TGIFOOD

DINNER AT SEA

Sailing away with Chef Reuben under a pizza pie moon

Sailing away with Chef Reuben under a pizza pie moon
Chef Reuben Riffel on board MSC Poesia at sea this week with, left, the Italian cruise ship departing from Gqeberha and, right, docked in Cape Town two days later. (Photos|collage: Tony Jackman)

Andrea Boccelli sang us past the breakwater and into the Indian Ocean on Sunday evening as we intruded briefly in other people’s lives, and Dean Martin sang me home again on Wednesday afternoon. In between, a modest but generous helping of Italian la dolce vita on the ocean waves.

The great bulk of the gleaming white ship, Swiss-owned but as Italian as carbonara, shifts its weight almost imperceptibly. On the quayside in Gqeberha harbourland, I gaze down from deck 13 to admire serried rows of two thousand identical two-tone Volkswagens awaiting shipment to their new owners in Europe. The sky has turned from blue to orange-pink and there’s a glow of lights over the city that is receding. Look down and there’s water now between you and the berth where you boarded half a day ago.

Suddenly there is music, loud, sonorous.

The orchestral strains of Con te Partiro transform everything in an instant. As if by magic, Andrea Boccelli is here, the light breeze has turned Italian, and we’re sailing into a night and an adventure in food and living life on the ocean, just for a while. 

This is how to commence a voyage, and I silently salute whoever at MSC Cruises chose to set us off in such splendid style.

But let’s quickly get something out of the way and move back to the story. The ship is called MSC Poesia, and the eyebrows of every South African who sees the name immediately furrow, as a conversation ensues about how exactly to pronounce that. Let’s just say pooh-ezz-ear and move on swiftly.

All 92,400 tonnes of her are taking us to Cape Town over two nights, followed by a day in port, because we have a home boy on board who is cooking for the 2,500-plus passengers. To give them a fresh local alternative from the menus they have been enjoying since they embarked on a world cruise that began in Italy and ends back in Europe in April, with the most intriguing destination being a cruise up the Amazon in Brazil, after a crossing from Walvis Bay to Rio de Janeiro via St Helena. She will sail into New York too en route.

A serendipitous coincidence saw me boarding a ship to actually sail on her, only weeks after having had dinner on board Cunard’s Queen Mary in the docks in Cape Town. Anyone who read my piece on that fabulous night on Queen Mary will know that grand ships are a big deal for me. I was one of three journalists invited on the Port Elizabeth (it’s still called that in shipboard communications) to Cape Town leg.

Here and there on an extensive cruise, MSC invites celebrity chefs from various countries to cook on board. Our home boy this week was Reuben Riffel, who cruised into the galley of Le Fontane restaurant on deck 5 with no hint of the nervousness you might expect when cooking with scores of chefs you’ve never met, on their home turf. Reuben, now close on three decades into his stellar career, has matured like fine Parmigiano Reggiano.

There are things I have associated with life on board a passenger ship ever since I cruised along the coast on Union Castle liners as a boy in the sixties. Perfect golden dinner rolls. A cheese board that includes Stilton and Red Leicester. White damask napkins and silver cutlery. And dressing for dinner. But there are more ethereal things too. A certain distance from reality, as though you have escaped into a dream that you would rather did not end. A feeling of isolation, even of being lost; as if to return to shore would bring a dull sadness, like returning to school after a holiday.

I only got nauseous once, the first evening of our first day at sea on board Cape Town Castle circa 1964. Never again. Reuben had never sailed before until this week, and he’s 45. He found his sea legs immediately. I’ve known him since he was appointed chef at Monneaux at Franschhoek Country House, after he had learnt to cook at the elbow of Richard Carstens at Chamonix in the nineties. I arrived one weekday afternoon to interview the new chef and was astonished at the young man who walked to the front door to greet me.

