to cross the Irish Sea to sample those again.

hannanmeats.com
James Street Bar & Grill, 21 James St S, Belfast BT2 7GA

serious meat sweats at James St Bar & Grill in Belfast

OX Belfast


I'm a sucker for a good tasting menu, as long as it's without too much pretense. And as long as it's not fussy - I'm not a fan of fuss. OX Belfast is the place for a blinding one of these, and a faultless meal altogether. It might have been my favourite eat from the weekend.

The highlights from a great bunch: hay-baked celeriac with lardo, black trompettes and truffles - an earthy plate of foraged woodland delight; halibut with mussels, salsify and a sail of sea lettuce perched on top - of the sea, and very pretty; and Chateaubriand with foie gras, butternut squash and lovage. There were fitting wine pairings - a bright Rioja, Cotes du Rhone, a fruity Nero d’Avola - and we finished off by sauntering into the adjoining OX Cave for a very splendid spread of cheese, and a little more wine, at about 11.45pm. As one does.

The service was wonderful and the food showcased the great Northern Irish larder. OX Belfast is more than worthy of all its recent accolades, including a Michelin star. Not to mention the whole cast of Game of Thrones were on the table next to us (a lot of it is filmed in the surrounding areas), along with James Nesbitt - you might be able to spot him in the collage below.

Do not miss this restaurant when visiting Belfast.

oxbelfast.com
OX Belfast, 1 Oxford St, Belfast BT1 3LA

Michelin-starred tasting menu at Ox Belfast, alongside the cast of Game of Thrones



The Barking Dog


A pretty venue on Malone Road where Chef proprietor Michael O’Connor lets quality ingredients speak for themselves. I had a fish pie packed with fresh and flaking hunks, complete with boiled egg and fab mash. It went down barely touching the sides.

barkingdogbelfast.com
The Barking Dog, 33-35 Malone Rd, Belfast, Antrim BT9 6RU

street art by Danny Devenny, a prolific mural painter in Belfast
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Where to drink in Belfast


"I'm not an alcoholic, I'm Irish," is a good way to justify one too many, and a phrase I heard more than once during my time in Northern Ireland. I might start using it.


The locals like a tipple - or five - and there are a lot of good places to enjoy them. We let a couple of experts - Phil and Caroline from Belfast Food Tours - show us their favourite haunts during their very good Pub and Bar Tour of Belfast.


Needless to say, it was a good evening.

The Spaniard


This place is very far up my street. If I had The Spaniard near where I live, I would be in it a lot.

It's a three story bar found in the Cathedral Quarter dripping from floor to ceiling in catholic paraphernalia, right down to the little crucifix shaped light-bulbs on the ceiling. It wouldn't be out of place as a set from Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet

Disciples of rum come to The Spaniard to worship - they are exceedingly good at that brooding classic, the Dark and Stormy. The best I've had, no question. Note: there's no confession box should you wish to rid yourself of any drunken-antics shame. 

thespaniardbar.com
The Spaniard, 3 Skipper St, Belfast, County Antrim BT1 2DZ

holier than thou scenes at The Spaniard in Belfast




Duke of York


To me, the Duke of York is the quintessential classic Irish boozer, or what I'd expect from one. Bolshy, well lit, full of good craic and with a big heart.

You'll find it nestled along a narrow cobbled alleyway in the historic Half Bap area, furnished with Belfast furniture and walls adorned with antique mirrors and artefacts from some of the city’s most famous hotels and buildings from bygone times.

It's a time warp, which is why it is so well loved, and busy. Step into this institution, enjoy a local whisky or creamy stout, and you'll be treated to a glimpse of Belfast's historical past. 

dukeofyorkbelfast.com
Duke of York, 7-11 Commercial Ct, Belfast BT1 2NB


classic Irish boozer found at the much loved The Duke of York in Belfast

The Dirty Onion


Traditional live music every night of the week in an outdoor setting is one of The Dirty Onion's big draws. It's in one of the city's oldest buildings, originally constructed around the 1750's as a warehouse, and reintroduced as a traditional public house with a modern twist.

