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Those with a taste for river cruising are being treated to an ever-improving, onboard dining experience, Brian Johnston writes.

At one time the food on river-cruise ships consisted of bland, international fare with little concession to local cuisine – or more adventurous palates. These days guest have rightly come to expect sophisticated menus, flavours reflecting the environs, and tons of choice.

What’s also helped are the increasingly alternative, more informal dining venues, a boon for Australian passengers who tend towards longer itineraries or back-to-back cruises. These include the likes of Avalon’s Panorama Bistro and Aquavit Terrace outdoor dining on Viking’s Longships. Tauck’s river ships ms Inspire and ms Savor boast a separate kitchen dedicated to dining venue Arthur’s, dishing up American classics.

Guests are enjoying more frequent dining events, such as Avalon’s Sky Bistro lunch option on the deck for barbecues and buffets. Scenic Tours put on a teppanyaki barbecue on the sundeck of its Space Ships, as well as a popular seafood gala evening. Viking offers an open-air event of an informal buffet showcasing local street food and snacks. In the Balkans, chow down on local sausages, vegetable skewers with fetta and cevapcici (minced meat kebabs), accompanied by local beer.

Viking’s onboard cooking demonstrations show passengers how to make lemon tart in Normandy, apple strudel in Austria, and flammkuchen (a pizza-like cheese and onion dish) in Alsace. Wisely, there’s a much greater focus on local food now. River-cruise companies source more produce from local suppliers and serve meals that better reflect the destinations.

In Germany, Avalon offers marinated sauerbraten sausage with potato dumplings and red cabbage, and a reibekuchen (rustic-style potato cake) topped with smoked salmon and horseradish sauce. Travelmarvel’s Mekong cruises feature a Vietnamese or Cambodian option at every meal (even pho for brekkie). Go on, try those Cambodian-style curries, green mango salad, and pork dumplings in cabbage soup.

In Provence, Uniworld dishes up French regional specialities such as bouillabaisse, daube provençal (wine-rich beef stew) and soupe au pistou (vegie soup with pesto). Expect top-notch cheese plates of Roquefort, Reblochon, St-Nectaire and a dozen others. It says much about Uniworld’s sense of adventure, and that of its passengers, that many diners sample blue-cheese ice-cream for dessert – and many love it.

Of course, there’s a keener interest in healthier choices, too. Avalon’s breakfast menus have nutritional guideline labels (low-fat, high-fibre and low-cholesterol listings), and accommodate gluten-free, vegetarian or nut-free diets. Viking’s European Longships feature an organic herb garden on the roof deck that provides for the kitchen in, say, Provencale herb-crusted lamb, or melon marinated in port and mint, a dish on Viking’s Danube itinerary in Budapest.

Finally, wine cellars on board have become much more adventurous, with top drops also highlighting the region, whether it be Burgundy, Moselle or the Rhine. Avalon, which has wine-themed cruises, gives lessons in food and wine pairing, and most companies offer local drops at dinner: Sauternes on Bordeaux cruises, Wachau Valley wines in Austria, cheerful whites in Moselle. Here’s cheers to the river-cruise dining scene!