A Barge Cruise on the Burgundy Canal, Day 2, Part 4, Lézinnes

Shall we continue our leisurely cruise down the Burgundy Canal aboard European Waterways luxury barge, La Belle Epoque? Of course we shall! It’s almost time for dinner.

Having spent a lovely afternoon in Chablis, tasting wine and walking around the village, we were ready to return “home” to the barge and enjoy another of Chef Katy Jennings’ delicious meals. (You have read all about Chablis in A Barge Cruise on the Burgundy Canal, Day 2, Part 3, Chablishaven’t you?) La Belle Epoque was docked in Lézinnes, a small commune in the heart of Burgundy in north-central France.

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The human population is something less than 800, and I suspect there are more cows than people.

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If you are the type who simply cannot get through the night without hitting a club and dancing to a deafening techno beat for a few hours, you definitely will not want to go to Lézinnes (or on this cruise, for that matter). However, if you can appreciate a few quiet nights in the countryside with wildlife, farm animals, flowers and fields all around you, Lézinnes is a little slice of heaven. No camping out or roughing it, mind you; we have all the comforts of home on the barge, floating in picture-perfect serenity.

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Actually, we have more comforts than at home, unless your home comes with a staff to make your beds, prepare your meals and fetch your drinks from the well-stocked bar.

You know you are in a special place when even the fence posts become works of art.

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As was usually the case, we were docked near one of the locks in the canal. As I have mentioned before, the fact that the barge has to stop and go through a lock every kilometer or two (a mile, give or take) makes it very easy to walk or bicycle along the canal and catch up to the boat at the next lock.

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The tall blonde is not normally part of the scenery, but I brought her along special just for this shot.  🙂

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Since we were there in late October, the grapes and apples were just starting to pass their prime and the prairie grasses were taking on their fall appearance.

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While there is almost always a house (sometimes very small) for a lock keeper at each lock, there were actually several fairly substantial houses on each side of the lock at Lézinnes.

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But enough nature, beauty and architecture. Let’s eat!

We had some kind of hors d’oeuvre every night while we were waiting for dinner to be served. On this night, it was Goat Cheese and Tapenade on Toast.

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As usual, the goat cheese was locally sourced and meltingly creamy and fresh. Tapenade is a dish that originated in the Provence region of France that gets its name from the Provençal word for capers, tapenas. It is made from finely chopped olives (usually black, but green or a mixture of green and black works great, too) mixed with finely chopped capers, anchovies, garlic, lemon juice, one or more fresh herbs (e.g, thyme, rosemary, basil) and olive oil. There are many variations using different kinds of olives, with or without anchovies, etc. Here is a good basic recipe for Tapenade. Just remember that you can play with the amounts of most all the ingredients, add anchovies (or not) and use whatever herbs you like.

We were also usually offered a cocktail to go with the hors d’oeuvres. On this night we were offered a choice between a blue and a green version.

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I would love to tell you all about this cocktail, but I actually had a classic Gin Martini and I don’t remember what they said was in the drink. The important point is that your choice of soft drinks, wine, whisk(e)y or cocktails was available whenever you wanted.

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As we all sat down to dinner, the first course was served. It was a classic French first course of the kind that drives dietitians in the USA mad: Feuilleté au Soumaintrain avec Saucisse, which is rich, creamy cheese on buttery puff pastry, topped with a slice of salami.

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Served warm with some lightly-dressed greens on the side, it was delicious (think warm, melted Brie on puff pastry with salami—yum!). Soumaintrain is a Brie-type Farmhouse cheese (i.e., small batch, made on the farm) made with raw cow’s milk in Burgundy. As it ages, it is washed with salt water and Marc de Borgogne, which is a rather rough brandy distilled from fermented pomace, which is what is leftover after grapes have been pressed and the juice (mostly) removed to make wine. Italian grappa is a similar spirit.

