ON BOARD QE2, North Atlantic - Caviar, truffles and smoked salmon are not the favorite dishes on this luxury liner - it's scouse, a simple and hearty stew particularly appropriate for North Atlantic gales or even the winter nasties. So popular is the concoction, in fact, that a pot is said to be simmering with scouse somewhere on the Queen 24 hours a day in any of her four kitchens.
"Our crew" confessed executive chef Vic Coward, "couldn't live without a drop of scouse even in mild weather, much less the dirty business out there."
Behind him, just out a porthole, Coward's "dirty" weather gathered itself into great slow-moving green-gray waves that first lifted the world's largest ocean liner, then sent shudders through out her 1,000 feet as it dropped her back into the sea. The kitchen rose and fell in silence, with cooks and waiters easily accommodating each roll and the most magnificent scent of cooking and baking rolling all around the aircraft hangar-size room. The view outside was without question powerful. Even a beautiful sight. But what a terrific toll it takes on passengers and crew who go on deck in winter crossings. The wind throws ice cold spray into their faces, salting their eyes and reddening noses, ears and lips. The teak decks glisten and lurch in the rising and falling swells, offering treacherous footing and numbingly cold handholds.
Remedy For Sea Sickness
Leather shoes turn white from the salt, and without proper clothing even the most vigorous of the ship's passengers-gray-haired English country matrons, invariably, with stout walking shoes and apple cheeks- are forced to turn back to the comfort and warmth inside after only a few minutes. The remedy for such nastiness, of course, is scouse, pronounced as in house. Surprisingly, no one knows where the name comes from or its exact meaning, but it also is the regional British slang expression for people who live in Liverpool. It's a name they're proud of, in short, and a term of endearment on the ship. That's because the scouse of Liverpool make up a large part of the crew and kitchen staff of the ship. Their ancestors, after all, plied the waves for king and country back to Drake and Raleigh, defeating the Spanish Armada, bringing our forefathers to America and bloodying Napoleon's nose at Trafalgar.
And as one might expect, when their people left the rolling hills and good farms of the Liverpool country-side, they brought with them a continuing fondness for the simple but rib-sticking fare of their ancestors. So the two meanings for the word are united at sea.
"Scouse was on all the great ships when I was coming in" recalled Coward, who began as a kitchen lad in 1936 on the Queen Mary, "and the old men I first served under had it when they were lads, too." That would put scouse on Cunard ships all the way back into the last century. And to hear people talk about it in Liverpool, it dates back to the Roman times too. "And why not?" declared the native of Liverpool huffily. "It's simple and good. And the one pot has everything you need. Your meat, your potatoes and vegetables, and you don't need a knife or fork, just a spoon."
Main Mammoth Kitchen
Indeed. In Coward's main kitchen, a mammoth room filled with giant stoves and counters, ovens and caldrons, the 140-man cooking staff takes exceptional pride in the dish and practically lives off the stuff during their typical 18-hour work days. Youngsters still in their teens making their first crossing must first master scouse before the chefs will let them proceed to more complicated and glamorous cooking. A walking tour around the kitchen revealed three pots quietly bubbling on back burners as the staff prepared it's self for the lunch setting, with yet a fourth two-gallon pot of scouse being readied by chief sauce chef Victor Spacagna.
"The secret to scouse," Spacagna explained as his hands ranged over a cutting board, "is it's simplicity. You dice up 3 onions, 2 cleaned leeks. a small swede (yellow turnip), 3 carrots, a head of celery and turn in say 2 pounds of cut beef, say some shin. Pop this on the low heat for about 3 1/2 hours, with a good pinch of salt and pepper and water to the top. Then add potatoes 1 hour before eating. It's deIicious," he allowed a few minutes later after topping off thepot, "and there's not a man in the kitchen that doesn't love it."
Of course. not everyone enjoys the dish. While most of the 1,000 person crew staffing the ocean liner is familiar with the kitchens favourite, it is hardly ever included on the passenger menu. Those in first class come for the linen, china, crystal and silver. The exquisite nappery and good manners of the staff of the elegant Queen's Grill. "The last thing they want," lamented Coward, "is to come aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 and eat beef stew. It just don't seem like a dish they think about after anticipating all the luxury and good food were noted for.
"So we hardly ever offer it to the paying passengers" he said with a shake of his head, "saving it for our own kind, as it were still, if a passenger is tossing about in heavy seas and needs something simple that'll stay with him, it's scouse every time."
As for the quality of the dish, observed Coward with a laugh, "How can you go wrong? It's what we cooks eat." Note- if you want scouse aboard the QE2, you'll have to ask for it. The QE2's perpetual adoration of the Liverpool favourite guarantees the availability of the ancient specialty even in warm weather cruises. It's an interesting offshoot of the classic meat stew, enhanced in this case by the lingering sharpness of the leeks and thickened and sweetened somewhat by the turnip, a very hearty and easily made dish perfectly complemented by a crisp salad, some crunchy bread and a strong red wine.
The cooks and old-timers on the ship swear by it's steadying qualities for sufferers of seasickness - along with generous amounts of Port and Brandy - so if it isn't on the menu, tell the waiter to go back to the kitchen and get some from the cook's own pot. As all the passenger meals are included in the ticket price, scouse comes at no extra charge.
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