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Mediterranean Odyssey

On a luxury cruise, chef Matthew Kenney and his wife, Kirsten, explore the roots of his innovative cuisine
"I'm not going to eat a thing until you let me off this boat!" threatens Claudette Colbert in the 1934 film It Happened One Night. Colbert, looking ridiculously rich in a shimmering satin evening gown, plays a spoiled heiress trapped on her tycoon father's yacht. Her father, it seems, has refused to let her marry a gold-digging suitor. "You don't have to eat it--just smell it," her tuxedo-clad daddy says craftily, waving a forkful of steak under her nose. "It's a poem."

Luxury ocean travel still retains a touch of that Thirties glamour. Especially when the mode of transport is a vessel like the Wind Star, a 440-foot schooner in the Windstar cruise line of motorized sailing ships. The Wind Star employs 88 crew members to meet the needs of its 148 passengers, resulting in a level of service aimed at appeasing spoiled heiresses. And with recipes developed by consulting chef Joachim Splichal of Los Angeles's highly regarded Patina, there's always plenty of lovely food--potato-crusted snapper, ravioli filled with duck-leg confit, filet mignon in red wine garlic sauce--being waved under every available nose. 

A recent weeklong Mediterranean cruise, with three stops in Spain and one in Morocco, offered another culinary attraction: guest chef Matthew Kenney. The owner of three restaurants in New York City--Matthew's, Mezze and Monzù--Kenney had been invited on board to demonstrate recipes from his new book, Matthew Kenney's Mediterranean Cooking (Chronicle Books). Like the other passengers--doctors, lawyers, business executives and one hard-working romance novelist--Kenney was also hoping to soak up some sun, catch up on his reading (The Great Gatsby) and spend some quality private time with his spouse, Kirsten, an editor at Allure. 

The ship was scheduled to depart from Barcelona, Spain, on a Sunday afternoon. The Kenneys arrived at the pier still excited about the Barcelona restaurant where they'd eaten the night before. ("All we wanted was octopus and squid," said Matthew, who got the tentacles of his dreams at Casa Jordi). We boarded, settled into our cabins (teak-lined marvels of space-saving efficiency) and were set to sail. The soundtrack to the movie 1492 played over the loudspeaker on deck, giving the moment a real, if silly, urgency. 

As Barcelona disappeared, the sails unfurled, one at a time, with a sound like masking tape being slowly ripped from a spool. Clearly there wasn't enough wind power to propel the boat without help from the motors. Yet those sails had a psychological impact--even though there was no shortage of stewards fetching pool towels and gin and tonics and turning down our beds and leaving chocolates on our pillows, the cruise felt like an adventure. It felt even more like one later in the week, when we saw dolphins arcing out of the water, following the ship through the sea. 

Our first port of call was Palma, the capital of the Spanish island of Majorca. In high season, the place is said to be overrun with British and German sun-worshippers. But in late October, when we were there, the quiet beauty of the place--the narrow, twisty streets of the old city, the stone walls overhung with bougainvillea--is undeniable. And the island's traditional foods, such as ensaimada (a spiral-shaped sweet yeast bun), sobrassada (a spicy sausage) and coca de trampó (a pizza-like crust topped with roasted peppers), gave us a taste of what Majorca was like hundreds of years ago, before callow tourists (like us) descended. We snacked while we walked, eager to take everything in. 

Most Wind Star passengers, including the Kenneys, spent the afternoon poking through the old city, with its mammoth Gothic cathedral that dominates the harbor view like a great stone ship. Others rode a tour bus inland past fields of wizened, bushy almond and olive trees up to the medieval mountain town of Valldemossa. Frédéric Chopin and George Sand holed up in a former monastery there in the winter of 1838-1839; when they returned to Paris, Sand wrote some very nasty things about Majorca, thus immortalizing their sojourn there. 

On Ibiza, a smaller Spanish island, the Kenneys headed for one of the white beaches that have helped make the place infamous for hedonistic fun. We charged up the winding path to the cathedral on the hill overlooking the harbor, stopping for the obligatory snapshots of rugged coastline and cobalt water. A tour that included a look at the local salt flats (for extracting salt from sea water by evaporation) kept everybody else out of trouble. 

The highpoint of a day spent entirely at sea--apart from the opportunity to get a French manicure at the Wind Star's beauty salon--was Matthew's cooking demo in the glass-walled café off the main deck. His Moroccan-style crab cakes were the big hit here. The combination of cardamom, cumin and turmeric added a marvelous curry flavor to the fat little cakes, which were bound with heavy cream instead of mayonnaise. ("Mayonnaise doesn't allow the flavor of the spices to come through," Matthew explained.) The craggy brown mountains of Spain's Costa del Sol slid past as the ship made its way toward Málaga. 

Málaga, a town on the Spanish coast, boasts a partially excavated Roman amphitheater, a 16th-century cathedral, plenty of citrus trees (when no one was looking, we stole what turned out to be an excruciatingly sour orange) and a 150-year-old pub, the Old Guard House. At lunchtime, shirtsleeved men and four sturdy-looking women leaned against the Old Guard's beamlike dark wood bar, eating mussels and drinking wine poured from tapped barrels stacked against the wall. 

The Kenneys, meanwhile, had joined a group heading up to the mountain town of Granada, home to the famed Alhambra. They were awed by this Moorish palace, with its gemlike pavilions, intricate stone mosaic-work and magnificent gardens, fountains and pools. "You could hear flowing water everywhere," Kirsten reported, marveling at how sound and sight had come together to intoxicate the senses. 

Permission to dock in Tangier, the next stop on our itinerary, required a "gift" of several cases of Marlboro cigarettes and other dubious acts of international friendship that clearly exasperated our meticulous Belgian purser. Walking through the maze of the old city, we passed a woman with a rooster under her arm and a man with an enormous bundle of intensely green mint over his shoulder. Street vendors sold roasted sweet potatoes, cactus pears, steel wool and a dark goo that our guide told us was shampoo. Matthew returned with a bunch of mint, a pound of almond-studded nougat and a fresh heart of palm, which resembled a cross between a pineapple and a horseradish. 

As we sailed out of Tangier (1492 urging us along), we got one of those photo-op sunsets, with the sky turning a gentle mauve, then a violent pink, over the Moroccan city. We'd spend the next day at sea en route to Lisbon, the last stop on the trip. Which gave Matthew plenty of time to finish his book, brew up some mint tea and figure out what to do with that odd-looking heart of palm. 

Thomas Mikolasko, the general manager of Matthew's and Monzù, chose wines to accompany Kenney's recipes.

Published February 1998
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