Some argue that the secret to the French eating foods like this while avoiding illness and obesity is the wine they drink with most meals. Being a wine lover, that thought appeals to me, but, in truth, I have no idea if it is true or not. Nevertheless, we were, as always, served a nice wine with the first course, the 2009 Domaine Chanson Savigny-Les-Beaune, Premier Cru, Haut Marconnets.

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Once again we are confronted with a label full of information that, unfortunately, means little if you don’t know the code. Let’s crack the code together, shall we?

First, the vintage: 2009. This was a very good year for white wines in Burgundy. The summer was warm and, in some cases, the grapes got too ripe, which means the wines would be too low in acidity to be balanced for long aging.

Domaine Chanson is the producer. They have been producing wines since 1750, and moved into the cellars they still use today in 1777. To put that in perspective, they have been producing wine in the same cellars for essentially the same amount time as the United States has been a country. They own about 110 acres (45 hectares) of vineyards in the Côte de Beaune, which is a sub-region in northern part of Burgundy. That is a large holding in Burgundy, which is notorious for being divided into innumerable small parcels of land as vineyards were divided by law among the children for generation after generation.

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With a history that long, it will not surprise you to learn that Domaine Chanson has gone through times when they produced very good wines and times when they produce not-so-good wines. They were in a down period in 1999, when they were purchased by Bollinger, the famous Champagne house. Bollinger invested heavily in the property and vineyards and brought in the highly respected winemaker Jean-Pierre Confuron to oversee the winemaking and vineyard management. Things started to improve almost at once and by 2005 the overall quality of the wines had improved significantly. The improvement has continued through the 2009 vintage until today.

While the Côte de Beaune produces a lot of red wine, which can be outstanding, white wine really is the star here. What grapes do they use to make these wines? While there are exceptions, “Red Burgundy” almost always means Pinot Noir and “White Burgundy” almost always means Chardonnay. Chardonnay from Burgundy, however, is, generally speaking, quite different in aroma and flavor than Chardonnay from California. (There are some producers in California, especially in West Sonoma, that have married some of the best characteristics of Burgundy and California into some fabulous wines, but that is a topic for a whole different blog – or several.)

“Savigny-Les-Beaune” means the grapes were grown in the commune of Savigny-Les-Beaune which (surprise!) surrounds the village of Savigny-Les-Beaune. (You can see on the map, courtesy of Wine Folly, above.) While about 85% of the wine produced there its red, the whites are also very good (or can be).

Vineyards are ranked in Burgundy based on their historical potential quality and price. The very best vineyards are the Grand Crus. I say they have the “potential” to produce the best wines because nothing is certain in Burgundy. No matter how good the year or the vineyard, some producers will produce poor, overpriced wines. Conversely, even in “bad” years using grapes from less highly regarded vineyards, some producers will make outstanding wines. The vineyards that are considered very good, but not as good as the Grand Crus, are called Premier Crus, and that is what we have with this wine. “Haut Marconnets” is the name of a Premier Cru vineyard where the Chardonnay grapes for this wine was grown.

So, there you have it: a good year (2009) a good producer (Domaine Chanson), a good region for white wine (Côte de Beaune), a good vineyard (Haut Marconnet in the commune of Savigny-Les-Beaune). Wasn’t that easy? Well, no. Burgundy is awfully complicated.

After all that, though, how was the wine? It was a classic, very good, White Burgundy, with some nutty-toastiness on the nose from aging in oak barrels along with the fruit aromas from the grapes. It was delicious to drink, with a nice acid structure that played very nicely with the rich cheese, cleaning the palate between bites very nicely.

Our main course was Confit de Canard (duck cooked in its own fat) with Haricots Verts (those delightfully thin and tasty French green beans) and Purée (mashed potatoes). Confit is an ancient technique for preserving meat, especially duck, by first marinating it in salt, herbs and spices and then cooking it very slowly in its own fat. That may sound like a recipe for producing a horribly greasy mess but, done properly, all of the excess fat is actually cooked out of the duck and you are left with meltingly tender, beautifully flavored duck meat. To be honest, I have only made this once at home. It is not that difficult, but takes time and a lot of duck fat. If you’d like to give it a shot, here is a video that shows the technique very plainly.