It's got an industrial unfinished look about it - all part of the charm. We imbibed on some Dunville Irish whiskey shots to warm the cockles. It certainly did that.

thedirtyonion.com

The Dirty Onion, 3 Hill St, Belfast BT1 2LA

A.P.O.C


A.P.O.C - or Arranged Presence of Company, in case you were wondering - is a cocktail bar with a speakeasy feel inspired by early 20th century decor. This is the place to sip on wintry drinks by a roaring fireside.

We sampled the wild berries and grassy notes of Shortcross gin distilled at Rademon Estate, where they are proud to be Northern Ireland’s First Award Winning Craft Distillery. There's a lot of love that goes into Shortcross - they hand bottle, wax dip and sign each bottle.

apocbelfast.com

A.P.O.C., 1 Goose Entry, Belfast, BT1 1FP

tipples enjoyed at The Dirty Onion, APOC, and The Hudson





Sunflower


I didn't want to leave the Sunflower. We walked in and there was a table 'reserved for musicians' where a few guys were jamming with acoustic guitars and ukuleles. I sat down next to one of them and started tapping my feet to the traditional music. I was pretty close to getting up and doing a jig if I'm honest. 

Really great vibes, a place where once you find a nook to settle in, you could easily stay for hours.

facebook.com/sunflowerpublichouse
Sunflower Public House, Union St, Belfast, County Antrim BT1 2JG

fantastic traditional folk music being played around the
table 'reserved for musicians' at Sunflower in Belfast

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Where to eat in Northern Ireland


Harry's Shack


Here's a do-not-miss for you. Harry's Shack in Portstewart. It's right on the sea; we were overlooking a frothing Atlantic Ocean raging under the watery winter sunshine while gorging on fresh fish and local beer. In the summer, surfers and sun tanners wander on up from the beach, bringing in the sand on their flip-flops. 

Jay Rayner, food critic at The Guardian, gave it a glowing review. People drive from far and wide to eat here. For those stationed in Belfast, the restaurant it's a doable 1 hour 15 minutes drive without traffic. Go for lunch, linger on the beach, check out the surrounding countryside - make a day of it.

Harry's Shack is a spruced up and expanded shed owned by the National Trust. Perhaps because of this, they don't currently have a license to sell alcohol, so it's bring your own. Which means an already surprisingly low restaurant bill ends up even lower than you might be anticipating.

The thing to have here is fish. Local boats bring in the daily haul from neighbouring ports. Expect the likes of buttermilk battered haddock with chips and mushy peas; hake with spiced potato and chorizo stew; plaice with bacon, cockles, fennel and mash; prawns in garlic butter; crab salads; Abernethy butter with sea salt and dulse (seaweed); fabulous sourdough; and the rest.

Harry's Shack is an ode to the simple but marvellous things in life, showcasing the great produce from both land and sea this part of the world has to offer. It is well worth the journey.

www.facebook.com/HarrysShack
Harry's Shack, 116 Strand Rd, Portstewart BT55 7PG

glorious feasting from local waters at Harry's Shack in Portstewart, Northern Ireland
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The River Room, Galgorm


This is the 40-cover fine-dining restaurant at the splendid Galgorm Resort and Spa, set in 163 acres of parkland in the Antrim countryside, a mere 30 minutes north of Belfast. Head Chef Chris Rees tries to make sure all the produce is Irish, apart from a few unavoidable things like foie gras. The space overlooks the river and serene grounds, and plates exhibit both clarity of flavour and ideas. 

It's a place for a special occasion. It even has an adjoining gin bar with a menu so comprehensive, it's enough to send your head in a gin spin before you've even started drinking.

galgorm.com/river-room
Galgorm Resort and Spa, Galgorm, Co. Antrim BT42 1EA

tasting menu at The River Room in Galgorm Resort & Spa, Northern Ireland
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What to do in Belfast


Food tour with Belfast Food Tours


I am the first to sing the praises of a good food tour. One of the best ways to explore the culinary scene of a new destination is under the expertise and guidance of a local who knows their food. That's why I'm a good guided food tour's biggest fan, and always try to find an expert to show me the ropes when I'm in a new city. 

