05 August 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Amerigo the Beautiful

GENOVA, Italy - This is a story about food, the food prepared and served on the mythical Italian sailing ship the Amerigo Vespucci. In the 74 years the ship has been around, the Amerigo Vespucci and its crew of 16 officers, 70 non-commissioned officers and 200 sailors and cadets of the Italian Naval Academy have sailed into ports all over the world. And good sailor that it is, it throws a party at every port it sails into.

Party Time on the Amerigo Vespucci

Some of the on-board parties are as elegant as dining at the Ritz, while others are as informal as a Texas barbeque. If you are lucky enough to be invited to sit at the Captain’s table you’ll be served by a waiter in a starched white jacket and white gloves. You’ll be offered your choice of two starters, two first plates and three main courses, one of which will be a fish dish, plus vegetables, fruit and desert. And after dinner a drink up on deck with the Captain is in order. Throw in a full moon, a couple of stars and you'll think you have landed in a scene from the James Bond classic Diamonds Are Forever.

But life on board ship is not all gold trimmed dishes, damask tablecloths and walks in the moonlight, especially for the young sailors who keep all the brass fittings spit shined and the sails billowing. Life onboard goes on 24 hours a day which means the sailors work in shifts and the kitchen has to be ready to put out food, even at midnight. 

Welcome Aboard

The cooks are all graduates of one of Italy’s prestigious hotel schools. After their culinary training period they can stay onboard, working in the kitchen for five years. It is probably one of the most difficult jobs on the ship. Not only is the kitchen small and cramped, but when the ship is in port and the rest of the crew get time off, the kitchen crew is working double time. There are always visiting dignitaries to entertain, cocktail parties and dinner parties to host.

For seven months a year about 450 people eat, sleep and live on this three mast full rigged sailing ship. Their day is organized around meal times: when the ship is in port breakfast is served from 7 to 8, lunch at 1 and dinner at 7:30. When the ship is at sea and operating 24 hours a day, meals are served twice in a 24 hour period. They try to keep life on-board as normal as possible and even at midnight when the night crew is about to start its shift, the cooks are in front of the ovens pulling out pizzas for those who want to eat something before they start work.

Seconds Anyone?
The kitchen routine must be carefully controlled, especially when the ship is out on the sea. It would create serious problems to run out of flour, water, meat and pasta when the ship is far from shore sailing the ocean blue. But it isn’t enough to stock up on these staples; the chefs must also offer balanced and varied meals. These sailors wouldn't dream of eating leather hides, wormy biscuits, and whatever rats they catch like the sailors who traveled with the early explorers.

As the ship prepares to leave for a long journey, dozens and dozens of tons of non-perishable foods and high quality Italian food like Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and San Daniele prosciutto are brought on board. At each stop hundreds of kilos of perishables, like fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs and milk, are restocked, while other non-perishables, like cans of tomatoes, pasta and frozen foods are restocked every month. 

Amerigo the Beautiful
It takes a lot of food to run the ship. 500 meals are served each day, plus breakfast. This number swells to 900 during the summer months when there are more people onboard and buffets for up to 250-300 guests must be prepared. Buffet menus call for five types of antipasti, four types of first dishes, four main dishes plus salads, vegetables and of course, spectacular deserts. 

Even though the ship is large there is limited storage space. Food and drinks are stored in special out-of-the-way areas under the stairs deep in the bowels of the ship. There are two storage sections for dry food and two groups of refrigerator/freezers for fresh and frozen foods. All the food to be prepared for parties big and small must be brought up the steep and narrow stairs. When the sea is a little choppy and the ship is bobbing and dipping on the waves you can well imagine the challenge of carrying trays of jiggly Panna Cotta while trying to keep your balance as you squeeze up the narrow stairwells.

Regular meals are prepared in the “big” kitchen where the stoves, grills, deep fryers and refrigerators are. Food for special parties, wine tastings for 40-50 people, cocktails for 100 or buffet dinners for up to 300 are prepared in the “small” kitchen, which is even smaller than the “big” kitchen.

The cooks on this historic ship may spend most of their time hidden away in the depths of the kitchens but their work is essential. It is their job to keep the crew of the Amerigo Vespucci healthy and happy with a cuisine that matches the rich and vibrant history of the ship itself.

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