If you wonder why Valeria and I fell in love with barge cruising, consider this: it took three fairly lengthy blog posts to cover the first 24 hours of the trip and our boat, La Belle Epoque, had not yet left the dock. We had enjoyed a scenic drive from Paris to Tanlay (Part 1 of this series), passing through beautiful villages that we will see up close later in the trip. We were welcomed on board with Champagne (real Champagne, not some cheap bubbly Champagne wanna-be), strolled around the lovely village of Tanlay and feasted on our first shipboard dinner (Part 2). The next morning, we were greeted by an abundant breakfast, took a long, scenic hike through the French countryside, passing centuries-old castles and monasteries along the way, and toured the historic Chateau de Tanlay (Part 3). Not bad for less than one full day.
But this is, after all, supposed to be a cruise, so let’s launch the barge and get going!
After a morning of hiking and touring (OK, first breakfast and coffee, then hiking and touring), we were back on board La Belle Epoque just before lunch. She set sail almost at once, making her way down the winding canal in a generally southern direction. The canal parallels the L’Armançon River as it traces a serpentine path through the Burgundian countryside.
Even at its top speed on the canal, the barge rarely goes faster than a brisk walk. Moreover, it has to stop, on the average, every kilometer (0.62 miles) or so to pass through a lock. As we sailed south, the barge had to be lifted in each lock to move us onto the next section of the canal. This gave us plenty of time to enjoy the countryside as it slipped by, or even to walk or bicycle (there are bicycles onboard for everyone) along the canal path.
At each lock was a lock keeper’s cottage. These cottages could be very plain or quite richly landscaped and decorated. Some even offered home-made treats for sale. The lock keeper at Argentenay was apparently an artist, or had friends and family who were artists, as the cottage was surrounded by sculptures and other decorations. Take a moment to flip through this slideshow of the work on display there.
However, as much fun as the local artwork was, we had more important business to attend to: lunch!
While we passengers had been hiking and touring, Chef Katy had been hard at work in the galley. Our first course was as locally sourced as anything can be. It was also a great example of the relationships that the crew had developed with the locals along the canal as they made their weekly trips all summer. A local farmer had given Katy some beautiful black trumpet mushrooms that he had harvested himself on his land. Known in French as Trompettes de la Mort or “Trumpets of Death” (Trombetta dei Morti in Italian) they look very much like little black trumpets coming up out of the ground. While the name may sound forbidding, they are not poisonous and are, in fact, delicious.
This left Chef Katy with the dilemma that every good chef or cook loves to have: what shall I do with this lovely, fresh ingredient? Her answer on this day was a delicious one: sauté the mushrooms with onions and garlic, serve atop some toasted slices of baguette that had been slathered with olive oil, toss in some cherry tomatoes and a mushroom pan sauce. Eat.
Of course, we could not possibly enjoy this dish to the fullest without some wine to wash it down. The 2011 Henri Bourgeois “Les Baronnes” Sancerre from the Loire Valley was served to us for that purpose.
For those of you who are less familiar with French wines, let’s unpack that rather long and intimidating name. The Sancerre region of the Loire Valley is known primarily for white wines produced from the Sauvignon Blanc grape (sometimes labeled Fume Blanc in California). A little Pinot Noir is also growing the area and used to produce a small amount of light red wine and rosé. Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre is a quintessential food wine. It typically has a lively acidity backing up the herbal, fruity flavors, and some nice mineral notes. I might have paired a light Pinot Noir with this dish, as I love the way mushrooms and Pinot play together, but this was a nice match, too.
This Sancerre was produced by Henri Bourgeois, a tenth-generation family-owned winemaking operation. The family owns dozens of vineyards in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé and one in Marlborough, New Zealand. The link that binds these scattered geographical locations is Sauvignon Blanc—the grape does well in all these places. “Les Baronnes” is their entry-level Sancerre, but it is reliably good year after year. The grapes for this wine grow on chalky hills that divide Sancerre from Chavignol. The vines are 20-40 years old, which means they are at their peak for quality and yield.
The 2011 vintage was a complicated one in Loire, with some fruit ripening very nicely and some not at all. The advantage of the wide holdings that Henri Bourgeois has to draw on is the ability to pick the best grapes for their own bottlings and sell off the rest.
Our main course was Escalope de Veau et Mayonnaise, or veal scallops with mayonnaise.
The veal cutlets were lightly breaded and sautéed until GBD (Golden Brown and Delicious in foodie code). Placed on a bed of lightly dressed, fresh greens with a dollop of homemade mayonnaise, some capers and a lemon slice, they made a terrific luncheon.
Mayonnaise is a wonderful ingredient that fell out of favor in the “fat-phobic” days. Like many foods condemned as “unhealthy” for a while, it has been given something of a reprieve. Yes, it is fairly caloric, but a little can go a long way. It is a simple emulsion of egg yolk, mustard, oil and an acid (vinegar or lemon juice). If you have never made mayonnaise yourself, I highly recommend giving it a try if you are handy in the kitchen at all. While Hellman’s mayo is fine and I will even confess to liking Miracle Whip (which is loathed in some quarters), homemade mayo has a wonderful flavor that you can vary to your own taste by changing up the oil (or oils), mustard and acid you use.