And so, if you find yourself in Belfast, even for a fleeting visit, I urge you to make a tour with the enthusiastic and effervescent Caroline from Belfast Food Tours your top priority. It's so good, even the locals go on it.

You'll visit 8 different places, taste over 20 foods and drinks from Northern Ireland over the 4.5 hours, and it costs a mere £40.

Here are some of the stops and treats we sampled:

St George's Market


St George’s Market is one of Belfast’s oldest attractions. Built in the 1890's, it's been voted one of the best markets in the UK and Ireland, winning all sorts of awards and titles. This is the place to go on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday to get hold of a huge range of goodies, both edible and not. My favourite are the former, obviously.

St. George's Market in Belfast in full festive weekend swing
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We ate and drank from the following, to name a few:

  • SD Bell & Co. Ltd - Ireland's oldest independent tea importer and coffee roaster, doing their thing for over 125 years
  • Ann's Pantry - award-winning spelt and black pudding potato bread and Irish soda farl - as good as that sounds
  • Alan Coffey fishmonger - oysters, fat prawns, scallops, all sorts
  • Hillstown Farmshop - meat farmers that also brew their own Irish stout which they feed to the cattle to produce a Kobe type beef - YES 
  • Mike's Fancy Cheese - 'Young Buck' is a blue cheese and Northern Ireland's first raw milk cheese. It was also this year's silver winner in the blue cheese category at the Irish Cheese Awards held in Dublin

visit-belfast.com/things-to-do/member/st-georges-market
East Bridge St, Belfast BT1 3NQ


loads of fantastic local artisan produce to be found in St. George's Market in Belfast
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The Garrick Bar


Established in 1870, The Garrick is a multiple award-winning traditional pub in the heart of Belfast, and one of the oldest in the city. We took part in an 11am lock-in to drink McGraths Irish Black Stout, and eat a bowl of champ, before it opened for the punters.

Champ, if you don't know (I didn't) is an everyday wholesome Irish dish of mashed potatoes with chopped spring onions, butter and milk. Splendid it is too.

thegarrickbar.com
29 Chichester Street, Belfast BT1 4JB

Co Couture


Chocolatier Deirdre is responsible for the delightful Co Couture - a little boutique chocolate company full of everything you want to buy - Deirde’s own bars, filled couture chocolates, chocolate honeycomb, popcorn and hazelnuts, as well as Grenada chocolate bars and Willie’s chocolate bars too.

You can pop in for a cup of glorious hot chocolate to enjoy at one of the two tables, or to take with you. It was dreamy, topped with Deirdre's homemade marshmallow, and with a square of entirely irresistible squidgy brownie.

cocouture.co.uk
7 Chichester Street, Belfast BT1 4JA

clockwise from top left: very special hot chocolate from Co Couture; the effervescent Caroline from Belfast Food Tour; champ and black stout at The Garrick; more booze at The John Hewitt; David talking beans at Established; Deirdre from Co Couture
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The John Hewitt


There's something special about this pub in that it's owned by The Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, who had always relied on grants and charity to fund its work. 

In the mid-nineties, the management decided to generate some of their own money by going into business, and doing so with this pub. Once overheads and wages are paid, every bit of profit goes back to the centre. A better place than any to give your beer money to.

This is an old-world pub offering real ales and gastropub fare, plus regular, live, traditional Irish music. Our ales were Cloughmore Heather Irish Pale Ale and Hilden Twisted Hop - good they were too.

thejohnhewitt.com
51 Donegall St, Belfast BT1 2FH


Established


You want to come here for brunch and specialist coffee served by lovely guys with full beards wearing aprons. We only stopped for a cup, but I could see some glorious plates of food flying past.

It's slick and minimalist and is just the place to settle a while with your Mac and a Chemex brew whilst enjoying a cauliflower hash brown with beet tzatziki, spring onion butter, greens, a fried egg and dukkah. I mean, how ideal does that scene sound?

facebook.com/establishedcoffee
54 Hill St, Belfast BT1 2LB

Coppi


Because we clearly hadn't eaten and drunk enough (!), the tour finished with a full on feast at Italian restaurant Coppi.

