The Bon Appetit Culinary Center onboard gives lessons under the tutelage of chef Kathryn Kelly

By Paula Conway
Originally printed on NYDailyNews.com

It didn’t hurt that we boarded the Riviera — Oceania Cruises’ latest edition to its fleet — in Monaco, a stunning principality on the French Riviera. But this trip was unique for many reasons, including the fact that Cat Cora, who made TV history as the first female Iron Chef on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” was named the Godmother of Riviera.

This custom has been bestowed upon cruise ships dating back to Babylonian times where a person is chosen to perform the actual christening of a new ship and given the honor of being its protector in spirit. As VIP guests on its first sailing, we had the privilege of sailing with Cora.

The Bon Appetit Culinary Center on Riviera is a kitchen classroom setting with 24 stations (the largest at sea) where students in pairs prepare meals under the direction of chef Kathyrn Kelly.

In my class, we made scones, frittatas, and learned how to properly poach an egg. My partner chef, Caroline, has never cooked anything in her life. She in fact made it abundantly clear that she dislikes cooking and could not remember why she signed up for the class. I promptly demoted her to sous chef and cracked two eggs and removed the egg whites. Then I added flour, baking soda, butter, half-and-half, and salt.

Caroline’s job was to gently knead the ingredients together (chunks of butter should still be visible and not blended) and then we shaped it into a loosely bound scone for baking. The Bon Appetit chefs who work with Kelly placed our scones in hot ovens for 7 minutes.

As they baked, we moved on to frittatas. And as to poaching an egg properly: add 1/2 cup of vinegar to boiling water — this is the ingredient that will not let the egg disperse to a mess. Drop a room temperature egg in gently and it will fall to the bottom before rising. For a runny egg, 2 minutes, 4 minutes for well done.

Shore excursions aboard the Riviera included stops in Valencia, Barcelona, and Venice. In Valencia, I picked up a half dozen Valencia oranges at the Columbus market, the best and juiciest oranges I’ve ever had. Columbus market is so named because before Christopher Columbus discovered America, it was the many merchants in Valencia who helped fund his expedition.

The Mercado Central (Central Food Market), also in Valencia, is a must, bustling with vendors selling nuts, cheese, meats, fruits and even fans for cooling off during hot summer days. It’s a short walk to the Horchateria el Siglo, the oldest Horcheta cafe in Valencia, where you can enjoy a horchata, a cool, refreshing drink of cold milk and sugar.

Around the corner from Horchateria el Siglo is the best ceramic shop in town. It’s off the beaten path enough that only locals frequent and know about it. Ceramic Shop is cash-only and the prices are the lowest in Valencia for fine ceramics, something the town is known for.

We were back on Riviera just in time for afternoon tea, a lush assortment of sandwiches, cakes, pies and tarts, served by white-gloved attendants. Looking out the front of the ship at the Mediterranean, while munching on tea sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and cakes of many flavors, was sublime.

Entertainment options on Riviera were plentiful, from wine and martini tastings to needlepoint classes and doll making. “Beatlemania” is one of the shows currently touring with Oceania Cruises. The Riviera theater was packed with guests enjoying the tribute band playing Beatles music.

There are six gourmet restaurants to choose from on the ship. The menu is award-winning at Jacques, the namesake restaurant of executive chef Jacques Pepin, where even the bread bears his signature, literally. Each piece has a crisp chip attached with Jacques written across it.

Toscana was another favorite restaurant. We were presented with a tray filled with olive oils from around the world and companion vinegars, to be mixed and matched. We sampled oils from Greece, Italy and Russia, paired with vinegars from France, Italy and Spain. The panoply of flavors were married to seven different Italian breads, including cheese bread balls made with Parmesan cheese and a thick focaccia.

I had the stuffed tortellini, and ended with a giant tiramisu shaped like the moon, half dusted with pure cocoa.

The Canyon Ranch Spa onboard Riviera is a peaceful oasis that also has every modern gym amenity available. I was particularly excited to attend spinning and Pilates classes, which are offered daily at varying levels of intensity.

I’ve been to Venice before, but have never seen it like this. We greeted the city on the prow of the boat while our captain pointed out important landmarks and gave some history.We landed just off of St. Mark’s Square, steps from shopping and lunch at a beautiful spot on the canal at Ristorante Roma.

It’s what I imagine arriving at the gates of heaven is like.

IF YOU GO

Oceania Cruises always offers guests complimentary airfare from 26 North American gateway cities and 2-for-1 cruise fares. There are many great deals, especially during shoulder months (including March-May), from as low as $800 per person on seven-night cruises.

The line also offers various booking promotions throughout the year.All Oceania ships offer food with no additional charges, and free and unlimited soft drinks, bottled water, cappuccino, espresso, teas and juices.

Fares do not include shore excursions, meals ashore, baggage handling, gratuities, beverages not part of the regular menu, laundry service and other onboard amenities and services, including spa and medical treatments.

There are four vessels in the Oceania cruise family: The Riviera, Regatta, Nautica and Marina. The line is offering two promotions on reservations booked now through March 31, with business class air upgrades from $799 per person, one-way, on select Europe sailings. There’s also a two-for-one Unlimited Shore Excursion package on select 2013 Alaska sailings. For full details and a list of all applicable sailings, visit oceaniacruises.com/promotions .

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