Traditionally, mayonnaise is made with a neutral oil, like vegetable or canola, and Dijon mustard. I like to add some Extra Virgin Olive Oil as well (about half-and-half) because I like the flavor, but you can experiment with any oil you like. You can use dry mustard, yellow mustard, creole mustard or whatever mustard you have in your pantry. You can use all lemon juice, all vinegar, or a mixture. Champagne vinegar is probably the most traditional, but you can use any kind you want, although intensely colored vinegars, like Balsamic, can produce a funky colored product. You can make it with a whisk, a blender, an immersion blender or a food processor. The machines make the prep time shorter, but the cleanup time longer, so take your pick. Here is Jamie Oliver making a batch by hand.
While the veal was delicious, a nice glass of 2011 Frederic Mabileau “Les Rouillères” St Nicolas de Bourgeuil, Cabernet Franc, Loire, France made it even better.
Cabernet Franc is perhaps best known as a blending grape in Bordeaux. It is used to lighten the heavy Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines of the region and add some spiciness to the flavors and aromas of the wine. Interestingly, Cabernet Sauvignon, the grape that dominates most of Bordeaux and has found good homes in the US, Australia and other wine producing countries, was born when Cabernet Franc (a red grape) crossed with Sauvignon Blanc (the white grape the Sancerre we had earlier was made of), probably quite by accident in a vineyard somewhere in Bordeaux a few hundred years ago.
In some parts of the Loire, however, Cabernet Franc produces delicious, relatively light-bodied, red wines. The Mabileau family has been in winemaking since 1620, but the modern story begins in 1988 when Frédéric Mabileau planted Cabernet Franc vines on a parcel of land called “Rouillères”. The land was actually owned by his wife, Nathalie. The first production was in 1991 and Frédéric continued to acquire land and develop new vineyards and blends. The small original vineyard grew to 28 hectares (70 acres), but Frédéric still focuses only on Cabernet Franc. St. Nicolas de Bourgueil is an area in the middle of the Loire, west of Sancerre, that is surrounded by the best vineyards of Cabernet Franc. 2011 was a much more consistent vintage in this area than it was in Sancerre.
This was a classic Loire Cabernet Franc: medium bodied, lots of black cherry fruit on the nose along with some tobacco and spice. The aromas promised what the flavors delivered. Easy to drink and enjoy.
I should add that the barge continued to cruise as we were having our lunch. The views we enjoyed out the window while we ate looked something like this.
Lunch ended with a warm, delicious Clafouti aux Griottes, or Cherry Clafouti.
Some of you may never have heard of a clafouti. Some of you may know that a clafouti is something like a cobbler or crisp or crumble or grunt or pandowdy or slump, but are not quite sure how they all differ. Most of you probably say (wisely) “Who cares what you call it? Summer fruit and a crust baked up all bubbly warm and brown on top is delicious by any other name.”
OK, let’s keep this simple. You make a fruit cobbler by putting fruit (usually with some sugar and maybe something flavorings like cinnamon, lemon juice, ginger, etc., depending on the fruit and what flavor/sweetness profile you are after) in a baking dish and topping it with dollops of biscuit dough (use those tubed biscuits from the store if you must, I won’t judge). The biscuits bake up like cobblestones with the fruit juices bubbling up in between. Get it? Cobblestones—cobbler.
For a crisp, take the same fruit and flavoring mixture in the same baking dish and top it with a mixture of flour, rolled oats, salt, brown (or white) sugar, walnuts, and butter cut into small pieces. The nuts are optional—some like them, some don’t—but what makes a crisp a crisp is the rolled oats, which crisp up as the dish bakes.
For a crumble, do the same thing as for the crisp, but leave out the rolled oats.
A Clafouti is a French variation. Make your fruit and flavoring mixture. Then make a custard mixture with eggs, flour, sugar and vanilla. Sometimes a layer of the custard is put in the bottom of the baking dish and pre-baked, then it is topped with the fruit and more of the custard is poured on top for the final baking. Most people keep it simple and just put the fruit in the baking dish and pour the custard over. As you an see in the photo above, you end up with pieces of fruit embedded in a cake-custard. Yum! Here is an easy recipe for Julia Child’s Cherry Clafouti.
Just to finish up our list of variations on this family of fruit desserts, a grunt is made like a cobbler, but the pan is covered before baking so they biscuits on top steam rather than bake. A pandowdy is made by covering the fruit with a pie crust, baking it, then cutting up the crust and pushing it down into the fruit. A slump is another name for a grunt.
After lunch, we spend another hour or so making our way to Lézinnes. It was a warm, sunny afternoon in the French countryside. We had just finished a delicious lunch and a couple glasses of wine. The plants and trees were starting to show their autumn colors.
Could life get any better? Sure! Throw in some apples that are still on the tree but ready for harvest.
There was no wind to speak of and there was little traffic on the canal. The smooth water offered up the kinds of reflections that inspired the Impressionists in the late 1800s.
Is there anyone who would not enjoy a stroll down the canal path on the right? Even if you were being pushed in a wheelchair, could you ask for a more beautiful setting?
Here is another storybook cottage that we passed as we motored along the canal.
The canal path was as perfect for motorbike riders as it was for walkers, joggers and bicycle riders.
And while we enjoyed the ride on the deck, out Pilot, Chef and Manager made sure that the boat traveled safely.
We docked in Lézinnes just minutes after this photo was taken, ready to head out on a tour of the famous wine village, Chablis, but that will have to wait for the next entry in this series, A Barge Cruise on the Burgundy Canal, Day 2, Part 3, Chablis.
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.