Highlights were more Peter Hannan meats (see earlier), specifically his beef salted in pink Himalayan salt caves. The duck ravioli was ace too. There was also roast hake, duck pizza, local scallops, Parmesan fries, and more prosecco than we probably needed.

Caroline had bought some of that glorious Young Buck blue cheese earlier on in St George's Market - she whipped it out at the end of the meal to enjoy with Passion Preserved watermelon rind pickle (INCREDIBLE) and hand-churned Abernethy butter and the whole thing was nothing short of a dream boat.

coppi.co.uk
Unit 2 Saint Anne's Square, Cathedral Quarter, Belfast BT1 2LR

this very good lunch at Coppi in Belfast wrapped up our food tour
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Where to visit in Belfast and Northern Ireland


Titanic Belfast


To be given the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the men who built the world’s most famous ship, at the very site of its construction, is really very cool indeed. 


Now Northern Ireland's most visited attraction, the iconic six-floor building takes visitors though nine galleries, telling the story of the Titanic from her conception in the early 1900's, through to her construction and launch, to her famous maiden voyage, and to her tragic end.

If you liked the film, you'll probably really enjoy this as it gives everything much more context. Only after this visit did I truly appreciate what an incredible feat of engineering ship building was in that era. Fascinating stuff, and really nicely done with lots of videos, interactive bits, and even a ride. You'll need about one hour and a half there - don't miss it.

titanicbelfast.com
£17.00 per adult / £7.25 per child / £42 per family 

Giant's Causeway

Regular readers will know that after food and eating, my second greatest passion is the great outdoors, weather, nature, rocks, wildlife - all that jazz. Which is probably why I love taking photographs of landscapes (a shameless and tenuous plug for my photography website).

So when I found out the weekend would be lots of scoffing intercepted with a scenic coastal drive ending at Giant's Causeway, I was nothing short of thrilled.

That drive hugs the ocean and four looped routes link the towns Glenarm, Carnlough, Cushendall and Cushendun, allowing visitors to travel inland and explore the famous Glens of Antrim.

It's this part of the world where most of Game of Thrones is filmed too, so if you're a fan, you could do a set location pilgrimage. Alas, wasted on me - never watched an episode. But I can appreciate why Northern Ireland is so suited for it - parts of the landscape feel like it's been there forever.

mouth of Cushendun Cave, where Melissandra gives birth to the
shadow baby in Game of Thrones, Northern Ireland




Cushendun, Northern Ireland
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Then there's Giant's Causeway. You've got the raging North Atlantic Ocean on one side, and dramatic cliff faces on the other. Then there are the world-famous basalt columns, about 40,000 of them all interlocking thanks to their striking hexagonal shape. The result of a volcanic eruption 50 million years ago, or the remnants of a sea crossing built by giants? You decide.

This is a place for bird-watching, hiking, breathing in that sea air, donning your geology hat, and exercising your photography skills.
 

Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland
a windy and sleety Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland
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It's also the place to get covered in frothed-up sea foam I mistakenly took for sleet when I was standing further away (see first video below).

I would also highly recommend going through the 'Windy Gap'. It's a narrow passage between the rocks that forces the air through  at a greater speed. We visited Giant's Causeway during Storm Clodagh, so it was windy anyway. 




Then we tried to walk through that gap, tried being the operative word. I've never experienced winds that strong. 60mph apparently; it was a struggle to stay upright. Plus there was very sharp sleet trying to slice my face open, also at 60mph - hence why I keep pulling my hood down. 

The video below got retweeted by a Northern Irish BBC weather presenter, and the actual Northern Ireland BBC Weather account. Famous.


Where to stay in Northern Ireland


Galgorm Resort & Spa


When I told people who know Northern Ireland we'd be spending a night at Galgorm Resort & Spa, I got a a lot of cooing in return.