He was smiling and courteous. Even respectful, perhaps because to him I was somewhat older. Much water has flowed under the bridge since. For both of us. Turns out that we both lived in England in the early 2000s. I was in Chichester, he in Cambridge, where he ran a restaurant called Bruno’s with family.

When we reunite on board ship this week, it’s sweet and full of laughter. In the group are Hilary Biller from the Sunday Times and Tumi Sebopa, food editor of True Love magazine. Reuben is meant to give us half an hour but we chat and laugh uproariously for an hour and a half, and have such fun that we all meet for dinner at Le Fontane restaurant later, our assigned restaurant (Reuben’s own dinner is the following night.) We’re all in the 8.30pm sitting, thank goodness (6pm is when the kids eat, surely?) and Reuben has told us he saw in the kitchen that “there are prawns tonight”. We’re South African, and in our (partly Portuguese) culture, “prawns” means a pile of the little blighters, sleeves rolled up, all piling in.

Chef Reuben Riffel snapped while chatting to journalists on board. That smile says a lot about what a great guy he is, humble and down-to-earth, with a ready laugh. (Photo and collage: Tony Jackman)

A sense of schoolkid naughtiness wells up around the big, round corner table. “How many can we have?” I ask our smiling waiter. “There are three, sir. Kings.” No no no, there’s no such thing as three prawns. How about six? “I don’t know, sir…” No no, six is a starter portion. Please bring us 12 each. Everyone has joined in and Reuben is throwing his head back with laughter. Someone says 15. Eighteen, I think I heard Reuben say. The waiter is laughing too, then, more seriously, takes our order. He starts to my left. “Prawns please, six.” And it multiplies as he moves to each person. “Forty-eight!” I hear myself say when it’s finally my turn, and even the waiter is now throwing his head back laughing. “Let me see, sir.”

King prawns. Lots. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Our eyes open wide when the prawns arrive. They’re giants, and we have eight each. I need to repeat, lest MSC get into trouble with future cruisers, that their portions are actually three. But nobody at the table is fazed, especially Reuben. We’re surprised to see that the prawns still have their “veins” in them, but like true KwaZulu-Natal prawn-munchers this does not put us off, least of all Reuben, who says it does not bother him one bit as their systems are cleared in salt water anyway so there’s really nothing to worry about. Something to that effect (wine has gone down). This is fun, not some dry formal dinner with a self-important chef (Reuben is incapable of that). We’re like a table of mates out for a dinner jol at sea.

A sublime starter of octopus with olive and tomato salad. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Starters, before all those prawns, had included “octopus mosaic” and it truly was. Fine slivers of octopus (carpaccio if you like) topped with a mound of black olive and tomato salad, dressed with lemon vinaigrette, capers and paprika. Loved every morsel, as did Reuben and others at the table. Other choices included Spanish Lomo ibérico with diced Manchego, and a twice-baked blue cheese soufflé.

Royal Cake. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

The dessert at the dinner we ate, with Reuben joining us, was a massive leap above the diplomat cream of the previous night: “Royal Cake”, a truly splendid coconut chocolate cake layered with crunchy praline and dark chocolate mousse, with vanilla sauce.

We had simply chosen better than the first night on board…

Swordfish for lunch at Le Fontane restaurant. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

My first taste of seafood on board MSC Poesia had been lunch after embarking; a slim cutlet of swordfish with a herby dressing and the simplest of vegetable accompaniments, a wedge of steamed potato, a solitary carrot and a plain cauliflower floret. Never was a vegetable more of an afterthought, but it’s understood that these galleys are feeding thousands all day and night.

Dinner that first evening was a step up. I’d eaten cuttlefish at Grelhas restaurant in Cascais the previous October, and loved it. Read that whole story here (but bookmark it and finish reading this first please). 

Pickled cuttlefish salad for dinner at sea, followed by rump steak with Béarnaise sauce. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

On board, the cuttlefish was strips of the flesh chopped up in this shape and that, with pickled vegetable caponata, and it was a really pleasant sweet and sour salad, though a bit of uniformity in the slicing would not have gone amiss.

