By John Wilmott
Not everyone will get the chance to join a group cooking lesson hosted by a chef of Makkonen’s calibre at the on-board Culinary Arts Center, where we were busy making a mess of guinea fowl in the show kitchen, but anyone who fancies themselves a dab hand in the kitchen can pop along to demonstrations on board Holland America Line cruise ships.
I was on MS Ryndam on a week’s round trip from Dover to the Norwegian fjords. I had been to Norway before, although this time I was focusing my attention firmly on food – both on board and ashore.
The MS Ryndam
Our first port stop was Bergen where I ascended the city’s funicular to the Mount Fløyen viewpoint before setting out on one of the mountain’s hiking trails. Standing not far from a serene, tree-lined lake it was hard to imagine that the country’s second-largest city lay just below.
Back in the town centre, the fish market – here since the 13th century – was impossible to miss. Huge crabs scrabbled about in tanks, lobsters were stacked high and for those brave enough to try there was no shortage of seafood at tables set out on the quayside. I bought a smoked salmon and prawn baguette and tried a couple of samples of reindeer and whale sausage from a nearby stall.
• Norwegian cruises guide
Back on board I took up my booking at the Pinnacle Grill, one of the ship’s two signature restaurants. The speciality of the house is prime steak from the lush grasslands of America’s Pacific Northwest (Holland America’s homeland). Not Norwegian fare, but after a few mouthfuls I voted my filet mignon one of the best steaks I have ever eaten.
Crabs at the fish market in Bergen (Fotolia/AP)
I was up early the next morning for the sail into Geirangerfjord. Although only about nine miles long this Unesco-listed fjord is at the end of a zigzag of fjords that rise from the inky depths. The steep-sided rock walls were laced with waterfalls and the mountain peaks were still wearing their snowy scarves in early summer.
• Norwegian fjords cruise and Oslo city break
From the dock I joined a coach that crawled up the 11 steep hairpin bends of the Eagle Road to Herdal, a mountain farm. Up here is the country’s northernmost orchard, but it was the farm’s dairy that interested me most. The caramelised brown goat’s cheese (the farm has hundreds of horned billies) is sweet, rich and very popular in Norway, but I struggled to acquire a taste for it.
Sailing out of Geiranger I passed on dinner in Ryndam’s main dining room, despite the tempting four courses on offer, to stay on deck again, watching the evening sunlight play on the pine-clad slopes and isolated farms. Much later, as the light finally faded, I filled a plate with chicken and ribs from the Lido restaurant’s late-night menu.
One of the most familiar Norwegian vistas is the panorama of our next destination, the port of Ålesund, from the natural viewpoint of Mount Aksla.
View of Ålesund from Mount Aksla. (photo: Alamy)
I puffed up the 418 steps to reach the top (the cruise tour buses are an easier option) and far below saw Ryndam glinting in the sunshine and the art-nouveau buildings for which Ålesund is renowned lining the postcard-pretty Brosundet canal. An hour later I was sampling the local cake at a waterside café. Hardangerfjord, to the south, is less visited by cruise ships, but the next morning I was again outside on deck, watching our approach down this channel to the tiny village of Eidfjord. She may be classified as mid-sized, but Ryndam dwarfed the village as we pulled alongside.
• Cruising the Norwegian fjords
My hunger for views dictated my choice of shore excursion – a drive up to the vast Hardangervidda plateau. Polar explorers Amundsen and Nansen both used Hardangervidda to plan and prepare for their numerous expeditions. Walking, hiking, cycling and cross-country skiing are popular and the area is home to Europe’s largest stock of wild reindeer (I didn’t spot any). At a mountain refuge we tucked into waffles accompanied by sour cream and jam made from the wild lingonberries that grow during the short Scandinavian summer.
On the way back down to the ship we stopped at Vøringsfossen waterfall, where two stupendous plumes thunder 600ft into a canyon below. From the fall’s upper lookout I peered nervously over the perimeter fence into the abyss.
• Norway cruise: to the land of trolls and the midnight sun
A fairly early departure from Eidfjord meant I could relax with a Nordic beer in the sunshine while still drinking in the fjordscapes, and then listen to the resident jazz trio in the Oasis bar while indulging in delicately battered prawns.
A final day at sea offered a last chance to enjoy another session in the Culinary Arts Center and pick up some recipe cards for a few of the dishes I had consumed in Ryndam’s various restaurants. I was particularly pleased to see the instructions for a butternut squash soup, which, a companion observed, tasted strangely but deliciously of Werther’s Originals.
The culinary centre is one of the venues that will be enhanced when HAL launches the brand-new Koningsdam next year. The 20-year old Ryndam won’t be cruising in Europe much longer, but Koningsdam, the first of the line’s Pinnacle-class ships, will be exploring the fjords in summer 2016, sailing from Amsterdam.
The Culinary Arts Center will become a “farm to table” dinner venue where chefs prepare simple, artisinal dishes in the show kitchen. Another addition is Sal de Mer, a new French seafood brasserie. From an epicurean standpoint it seems that things are going from great, to even better.