It's the region's premier luxury hotel, and spa, just a 30 minute drive from Belfast.
Set within 163 acres of lush parkland with the lovely River Maine flowing through the estate, it's close to both Belfast airports and the stunning scenery of the North Antrim Coast. In otherwords, a great base from which to explore the region, then have a soak. 

galgorm.com
Galgorm Resort and Spa, Galgorm, Co. Antrim BT42 1EA

River Room at Galgorm Resort & Spa
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Useful information


DEE TOURS OF IRELAND
deetoursireland.com
07812 739 683

BELFAST PUB AND BAR TOUR 
belfastfoodtour.com
£35 per person 

BELFAST FOOD TOUR 
belfastfoodtour.com
£40 per person 
Operates every Saturday and some Fridays and Sundays 
8 Destinations over 4.5 hours long 
Private and group tours are available on request for 12 or more

TITANIC BELFAST
titanicbelfast.com
£17.00 per adult / £7.25 per child / £42 per family 

GIANT'S CAUSEWAY
nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway
£9.00 per adult / £4.50 per child / £22 per family

GALGORM RESORT & SPA
galgorm.com
Superior Rooms start from £95 per room per night based on two people sharing

TOURISM IRELAND
ireland.com
Union St, Belfast, County Antrim BT1 2JG

Disclaimer


Note: Tourism Ireland kindly hosted this trip, including flights, as part of a media package - thank you to everyone involved for a truly wonderful and unique experience. 
 
A special note also goes out to Addison Lee Cabs who whisked me to the airport and also met me on arrival when I returned to London. Their free in-car wifi and charging stations are particularly handy when you forget to do all those important things before running out of the house.

Their loyalty service is also worth reading up on if you're a regular cab user - ClubLee gives some worthy discounts and exclusive offers.

All views remain my own.

our fab Belfast group
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Do take a look at the coverage from the rest of our great group of fellow food and travel writers and bloggers (pictured above), from left to right: Giulia from Mondomulia, Karen from Lavender and Lovage, Hugh from Hugh's Food, Lucy from Food Goblin and Niamh from Eat Like a Girl.


Postcards from Northern Ireland


Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland


Friday, 4 December 2015

SILVERSEA: A gourmet 7-day cruise through the Mediterranean

Silver Spirit sitting proudly docked in Menorca (lots more images at the end of post)
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Where in the world

A seven day cruise starting in Civitavecchia (Rome) where we boarded, followed by two days and one night docked in Livorno in Italy, with a day trip to Florence.

Then one day each was spent docked in Monte Carlo, Marseille, Porto Mahon in Menorca, and Palma de Mallorca, before ending the week in Barcelona where we disembarked.




Thoughts

I have a news flash for anyone under the age of 50. Cruises are cool. They're not just for the newly wed, the nearly dead, or the very well fed (ok, I might fall into that last option). At least, the Silversea ones aren't.

I've already written about the ship itself, the service, the suites, the vibe in general and the kind of people you find on there in SILVERSEA: Review of cruise ship Silver Spirit. Have a read, you might be surprised.

But what was especially attractive about this particular voyage was that it was a gourmet cruise, meaning heavy focus on food, dining, wine, awesome Michelin-starred chefs, and full on gala dinners. And as you may have gathered, that's right up my street.

The best things I ate this week

This was a good week for eating. There were endless meals of good food and wine, a lot of it brilliant, and one too many cocktails. Below were some of my favourites, both aboard the ship and on land.

On board the ship

Italian Gala Dinner at La Terraza

With Italian culture orbiting around the epicentre that is food, you would expect dining to be a high priority at Silversea. And, it is. For starters, they have a partnership with the prestigious Grands Chefs Relais & Châteaux.

If you're on one of Silversea's gourmet cruises, you can expect gala dinners created and hosted by guest chefs from around the world. During our seven day voyage, two head chefs from Michelin-starred Relais & Chateaux restaurants, each presented two nights of pretty awesome feasting, held in the La Terraza restaurant.

My favourite was the entirely superb Italian gala meal thanks to guest chef Fabio Pisani from restaurant Il luogo di Aimo e Nadia in Milan, with a wine list devised by guest sommelier Gennaro Buono from Il Pagliaccio in Rome (you can find out more about Genarro and his wine under Did you know further down).

dishes from the Fabio Pisani's Italian gala dinner

There were five courses of some seriously spot-on cooking. The voluptuous risotto with courgette flowers adorned with freshly grated white truffle, the yielding veal sirloin with chamomile crust and tropea onions in a raspberry vinegar, and the cream of yoghurt mascarpone with coffee biscuit and bergamot ricotta - were the best from a very strong bunch.

