Travel: Culinary traditions and fine cruising on European rivers

The Budapest skyline
The Budapest skyline

“It tastes like kissing an ashtray”, warned our guide as I sat down to bravely sample a glass of ‘smoked beer’, in the German town of Bamberg.

Actually, he was wrong - it didn’t taste that good!

My wife and I are aboard the Scenic Crystal, a luxury river cruise ship owned by Scenic River Cruises, on a 14-night epic adventure from Budapest to Amsterdam.

On this trip however, I am not just here to report on the ship and the destinations. No, my journalistic brief is much more calorific: to identify and experience some traditional food and drink from a number of the places we visit.

Some of them are memorable for all the right reasons, others however, like the ‘smoked beer’, I will try to forget and definitely won’t be sampling again.

Our sanctuary for this culinary challenge, was a sumptuously comfortable air-conditioned stateroom. It was spacious, bright, modern with a giant double bed, luxury toiletries, fluffy white towels and robes.

Additionally, there was a complimentary mini bar with drinks and snacks; a safe; large TV; plenty of storage space; an ingenious and stylish balcony and a very smart bathroom. We also had our own personal butler, though in truth I couldn’t think of what I needed him for. Two weeks sleeping here was positively decadent. Why would we ever want to leave our cabin?

Despite the temptations of our accommodation however, I had my ‘food and drink’ mission to accomplish.

It wasn’t difficult to get started, because as we sailed away from Budapest, the Scenic Crystal’s executive chef was keen to show off to his 130 dinner guests, with Hungary’s most famous dish… ‘Beef Goulash’. It was of course served with dumplings and the Hungarian magic ingredient, ‘sweet paprika’. In Hungary they are prone to add paprika into whatever they can!

A gentle and scenic cruise along the Danube, past Bratislava brought us to Vienna, a city famous for its stylish coffee houses and pastries. Perhaps the most well-known is the ‘Café Sacher’, where they serve the ‘Sacher Torte’, a rich chocolate cake with a hint of apricot.

With a delicious cup of Wiener Melange (a special coffee), the torte was even better than I had hoped. I would publish the recipe, if it wasn’t a trademarked secret. I did ask for it, but my request was declined with an inscrutable smile.

Another food highlight in Austria, occurred during our visit to Salzburg and a special private ‘Scenic Enrich’ event. This time a ‘Sound of Music’ concert high up in the mountains where Julie Andrews sang the famous title song.

Here we listened to the wonderful tunes from the movie and of course ate a generous portion of traditional ‘crisp apple strudel’. That was my journalistic food tasting for the day accomplished. In that setting it had never tasted so good.

Given that I was on a quest to find some weird and wonderful food and drink items, I was intrigued to be told, that in Durnstein a small village in the magnificent Wachau Valley, I would have the opportunity to sample what they called ‘Rabbit S**t’!

Yes, you read that right. Let me explain: Durnstein is famous for its apricot products, including very small apricot balls covered in chocolate. Despite the name, quite delicious.

When we weren’t out and about eating and drinking, we were onboard, pretty much doing the same thing. Nobody goes without food on a Scenic cruise and the temptations are always available. Wander into the very smart lounge, with its bright, airy modern and relaxing feel and you can pretty much indulge yourself in as many cakes and ice creams as you want.

One of the highlights of the day of course is dinner. The multi-course choices, with appropriately accompanying wines, served up beautifully by table staff who remember your name and preferences is very much a masterclass in restaurant guest service. It is worth mentioning too, that those with vegetarian tastes and other dietary issues are also incredibly well looked after.

There are no formal evenings. All meals are served together with open seating. You can sit anywhere and with whomever you want for any meal. After dinner there would usually be some sort of onboard entertainment.

During our two weeks we enjoyed a classical violinist; a leading zither player, folk dancers and we always had the Scenic Crystal resident musician and singer who would perform.

Cruising through Germany, I was still on the look out for things of special food interest and when we stopped to explore Nuremberg, I discovered what the city is famous for. Gingerbread! Yes, Nuremberg is one of the world’s largest exporters of this. For those who were interested, there was even a special Scenic trip to learn how to make traditional Gingerbread.

A little further west in Rudesheim, home of the amazing Siegfried’s Musical Museum, we sampled what is known as the famous iconic specialty ‘Rudesheim Coffee’. This little diabetic inducing cocktail, is served in specially shaped white and maroon mugs with no handles.

It contains three sugar cubes onto which is poured a double shot of the local Asbach brandy. This is then lit to make it hot and caramelise the sugar. Strong coffee is then added and the whole drink is topped off with vanilla sweetened cream and chocolate shavings. I won’t be trying it again!

Finally, two weeks after we started and no doubt several pounds heavier, we arrived at our final destination of Amsterdam. Well, we all know of the city’s fame and reputation for tulips, bicycles and ‘red lights’, but what about the food? Believe it or not, it is the special Dutch fries that both the locals and tourists alike are standing in long lines to buy.

However, these are not just any fries. They are thick juicy cut fries called ‘patat’, which traditionally come in a paper cone with a huge choice of tasty topping options. If you fancy giving them a try, ask for a dollop of peanut satay sauce, mayo and onions, or a 'patat speciaal' for a mix of curry ketchup, mayonnaise and onions.

As I sat on the plane for our 40 minutes flight back to London, planning my diet after all the quirky food and drink I had tried, a profound thought struck me. That travel and food are actually inseparably intertwined, and that what we eat and drink is very much a pathway into the culture, history, traditions and social dynamics of the places we visit.

FACT FILE

Scenic River Cruises' 15-day Jewels of Europe cruise between Amsterdam and Budapest are priced from £3,495 per person based on twin sharing Standard Suite. It includes amongst other things, return flights with transfers; all food and drink everyday; Scenic Enrich / Freechoice excursion options; personalised butler and gratuities.

2019 Sailing Dates: March to November.

For booking information call 0808 301 4521 - or go to https://www.scenic.co.uk/

Full Itinerary available at https://www.scenic.co.uk/river-cruises/river-cruises-europe/stc/7861-jewels-of-europe

Café Sache: https://www.sacher.com/en/hotel-salzburg-en/culinary-en/cafe-sacher-salzburg-2/