My grilled Angus beef steak was a slim affair, perfectly tender, dressed with Béarnaise (or its alternative of rosemary gravy), with crispy frites alongside and a dollop each of mayonnaise and tomato sauce (ketchup). I’m happy with a simple steak and chips (as is every Parisian), but if you were expecting something more, you may have been disappointed. I ended with a pleasant diplomat cream with fresh fruit.

Breakfast at Villa Pompeiana, left, or an alternative of pastries in a lounge. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Breakfast the next morning saw me sitting at a window seat enjoying a simple omelette with bacon and fried potatoes. This was the ship’s communal dining room, Villa Pompeiana, which has a changing menu at different times of day and where you will find passengers gobbling food all day long, even walking out with plates of food to eat elsewhere on board. How anybody found time for breakfast, lunch and finally a three-course dinner is unfathomable, but we all know that this is a factor of shipboard life.

Getting into the spirit of things, having eaten that omelette et al, I decided that it warranted dessert, so went back to the endless buffet and came back to the table with a wedge of coffee cake. Sweet things for breakfast are perfectly Italian, so when on an Italian ship and all that…

Talking of which, though the Aponte family that owns MSC is Swiss (and the richest family in Switzerland), the company’s roots go back to the time of Lauro Lines and their Achille Lauro, which I boarded as an adolescent truant and which famously was hijacked in October 1985, which was to signal the decline of Lauro Lines and its ultimate acquisition by the Aponte family to become a part of what is now MSC Cruises.

So everything on board feels very Italian, though the crew are from all over; we met waiters and bar attendants from the Philippines and Bali to Indonesia and Peru. Without fail, every crew member would smile and greet you, and you felt spoilt everywhere you ventured on board. It is, they tell you, “a family company”, and there is an identifiable element of pride in it.

After breakfast, I had the most remarkable (if occasionally excruciatingly painful) Balinese massage at the smart Aurea spa near the ship’s bow, especially revelling in the hot lava stones, but skipped lunch knowing that dinner with Reuben (I hoped so, at that point) might be on the cards later.

And finally, it’s night again, lunch has been snoozed off, and as 8.30pm draws around it is time for Reuben’s dinner

But I hit rock bottom with the second morning’s breakfast, eggs Benedict so bad that I could only manage a taste of the leathery egg, milky Hollandaise, and what appeared to be a slice of spam beneath the egg and the muffin. It’s not as if there aren’t a thousand better breakfast options at Villa Pompeiana, so note to self: a great ship with thousands of passengers on board is not the place to order eggs Benedict. I should have known better.

That second night saw me staying up till after 1am, because I was not going to miss sailing into Cape Town for anything. Much of the ship had gone to bed, which had me shaking my head. You’re touring the world. You’re Sailing Into Cape Town. And you’re sleeping through it?! It was the stuff of goosebumps and a world of memories for a boy who lived in Cape Town from 1969 to 2014, but for that four-year interruption in England and two years in Sutherland. Llandudno, Camps Bay and Clifton slid by, making way for Sea Point and Mouille Point, and then the Waterfront, gliding by the Table Bay Hotel, trying to ignore the spike of red of the Sky Hotel, a monument to flash.

The ship was not meant to dock at 1am. We were only due to dock (at E berth, the cruise terminal) at 8am the following morning. Then around 5pm the previous evening, the captain announced in many languages, addressing the entire ship, that there was to be fog in the Mother City from 3am till noon the next day, and he had therefore decided “to increase our speed” and would be docking, instead, at 1am.

That was seven hours earlier.

We skimmed the ocean that night, flying towards the glories of that magnificent and complex port city, and it was exhilarating. I did not regret the lack of sleep for a second.

