The sky streaked pink and deepened to dusk as our ship headed into the Mediterranean fo a night-time crossing to the Balearic island of Ibiza, Spain. Across a table set with fine china, my husband and I clinked glasses with new friends and tucked into starters of langoustine on rosemary apple purée and a salad of beets and berries. Over splendid mains of lemon pasta, grilled corvina and beef tenderloin, we marveled at all we’d seen and tasted thus far on the inaugural sailing of the 2016 James Beard Foundation Culinary Collection.

For our gala dinner, wines from  Spain’s Valdeorras, Castilla & Leon and Priorat regions paired beautifully with food and conversation. By the time toffee apple cheesecake arrived, we all had made plans to meet again around another table at the James Beard House in New York.

We were traveling aboard the sailing yacht Wind Surf, flagship vessel of the boutique Windstar line. Our cruise had taken us from Lisbon to Tangier, to Morocco, and to ports of call at Málaga, Almería and Cartagena. After Ibiza, we would travel on to Catalonia, visiting Tarragona and Barcelona.

Windstar topped Conde Nast’s Gold List for 2016. After a culinary cruise with three-time James Beard Award winning chef Michel Nischan and star sommelier Steve Olson, Windstar is also tops in our book.

Sailing with James Beard

Great wines of Spain, from old vines, ancient soils and vineyards at high altitudes. Photo by Tom Fakler

Discovering local flavors of Spain

Our travel itinerary connected the food-and-wine dots first established by Phoenicians, Romans, Moors and the Catholic Kings. Shore excursions in Morocco and Spain took us to wineries and monasteries. At memory-making stops in port, we sampled tagines in both Morocco and Spain, learned to order coffee in the way of Andalusia, and even visited an ancient Roman garum pit.

With Michel Nischan and Windstar chefs, we shopped vibrant markets in Tangier, Málaga and Almería, and experienced flavor explosions from pungent fish and spiced ham, sweet garlic and olives. We tasted raisins and wine made from the same sun-dried moscatel grapes. In Tarragona, we would enjoy cooling gazpacho with a view of the sea and a just-for-us Catalan ‘human tower’ performance in a Roman amphitheater.

Sailing with James Beard

Sangria for a Catalan evening in Tarragona. Photo by Anita Breland

Back on board, breakfast and lunch buffets highlighted local products: cured meats, olives, fruits, vegetables and cheeses. Tastings and dinners featured Spanish wines from the top wine-producing regions of Spain. With Windstar Corporate Executive Chef Michael Sabourin, Chef Nischan created special menus featuring Spanish seafood and cheeses, and heady blends of Moroccan spices. On galley tours and in the crew’s daily tasting sessions, we saw how the specialty kitchen of a luxury sailing vessel provides personalized service and maintains quality.

For the ship’s customary barbecue evening on deck, we were treated to suckling pig, tuna sashimi and paella, with Moroccan harissa to add spice. In our glasses, sherry from Jerez, and wines from the northern vineyards of Almería, the tiny Denominacíon De Origen (DO) of Yecla and many others, provided just the right accompaniment to every tasty bite.

The James Beard touch

A fellow passenger – and like many on board, a repeat Windstar cruiser – called the James Beard cruise a “totally remarkable trip that has elevated the Windstar experience, thanks to the great food and wine.” Our week aboard the Windstar was a holiday filled with fine flavors and high-spirited enjoyment of food and wine.

“Start with fresh , local ingredients, and opt for simple preparations”

–Chef Michel Nischan

Sailing with James Beard

Chef Michel Nischan. Photo by Tom Fakler

Michel Nischan is a leader in the sustainable food movement in the United States. He is also a tireless advocate for access to healthy, fresh and affordable locally grown food. Founder, President and CEO of Wholesome Wave, he was instrumental in establishing the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change program. The chef’s deep appreciation for those who work the land made him an ideal guide for our visits to farmers’ markets.

Steve Olson is one of America’s foremost wine and spirits educators. He shares a message of responsible joie de vivre and a deep knowledge of wines and spirits via the “aka wine geek” network. He is also a specialist in Spanish wines, sherries and cocktails. The emphasis for the James Beard culinary cruise was interesting, affordable wines that enhance the Spanish table and foods of the Mediterranean region. An enthusiastic promoter of  ‘wines of place’ and the family producers who bring them to market, our sommelier suggested innovative pairings for meals from the Wind Surf kitchen.

“My job is to enhance the food, starting from a point of balance.”

–Sommelier Steve Olson

Sailing with James Beard

Sommelier Steve Olson. Photo by Tom Fakler

Throughout the cruise, Michel Nischan and Steve Olson worked in harmony with the ship’s crew and spent time with guests on board. Chef Nischan showed us simple, healthy fish and vegetable preparations that deliver big-time flavor on the plate.

Five tastings with Sommelier Olson toured us through the Spanish wine landscape and many fine wines – some of them quite rare, and nearly all from small producers – that paired exquisitely with every meal.

 

Our Windstar experience

The intimate, luxurious Wind Surf accommodates just 300 guests, with personalized service delivered by friendly, professional staff. Our comfortable stateroom was more spacious than many European hotel rooms. On-board pampering in an Elemis spa and wonderful views from yoga mat and treadmill in the yacht’s fitness center made cruising experience just that much more pleasurable.

Sailing with James Beard

Sunset over the Mediterranean. Photo by Tom Fakler

Our James Beard culinary cruise showed us that mixing great food and wine with romantic, atmospheric sailing destinations can be the perfect incubator for a food traveler’s own ‘age of exploration’. For my husband and me, the satisfying combination of a focus on food and small-ship sailing and attention to luxurious details, radically altered our view of what a holiday at sea can be.

This foodie cruising thing could become a habit!

James Beard’s legacy

James Beard was an early champion of local produce and markets and a pioneering foodie. Author of numerous cookbooks, television chef and restaurateur, he was also a tireless traveler. The foundation that bears his name celebrates, nurtures and honors America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire.

Sailing with James Beard

On our James Beard cruise, salmon and avocado appetizer from the Wind Surf kitchen. Photo by Tom Fakler

The James Beard Foundation is a nonprofit culinary arts organization headquartered in the chef’s former home in Greenwich Village. Today, it is at the forefront of America’s culinary community, exploring the way food enriches our lives. The Foundation’s food industry awards are America’s culinary Oscars. The historic James Beard House is a “performance space” for America’s best chefs, and one of New York’s most sought-after culinary destinations.

If you go:

In New York, visit the James Beard House for one of the James Beard Foundation‘s many dinner evenings with featured American chefs. Curated libations, a pairing menu and a nostalgia-filled venue make for an unforgettable dining experience.

At home and in your travels across the United States, sample local flavors from coast to coast at exclusive events of the annual James Beard Foundation’s Taste America program and other Foundation events.

Visit the Windstar Cruises website for details on cruise offerings for the coming year.