I went on a sea cruise with P and O last year, which, despite some initial resistance on my part, ended up being a very enjoyable experience. I may have been the youngest person on the ship by at least two decades, but I discovered my inner ‘nan’. It was so relaxing. It was structured. You had a timetable. You got breakfast in bed. There was a sea view from my cabin. I could eat as much as I liked. I joined the choir.
Fred Olsen’s river cruise ship was older and less showy. Again I shared my cabin with my sister. It was a bit like a granny’s bedroom: no balcony, pale greige floral bedspreads and no wardrobe space. The up side was because the ship was smaller, it was easier to meet people. I talked to folk who spent their lives on cruise ships: after all it’s cheaper than an old people’s home. People book back-to-back cruises and I don’t blame them. There are also mystery cruises where you don’t know where you are going!
I had a massive row with the PR as soon as I got on. She tried to kick me off before we even set sail because I asked if we could have a balcony. She was bloody scary. I spent the rest of the cruise hiding in my cabin and being very quiet during the enforced group dinners every evening. But a night towards the end I had a little too much to drink and started talking about my one and only acid trip for my birthday last year. The other press, from provincial newspapers, looked a bit taken aback.
A river cruise is interesting: I know the north of France very well, but now I was seeing it from a river. Every inch of the way you are enclosed by the comforting boundaries of land unlike the endless watery horizon at sea.
We stopped for two days in Rouen which is a city that one usually a passes through on the way to the ferry. This time however, Rouen was an actual destination. The first day I visited: the Museum of Ceramics, where I could satisfy my blue and white fetish; the cathedral which is spectacular and humbling with an exhibition on Jean D’Arc (she was 19 when she died); the many half-timbered houses and cobbled streets.
La Couronne restaurant
The second day I booked for an elegant lunch at La Couronne restaurant in the central town square where Joan of Arc was burned to death at the stake. This 14th century restaurant, the oldest inn in France, was the setting where in 1948, Mrs Julia Child and her diplomat husband Paul had a revelatory meal which changed the course of her life.
It wasn’t cheap, the Julia Child Menu, at 110 euros with wine (65 without). It consisted of:
Half a dozen oysters (which I gave to my sister) with shallot vinaigrette
Fromage Blanc with raspberry coulis (they didn’t have this so I ordered a divinely puffy and alcoholic Grand Marnier soufflé)
Bottle of Pouilly Fumé, a crisp white wine
The piece de resistance was of course the sole meunière, served whole on a pewter tray, covered in brown butter. The waiter, who had trained at college for three years to be able to do this job, prepared the fish table-side. This was an exercise in excellence: perfect service by someone who did this as a career not as a student job. He separated the spine, the fins from the filets, laid them onto my shiny white plate, then spooned over a slick stream of hazelnut brown butter.
What wasn’t part of the Julia Child Menu was the extraordinary cheese board with 21 cheeses. This was the second best cheese board I’ve ever had after that of Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche. (I never wrote about that. Why not? It was incredible). Note: I also tend to do stunning cheese boards at my supper clubs.
I felt peaceful, happy, fulfilled. The buzz of 21st century stress fell silent as I ate. All was well with the world. This is what the French do brilliantly: classic, pure, tasteful, unfashionable, immune to trends, rigorous expert cuisine. The restaurant itself was rather old fashioned with an unfortunate ‘animal’ print carpet and 1980s tablecloths and plates. I did enjoy looking at the walls covered with photographs and autographs of stars from the past who had eaten there, many French but also American movie actors and singers from the post-war period. But the cooking and the service were sublime. Go.
We worked off this meal by sauntering through the elegant Musée des Beaux-Arts viewing works by Ingres, Manet, Renoir, Roger-Viollet. Lovely, just lovely.
Msmarmitelover was hosted by Fred Olsen cruises. This cruise costs approximately £400 per person, all inclusive.