On docking in Cape Town, at B berth in Duncan Dock, you wake up to see passengers disembarking to board coaches for a day excursion. The ship was sailing at 4pm, headed for Walvis Bay and Rio de Janeiro. You were headed home, as was Chef Reuben. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

We’re guided to B berth, because another cruise ship is still at E berth, and in the morning I can see my 15-year-old self down there on the quayside, bunking school yet again. The gangplank is down, little people are trotting to shore, and a small army of coaches is assembled towards the bow of the ship to take them on excursions all over the Peninsula and Winelands.

Back in the lounges on board, some people are sitting at porthole seats playing board games for the day. They’re in Cape Town. You shake your head, sigh silently, and walk on.

Your old home of Cape Town viewed from deck 7 on board MSC Poesia. The following night, during Reuben’s dinner on board, you felt the movement of the ship as she was moved from B to E berth, the cruise terminal. Another cruise ship had been at E berth on our unexpectedly early arrival in port. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Because Reuben’s dinner is only tonight, just like all the other passengers on board, you have a port day in Cape Town, so Hilary and I disembark and head for a very fine restaurant for a very long lunch, about which we will both be writing in our respective newspapers in due course.

Port day in Cape Town. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

We happily discover that though we have scarcely known each other at all over the decades (living in different cities), we’re both totally part of Our Tribe (that Fourth Estate thing that is one of the best things about being a journo) and become instant old mates.

And finally, it’s night again, lunch has been snoozed off, and as 8.30pm draws around it is time for Reuben’s dinner.

Reuben’s pickled fish, left, lamb, and (right) his beautiful malva pudding. (Photos: Charl Laubscher)

Reuben has made his mother’s pickled fish, a heartwarming nod to a Cape childhood, very Cape Malay in style: honey-pickled baby carrots with their slim stems, crumbs of pecan honeycomb, black bean purée, and a traditional delight, a spiced hot cross bun. Gepekelde vis is mos Paastyd kos innie Kaap.

His main course is peppered Karoo lamb, with baba ganoush, a purée of celeriac and apple, polenta pap (yes, Italian “pap” cooked Mzantsi-style) with a hint of blue cheese, and tiny confit tomatoes. The eyes of the lamb loin cutlets are just pink enough and tender. Reuben had told us earlier that he likes rack of lamb slightly beyond medium rare (but not medium), and they’re perfect.

After his dessert of a dreamily moist malva pudding with Amarula custard and mango ice cream, the tannoy announces, again in many languages, “South Africa’s most famous chef, Reuben Ruffel” and the galley crew are parading through the restaurant. And this old boy’s eyes well up with pride.

So proud of that man as we stood and cheered, while he led a phalanx of hard-working galley chefs he’d only met two days earlier, remembering as I do that first day at Monneaux in Franschhoek when a shy boy stepped out to greet me. And went on that evening to present, in person at the table, three courses of some of the most exquisitely delicious and beautifully plated courses I ever remember eating.

You knew, at that moment, that a chef of import had arrived. He remains one of our greatest, and is to the discredit of the people who bestow laurels on our restaurants and chefs that Reuben Riffel, and many others of his ilk, have long been forgotten. It’s not because their food isn’t as good as it always was. It’s because those who choose to rank our chefs flit from one flavour of the month to the next, which is why our awards systems have no depth or maturity. Where are the stars for Reubens, his Franschhoek restaurant still in existence after 20 years? You have to wonder.

But Reuben laughs this off. He prefers it this way, less limelight, more time to have fun cooking. That’s what really matters.

Coda

Dean Martin is with me in the car home driving through the Eastern Cape Karoo Midlands. That’s Amore. Out on the rolling Indian Ocean, the moon had hit the sky like a big pizza pie, and stayed there for three days. I looked up again at the sky above my Karoo house that night. It was still there, steadfast as ever. Somewhere off the West Coast, MSC Poesia was headed towards Walvis Bay and then across the Atlantic and out of sight, guided by the same pizza pie moon. She’s taken our memories and a little piece of our souls with her. DM

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido. Order his book, foodSTUFF, here.

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

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