A special note must be given to the accompanying wine list from Gennaro Buono. Never have I experienced a wine pairing where every glass has been knock-out. And there was a bit of a 'STOP PRESS' moment when we got onto the Marche Rosso Kurni 2013 - Oasi degli Angeli. 

I don't know a great deal about wine, but I do know no other glass has ever got me this excited. I quite simply, couldn't stop drinking it. 

It was a good night, as you might imagine.

our group looking rather pleased with ourselves,
with Fabio Pisani at the centre and the pastry chef on the left

Japanese degustation menu at Seishin

We dived into a full on nine-course Japanese tasting menu and a bit too much sake at Seishin on our first night. This is one of two restaurants on the ship (the other being Le Champagne) that come with a little surcharge for evening dining ($40 / £27 per person), but it's like, totally worth it. 

I'm always a bit weary when there's a solo, token Asian restaurant in a hotel or in this case, on a cruise ship, that's not in Asia. They often feel like an afterthought, only there because the place thinks it should probably be serving some sort of Asian food, just to cover their bases.

I wasn't expecting it to be that good. It was very good. 

There was a sparkling caviar sorbet to start, and as well as all of the shimmering sashimi and sushi, we had sea urchin with with potato mousseline, clams in a ponzu sauce, miso-glazed black cod, a corking lobster and lemonsgrass soup, and when we couldn't possibly stomach another savoury bite, the tepan wagu beef came out, and that was nothing but glorious.

I just wished I'd made it there for a lunch, where sushi and sashimi is sculpted while you wait, it's buffet, and there's no surcharge. I was usually on shore - dammit.

some of the dishes from the nine-course degustation menu at Seishin
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DIY hot-rocks steak and lobster at The Grill

Steak. Lobster. Add some fine red (which we obviously did), and that's unashamed indulgence right there. I'll go so far as to call it the holy trinity of a very good meal.

The finesse and pretty plates you find in The Restaurant or La Terraza have no place at the The Grill in the evenings. Instead (and what many would argue, preferred) you get given an almost molten slab of volcanic rock onto which you place your choice of protein, watch it smoke, and listen to it sizzle. Al fresco DIY hot-rock cooking. No fuss, no complications, just quality ingredients. It's a lot of fun. And it was one of my favourite meals from the week.

Fish of the day on our visit was lobster tail, but also expect salmon, fat prawns, and whatever else the chefs have managed to source.

Particular note should be given to the beef, or the chef (that was me), or probably both. The meat is Sterling Silver Premium, graded as "prime" and ranked in the top 12% of all available beef products in the world. The cows are grain-fed in the high North American plains and the meat hand-selected for superior marbling and a rich flavour.

What that all translates to is one seriously good rib-eye. So good, we went back a second night. There's no such thing as too much steak, right?

lobster tail and rib-eye sizzling away on my hot rock in The Grill
again, looking pretty pleased with ourselves - understandable
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Shore excursions

It can be a bit of a challenge pulling yourself away from the ship to explore the shore, what with all the on board amenities, a daily-changing and varied list of activities, and all food and drink included. 

But if you can manage it, there's a lot of good stuff to see. And eat, naturally.

Where to eat in Florence

There are these great places in Italy called fiaschetterie, which are little wine shops where people on their lunch break order a bite, a small glass of libation, and enjoy the two standing on the street. It looks infinitely more sophisticated done in Florence than the same thing could ever come across in London - I'm not sure a Big Mac and beer in Leicester Square would quite cut it.

We were looking for a place called I Due Fratellini, which was pretty easy to spot despite being on a side street, thanks to the small cluster of people congregated around it's tiny frontage. Inside, two men pouring wine by the glass and making great sandwiches. I got a roast ham and truffle cream panini, with a glass of local table Chianti, for just €5.50 (£4). 

sandwich from I Due Fratellini and gelato from Gelateria Santatrinita, Florence
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Better than a Boot's meal deal. And why is it still frowned upon to have wine on your lunch break in England? They even have little shelves on the walls outside with numbered sections, so you can perch your glass to free up your hands for eating, and pick up the right one after.

