A Tasty Mission: Chasing spies and food on the QM2

2014-03-30T08:00:00Z 2014-03-31T14:17:15Z A Tasty Mission: Chasing spies and food on the QM2Jane Dunne Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
March 30, 2014 8:00 am  • 

Counter-espionage, double agents, straight penetration, Arnold Deutsch, The Cambridge Five - Philby, Blunt, Burgess, McLean, Cairncross -, "the bump and the pitch", Anatoly Gorskey, NKVD, MI5, the Enigma code, Bletchley Park, Michael Straight, Kitty Harris, Garbo (and I don't mean Greta).

I could tell you plenty!

The Marshall Plan, the Cold War, MI6, KGB, NATO military strategy secrets, intel, dead drops, special ops, Melinda Marling, Ian Fleming, the defectors -Walter Krivitskey, Igor Grouzenko, Vladimir Petrov - illegals all, VENONA,

I'm pretty good with those, too.

How, you might ask, could a food writer from Chicago become so well-versed on the subject of espionage? It is duck soup (pardon the pun) when you learn at the feet of expert Nigel West, who led me and 16 congenial traveling companions through the fascinating territory of "The Spying Game: The Cold War and The Cambridge Five", one of the learning programs sponsored by RoadScholar. West, a military historian specializing in intelligence and security issues and the author of more than thirty books, delivers his lectures without notes, speaks in whole paragraphs, patiently and pleasantly answers questions and is the bearer of some captivating gossipy nuggets over dinner, concerning the clandestine antics of some of these undercover individuals.

What could be better for an espionage junkie, like me, than seven one-hour lectures from the articulate and learned Nigel West? If scheduled during a week's crossing aboard the Queen Mary 2, and a few later in Cambridge, you have struck the Mother Lode.

While I have never been a fan of the term, "bucket list", crossing the Atlantic on the Cunard Line's flagship and world's largest ocean liner has long been a dream. When dream became reality last summer, I leapt at the chance to explore. When I wasn't chasing spies, the gastronomic side of a ship that seemingly has everything including a planetarium. Seriously.

With 2,600 passengers and a crew of 1,300 representing more than fifty nationalities, QM2 serves close to 15,000 meals a day in her various dining venues - including the ship's largest restaurant, the Britannia, the Todd English Restaurant, as well as the Princess and Queen's Grill, both a 5-Star dining room available only to the ship's higher-fare passengers.

There is also an English pub serving fish and chips, shepherd's pie and ploughman's lunches alongside a plethora of ales.

At the Boardwalk Café near the swimming pool and sun-bathing areas, assorted salads, hamburgers and club sandwiches are the stars.

In The King's Court off the Promenade Deck, groaning breakfast and lunch buffets rule the day, if not the waves. The array is staggering and, of course, going back for seconds is expected. That all-you-can-eat lure is what makes one fat while at sea, but I must say this trimmer crowd seemed a bit more restrained.

One night during each crossing, King's Court transforms itself into The Lotus, presenting an Asian menu, dear to the heart of the ship's executive chef; another night it becomes La Piazza.

There are many bars scattered about the ship. With the drinks, passengers are presented with a plate of tasteful hors d'oeuvres, lest they become ravenous while waiting for the next meal.

There is also a beautiful and classic afternoon tea (for which one pays extra and makes a reservation). There you will find white glove service, tiers of artfully made sweets and savories brought to your table, tea, of course, in several iterations, a glass of champagne if you wish, and a string quartet. Then, there is 24-hour room service, Of course.

While the food is a big deal in all QM2 restaurants, it truly shines in the Britannia and the two Grills. The menus are innovative but not over the top. One evening I was lucky enough to dine at the Captain's Table. The meal if you will pardon a little hyperbole, could have pleased Lucullus. Steamed asparagus topped with a poached egg and drizzle of lemony hollandaise preceded a perfectly cooked beef fillet with wild mushroom ragout. Dessert was a warm lemon soufflé with sauce l'Anglaise. Appropriate wines throughout, of course.

I also fondly remember a pepper-crusted Atlantic salmon fillet I had for lunch one day at Todd English. It, too, came with asparagus - charred this time, with a warm fingerling potato salad and lemon chive cream. Throughout the crossing, there were breakfasts of smoked salmon, assorted melon, perfectly poached eggs on toast and rashers of bacon, lunches of lovely fresh salads and soups.

Dinners might begin with scallop ceviche, or artichoke salad with Parmesan or baked mushroom and shrimp thermidor, followed by rack of lamb persillade, or rack of Gloucester pork with aged apple cider chutney, Loch Duart salmon Wellington was served with a tarragon beure blanc. There were some memorable lobster tails one night. On another, crab and crayfish ravioli with lobster sauce.

Desserts were straight-forward: crème bruleé cheesecake, cherry clafloutis, summer berry mousse are examples, and always a selection of home-made ice creams and a cheese plate.

There were also vegetarian offerings and a Canyon Ranch Spa lower calorie meal on every lunch and dinner menu. With the exception of breakfast items, nothing was ever repeated in the seven days we were at sea.

My head was spinning with questions as I hurried one day to my meeting with Nicholas Oldroyd, executive chef of the QM2. Given the week at sea, how how do they keep their produce so impeccable throughout the voyage? Is it true they never repeat an item on the menu? How do they know how much to purchase? How do they keep track of the inventory? Where do they store the wine? How much wine do they store? Where do the officers and crew have their meals? How many galleys on board?

Chef Oldroyd, a large and cheerful man, obviously loves his job. A native of Yorkshire, he honed his culinary expertise in France before joining Cunard 14 years ago. He was glad to answer my questions. They have coolers just for salad greens which are stored in special containers. The leaves are air-tossed to keep them dry and crisp. They never repeat a dinner menu item on a New York- Southampton crossing. Even more amazing, the menus are completely changed on all the return crossings. So if you plan to do a round-trip, you will - heaven forefend - never be offered the same lunch and dinner choices you had while Southhampton-bound.

Chef Oldroyd plans the menus. They are then given to a master provisioner who figures out the amounts and handles the ordering. Inventory is computer-controlled. Also with us was Food & Beverage Director, Glenn Millway who confirmed the wine cellar is the largest of any ship in the world. The officers and crew have three messes and a special galley. On board, he said, are 310 waitstaff, 30 wine stewards and 70 bar staff. I can believe it.

On a tour with the chef of one of the galleys (there are eight), I learned his brigade is huge - 240 - including 162 commis (line cooks and chefs) his executive sous-chef, a chief baker, a butcher, chefs de cuisine, sous-chefs and chefs de partie. The executive chef oversees schedules to ensure the galleys are adequately manned at peak times. He also makes sure his crews stay motivated. I can tell during my tour there is great rapport.

As I thanked the chef for his time and the tour, he smiled and said, "You know, Jane, I have an identical twin brother who also works for Cunard. He's the Executive Chef on the Queen Victoria." I mean, what are the chances? I laughed all the way to Nigel's lecture on counter-spy Kim Philby. For me, on the QM2, it doesn't get much better than that.

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