10 October 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Amerigo is Beautiful

CHIAVARI, Italy – This is a story about food, but it’s not your normal kind of food story. It’s about the food service on one of Italy’s most famous ships; the Italian Navy’s training ship, the Amerigo Vespucci. The ship, which is named after the famous explorer who gave his name to America, has been in service with the Italian Navy since 1931 and often takes part in sailing parades and Tall Ships’ races.
 The Amerigo Vespucci
The ship’s Captain, Curzio Pacifici and his crew of 17 officers, 70 non-commissioned officers and 200 sailors and cadets of the Italian Naval Academy have sailed into ports all around the world. And good sailor that he is, Captain Pacifici throws a party at every port he sails into.
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 Captain Pacifici’s table, you’ll be served by a sailor 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 who can refuse a drink up on deck with the Captain after dinner. Throw in a full moon, a handful of sparkling stars and you'll think you have landed in a scene from the James Bond classic, Diamonds are Forever.
 Party Time on the Amerigo Vespucci
But life on board ship is not all gold trimmed dishes, damask tablecloths and strolls along the deck in the moonlight, especially for the young sailors who keep the bread cupboard filled and the stew pots bubbling. Life aboard ship goes on 24 hours a day which means sailors work in shifts and the kitchen has to put out food, even at midnight.

The chefs are all graduates of prestigious Italian hotel schools. After their culinary training period they can stay onboard, working in the ship’s kitchen for five years. It is probably one of the most difficult jobs on board. Not only is the kitchen small and cramped, but when the ship is in port and the rest of the crew gets time off, the kitchen crew works double time. With visiting dignitaries to entertain, cocktail parties and dinner parties to host, there’s no time to play.
 At Your Service
For seven months of the year about 500 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.  Life on-board is kept as normal as possible and even at midnight, when one crew goes off duty and the night crew is about to start its shift, the cooks are in front of the ovens pulling out pizzas for those who might want a little something to eat. Just like mama.

Like the other parts of the ship 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 just stock up on these staples; the chefs must  offer balanced and varied meals. These sailors wouldn't dream of eating hard, wormy biscuits, or whatever rats they might catch like the sailors did who traveled on ships much like this one during the 1500’s.

 Capitano Pacifici
As the Amerigo Vespucci prepares to leave for a long journey, tons of non-perishable foods and high quality foods like Parmigiano Reggiano and San Daniele prosciutto are brought on board. Then at each stop, hundreds of kilos fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs and milk, are restocked. The shopping list usually includes 300 kilos/660 pounds gnocchi and 150 kilos /330 pounds of tortellini. Non-perishables, like wine, cans of tomatoes, pasta and frozen foods are restocked every month.

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. To prepare buffets for up to 250-300 guests, five types of antipasti, four types of first dishes, four main dishes plus salads, vegetables and of course, spectacular deserts must be made. Sit down dinners honoring guests like the Commander in Chief of the Italian Fleet, Vice Admiral De Giorgi and the the Chief of the Italian Navy, Admiral Mantelli, are even more complicated as guests order from menus.   
The Commander in Chief of the Italian Fleet, Vice Admiral Giuseppe De Giorgi and the Chief of the Italian Navy, Admiral Luigi Binelli Mantelli  

Even though the ship is large there is limited storage space. Food and drinks are stored in out-of-the-way areas under the stairs and 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 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.

To give you an idea of the kind of food served on the Amerigo Vespucci, here’s their recipe for Penne alla Nostromo, named after Joseph Conrad’s 1904 novel  ‘Nostromo’.
 Penne alla Nostromo

" Penne alla Nostromo " (for 4 people)

Ingredients: ½ cup olive oil,  2 cloves garlic, a handful of chopped parsley, a handful of black olives, a handful of capers,  5 sardine filets, 100 grams (1/4 lb.) fillet of swordfish, oregano, 5 fresh large cherry tomatoes (like Picadilly), 1 glass of dry white wine

Preparation: Pour olive oil into a pan, add two cloves of minced garlic. Sauté the garlic and then add the swordfish fillet which has been cut into matchstick. Sauté well and deglaze with white wine. Allow the wine to evaporate, then add the black olives and capers . Then put in the diced the fresh tomatoes.

Finally, add the oregano and the sardine filets, or you can substitute 1 can of Italian tuna fish packed in olive oil well drained for the swordfish fillets and sardines.  Cook the pasta al dente, drain and add to sauce and allow to cook together for a few minutes then sprinkle with parsley and serve. Please resist the urge to add Parmigiano or any type of cheese, grated or otherwise.

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