The UK has some catching up to do.  

I Due Fratellini, Via dei Cimatori, 38R, 50122 Firenze

Then we sauntered about a bit, and across the Ponte Santa Trinita bridge, until we found Gelateria Santatrinita. This was just about the best textured gelato I've ever had. It was like eating a cloud.

Three scoops - sesame, pistachio (a must when in Italy) and coffee. There's a picture of it above with the Ponte Vecchio in the background. It was bloody gorgeous.

Gelateria Santatrinita, Piazza Frescobaldi, 11-12/r (Ponte Santa Trinita), 50125 Firenze

the Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Florence

Where to eat in Palma de Mallorca

Oh yes. This meal was truly wonderful. Easily my favourite lunch from the week.

Hands down, this was the best paella I've ever had. The texture of the grains, the flavours, the big fat juicy hunks of gorgeous fresh fish, the tender squid. Everything was so spot on. One of those food gatherings where the stars align - fautless food, reasonable prices, a great setting, perfect weather, and awesome pals. I've actually dreamt about it since - true story. 

This was had at ENCO Gastronomy, a great spot we happened to stumble upon near the cathedral. And there were fish bowls of sangria. And bread with jamon and local cheese. And pickled chillies. I mean, it was just excellent. And you can't beat a feast like that in the late autumn Spanish sunshine.

ENCO Gastronomy, Vicari Joaquin Fuster, 15, 07006 Portixol, Palma de Mallorca

pitch perfect paella at ENCO Gastronomy, Palma de Mallorca

Palma de Mallorca
Palma Cathedral de Santa María, Palma de Mallorca
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Where to eat in Porto Mahon, Menorca

I really enjoyed the few hours I had on Menorca. The view of its coastline coming in on the boat was quite something, and meandering through the quiet streets was nothing but dreamy. Plus the food market was rocking, full of locals, having a glass of something good and nibbling on small plates. I bought two trio packs of morcilla, chorizo and pork belly to make classic Spanish bean stews with. I'm looking forward to that.

We were on the hunt for a place to eat, and it's hard to go too wrong if you follow the crowds. We ordered several plates of tapa and sangria from a bustling restaurant - morcilla with fried onions and quail's egg, sobrasada-stuffed pastries, Iberico with caramelised goat's cheese, and the rest.

If you're a fan of gin (and let's face it, what good soul isn't), I implore you to try Xoriguer gin local to Mahon. It's one of the only gins in the world (alongside Plymouth) to have a geographical indication, Gin de Menorca. I think this was the best G&T I've ever had. If you can enjoy it in the Spanish sunshine, even better.

I usefully forgot to note down where we had the tapas. Soz. The gin can be found everywhere.

tapas, local gin and market Iberica ham sandwiches in Porto Mahon, Menorca
the view from the ship coming into Porto Mahon, Menorca
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Did you know?

There are a lot of culinary-related activities only found on the Silversea's gourmet cruises that are really very interesting.

These were some of my favourites were:

Galley Tour

You can attend a really insightful tour of the huge central galley kitchens, fascinating if you're interested in seeing the belly of a beast that caters to so many people, all day, every day, and how all that is managed and overseen by one person. 

Executive Chef Anne-Mari Cornelius, responsible for 63 members of staff across five galleys, walked and talked us through a couple of them. It was very reassuring to hear pasta is made fresh daily with traditional grano duro (semolina) flour, along with bread baked twice a day (so it's never more than a few hours old), and fresh produce always locally sourced from the first port before the ship sets sail.

Executive Chef Anne-Mari Cornelius


Cooking Demonstrations

As well as Fabio Pisani and his stellar Italian gala dinner mentioned earlier, the other Michelin-starred Relais & Chateaux chef on board was Erik Arnecke, from restaurant Philipp Soldan in Frankenberg. He too devised and hosted two gala dinner evenings, which were great, but I also managed to make it to one of his cooking demonstrations.