If you’d like to try it at home, D’Artagnan is an excellent source for the raw materials or for Duck Confit ready to eat.

Did we have wine with that? Of course! 2009 Domaine Chanson Pernand-Vergelesses “Les Vergelesses” 1er Cru (1er is the abbreviation for “premier”. Use it to impress your friends with your wine geekiness).

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Since we have already decoded the label on the white wine, we have a leg up on this bottle of red. We know 2009 was generally a very good year in Burgundy and that Domaine Chanson has been a reliable producer since being purchased by Bollinger in 1999. You might guess that Pernand-Vergelesses, Like Sauvigny-Les-Beaune, is a commune in the Côtes de Beaune and a glance at the map of Burgundy above will confirm that (look in the northwest corner of the yellow Côte de Beaune region). The wine is red, so it is made from Pinot Noir as is about half the wine made in this commune. Les Vergelesses is the 1er cru vineyard where the grapes were grown.

Like the Haut Marconnets, the Les Vergelesses was a very good wine. Lots of bright cherry fruit on the nose and flavors with a good acid backbone and significant tannins. Tannin is a compound it wine that helps preserve the wine as it ages but can taste rough and astringent (drying like strong black tea) when it is young. Ideally, we would be drinking this one maybe 10 years later.

I need to acknowledge the lovely Sadio, a native of French-speaking Senegal in Africa who was only just learning English. She and George were charged with describing the wines and cheeses at each meal and this was her first time to give it a go in English. She did great.

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The cheese course was up next.

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I should have made notes on all the cheeses we were served on this trip, but I did not. I did recognize the cheese on the right, though. It’s Morbier, an old favorite of mine that was historically made with cow’s milk around the small village of Morbier. The dark line running down the middle is a layer of harmless, tasteless wood ash. In the past, this line separated the cheese that was made using the morning milk from the cheese that was made using the evening milk, but this is not longer true—both layers are made from the same milk. Moreover, the village of Morbier no longer exists, as it merged with Tancua in 2007 and the combined villages are called Tancua. This is a semi-soft cheese that is not too strong and I think it is delicious.

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The cheese course could easily have been the end of the meal, but this is France and we are on a luxury cruise, so a little dessert is appropriate.

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Chef Katy had prepared fresh raspberry sorbet and a lemon tart. She served up just a small portion of each—perfect! Not too big and not too sweet, as I think dessert should be (not that I turn down a slice of chocolate cake!).

So, dinner was over and our small band of newfound friends relaxed at the table or wandered over to the lounge area to finish our dinner wines and perhaps an after dinner drink (or two). Over the next 30 minutes to two hours, we learned little more about each other. Eventually, individually or as a couple, people wandered off to bed.

After a while, I was left alone to finish my Scotch and upload all my pictures from the day to my computer, backing them up to an external hard drive. There was a comfortable silence on the boat then, broken only by the sounds of insects and water lapping occasionally on the side of the barge.

Finally, I headed off to bed, already thinking about what sights, sounds and aromas would greet me the next day.

The story will continue in A Barge Cruise on the Burgundy Canal, Day 2, Part 3, Lézinnes to Pacy-Sur-Armançon. Previous chapters include:

Day 1, Part 1, Paris to Tanlay

Day 1, Part 2, Tanlay

Day 2, Part 1, Around Tanlay

Day 2 Part 2, Tanlay to Lézinnes

The gallery contains some images not shown in the blog entry.

All images were taken with a Canon 5D Mark III camera and a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens or a Tamron AF 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 XR Di LD VC Aspherical (IF) Macro Zoom Lens (now discontinued; replaced by Tamron AFA010C700 28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di VC PZD Zoom Lens) using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik/Google plugins.

The author has no affiliation with European Waterways or any of the locations and products described in this article.

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