Lap-top eating and 11.15am wine in the theatre-style Show Lounge was no bad way to get through the morning. Erik was on the stage cooking and assembling one of the dishes from his menu the night before - marinated langoustine carpaccio, avocado, rose and espelette pepper.

It's a great opportunity to ask a master of the kitchen any questions you might have been saving for a Michelin-starred interview.

about to eat the product of Erik Arnecke's
cooking demonstration

Wine Tasting

I already mentioned Genarro Buono's genius in introducing me to a wine that had me reeling for days, it was that good. Well, he was also available for wine tastings each day, where guests could sit in the comfort of one of the plush bars, working their way through a series of five glasses.

Genarro is a wine week in the truest sense. He qualified third at the competition of Best Sommelier in Italy in 2010, and two years later he won the title. So he knows what he's talking about. And he talks about it, a lot.

Most of the tasting notes are lost on me; I can usually identify the overriding aroma and flavour, but not a huge amount else. But the best thing about this is seeing someone so passionate and knowledgeable about their craft, and getting to ask him any wine-related questions you might have been storing up. And drinking them, obviously.

Genarro Buono and one of his wine tasting event
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My insider tips

When docked in Livorno, the ship provides a paid for shore excursion to get you into Florence, should you fancy a day trip. A big coach will take you and if I recall correctly, it costs around €90 per person for the return journey. 

That's not bad value, but it's not flexible. There's only one departure time, which was too early for us (8.15 am) considering our late night drinking the day before. And the coach gives you a generous 8 hours or so in the city, so if you're done beforehand, you need to hang around until it's ready to leave. 

getting my culture fix in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence
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Or, you can approach one of the private taxi guys you'll find around the port as you disembark. This is only worth it if there are a few of you, to keep costs down. But do haggle a little if what they're offering sounds too much. We were offered a price and thought it too high, asked the driver just to take us to the station so we could catch a train into the city instead (another good option). Then on the way, he dropped his price a little further, and we accepted.

With five of us in a roomy cruiser, we were charged €55 each (we added another 5 each for tip), he was faster than both the coach and train (he took under an hour each way), he waited in the city until we were done, and we dictated the time we returned. He was also a very nice guy, driving us around the main parts first, so we could get our bearings.

Totally worth it.

My other tip would be to make reservations for the restaurants on board. Some of them are quite intimate with only a few tables, such as Seishin. To avoid disappointment, secure a table beforehand - we saw quite a few guests having to be turned away from Seishin on the first night.

docked up in Monaco - yacht central. View from my cabin's veranda
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Highlights / Lowlights

Highlight  

All of it. Truly, I liked all of it, a lot. 

Particularly the morning we docked in Monaco. I woke up, pulled back the curtains bleary-eyed, and was greeted with the magnificent view above, right in front of me. One of those cities that looks best from the water. Good morning indeed!

Also, standing on my private veranda in my pj's before bed as the ship glided elegantly through inky waters, which became a nightly ritual. Looking up at a dark starry sky, the fresh sea air, the cathartic sound of gently swishing waters. Glorious.

I didn't really want to leave (see below).

Lowlight

Errrm - disembarking??

Porto Mahon, Menorca
Disclaimer

Note: Silversea kindly hosted this trip, including flights, as part of a media package - thank you to everyone involved for a truly wonderful and unique experience. 
 
A special note also goes out to Addison Lee Cabs who whisked me to the airport when it was too early for public transport, and also met me on arrival when I returned to London. Their free in-car wifi and charging stations are particularly handy when you forget to do all those important things before running out of the house.


Their loyalty service is also worth reading up on if you're a regular cab user - ClubLee gives some worthy discounts and exclusive offers.

All views remain my own.

Do take a look at the coverage from my wonderful fellow shipmates too: Hermione OliviaLavender and Lovage (Karen's write-up here) and The Travel Hack.

Postcards

Florence

Florence
Florence


Florence

Florence


Florence

Florence


Florence

Florence
Florence

Florence
Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo

Monte Carlo







Palma de Mallorca

Palma de Mallorca

Palma de Mallorca




Porto Mahon, Menorca

Porto Mahon, Menorca


Porto Mahon, Menorca
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Related links
SILVERSEA: Review of cruise ship Silver Spirit

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