Barging In Burgundy

| Thursday, 08 Aug. 2013
Artwork of Lock-Keeper near home in Burgundy
* All photographs by Janice Wald Henderson

Wining and Dining through Southern France with French Country Waterways

I pedaled my bicycle past sleepy white cows in fields of green. Past swimming ducks, and creamy butterflies fluttering above wild orange orchids. I heard only wind, whispering through pastures, rippling wheat fields. Above, the blue sky crowned my bubble of barge-related bliss. Cycling down the gravel path alongside the canal, I knew the Nenuphar barge was chugging steadily behind me. What I didn't know was that I could have so much fun on a little boat trip in Burgundy.

Nenuphar, Canal Cruising in Burgundy

I had mixed feelings about my first barge cruise. I picked the U.S.-based French Country Waterways (with four barges in France), because cruise reporter peers had raved (privately and professionally). And, because the company promised a big emphasis on food and wine.

I liked the idea of slow-sailing a canal in picturesque Burgundy, France - a haven for wine-lovers - and away from cities and tourists. But I wasn't sure about my husband and I traveling with a handful of strangers in close proximity.

Meet the Passengers

I got over that fear fast. We met at four-star Hotel Regina in Paris. French Country Waterways - in what I'd soon learn is their think-of-everything mentality - provided complimentary drink certificates to redeem in the hotel bar. Assembled there, glass in hand, we eyed each other warily and then broke into careful smiles.

What an interesting group. Although our barge had six suites, we totaled 10 as two passengers were single. The ages ranged from early 40s to late 80s, with most in-between. Everyone was a professional. Three were retired. A brilliant college professor. A Texan lawyer with a soft drawl. A former Washington lobbyist.

Over the course of the six-day barge cruise, we got along splendidly. Despite sharing breakfast, lunch and dinner together - plus occasional outings - the conversation flowed. So did the excellent wine, which surely enhanced the good cheer.

But mostly, I believe strangers thrown together did so well because the barge experience was beautifully orchestrated. If this cruise were a concert, it would have been written by Mozart; all elegance, balance and delicacy. When treated like Prince Will and Duchess Kate, it was easy to feel royally happy and aristocratically polite at all times.

The Crew

Let me walk you through the experience. Remember that Hotel Regina in Paris I mentioned? A smiling young Frenchwoman representing French Country Waterways met us there. She drove us about two hours southeast in a plush Mercedes van to meet the barge and crew in central Burgundy. (She reappeared post-cruise to drive us back to Paris.)

The crew of six was waiting to greet us (with champagne, natch). On a tiny boat, a team who worked well together and could handle every need was a necessity. We soon learned our bilingual crew was brilliant.

Matthew Walsh, our captain (and tour guide, bus driver), was a charming Brit and Burgundy resident who spoke impeccable French and had a terrific sense of humor.

Besides Matthew, two other gentlemen (one British, one French) did everything from steer the barge and work the locks to bartend. Two young women, one French and one Moroccan-born, were multi-tasking hostesses. They set tables and served, delivered informative cheese and wine presentations - even cleaned our cabins and provided turndown.

Chef of the Year

I expected many traditional Burgundy dishes (escargots, coq au vin), or just classic French cuisine onboard. But I never expected modern French cooking - excellent modern French cooking - starring regional ingredients for which Burgundy is renowned.

Our chef Tadek Zwan - without a single cook to assist - prepared exquisite lunches, and dinners that could easily rate one Michelin star every day.

Every dish was intricate, labor-intensive and prepared with impeccable ingredients. Chef Tadek could not have used fresher fish, better beef or plumper berries. I know, because I often bumped into our captain at local markets, buying foodstuff of my dreams.

This is no off-the-cuff statement: I've taken dozens of cruises over 30 years and I think I just enjoyed the best cuisine while sailing ever.

If you booked French Country Waterways with Tadek Zwan onboard, expect unsurpassed culinary thrills. But my impression was equally fine cuisine (with its own regional style) is found on all four barges.

Polish-born Zwan had a terrific culinary background. He had worked at the acclaimed Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire, England, headed by three-Michelin star winner (highest level possible) Heston Blumenthal.

Morning Meal

Fresh-Baked Morning Croissants

Breakfast featured a buffet of yogurt, local cheeses, croissants purchased fresh that morning and seasonal fruits. A juice du jour - like fresh raspberry or kiwi-apple - dazzled. My husband marveled each breakfast over his farm eggs cooked to order; so fresh, they were nearly orange in color.

Love that Lunch

The rather shy Chef Tadek left the kitchen only to describe each dish. He did so with more than professional proficiency. We saw, well, affection. Passion for cooking and respect for technique.

Radish, Cucumber and Chick Pea Salad

He usually prepared three salads and one entrée. Salads, like cauliflower with apricots and poppy seeds, smoked chicken, and wild rice and crayfish, were lightly dressed and all freshness and herbs. Every salad had a distinct taste, its own dressing. Even a traditional salade Niçoise (tuna, baby green beans) went glam with quail eggs.

Hostess Louise with Lunchtime Cheese Presentation

Entrees always surprised. Fresh prawns with chestnuts. Goat cheese soufflé stuffed with figs. Fresh artichoke quiche. We ate until we hurt. Or at least, until a hostess presented a cheese tray. We tasted three at lunch and three at dinner. They were never repeated. A true fromage-fest (complete with detailed descriptions of their origin and making) and we were all onboard.

Chef Tadek and Hostess Amina Plating Lunches

The hostess poured one white and one red wine at each meal. They were always top regional wines, many premier cru (first growth), and refills flowed. Some guests took a final glass out to the sundeck to read, soak up the scenery or snooze.

Mid-afternoon, homemade cookies mysteriously appeared on the salon coffee table. They always vanished, despite our collective we're-too-full groan.

A Cocktail or Two

Come cocktail hour, hors d'oeuvres awaited. Foie gras pâté, perhaps. Smoked salmon with caviar. Albert, our British bartender, mixed excellent drinks from the always-open complimentary bar. His occasional quips had the timing of a late-night comedian. He was also our music-master. One night, in particular, was unforgettable; he played Edith Piaf as we feasted in the French country inn-style dining room.

Evening Hors d'Oeuvres for Cocktail Hour

Dinner Dish

Duck Breast in Fresh Cherry Sauce with Celeriac Puree, Bacon-Wrapped Haricots Verts

Dinner was excellent most nights, extraordinary others. First courses, like poached egg on crisp potato pancake, or gazpacho with smoked trout tartare, enthralled.

Entrees were stunners; melt-in-mouth pork belly stuffed with prunes, or rosy duck breast that cut like butter. One evening, when I learned we were having lobster Thermidor, I sighed. I didn't want to eat shellfish mixed with rich (and unhealthy) cream sauce.

I didn't have to. Chef Tadek's take was modern-delish. Fresh-from-the-market lobster was bathed in an essence-of-the-sea herbaceous seafood stock reduction, intensely rich in flavor, not fat. Were I alone, I would have licked the shell clean.

Prune-Stuffed Pork Belly with Apple Brandy Jus on spinach with Brown Butter Sauce

On our final evening, we savored Charolais beef (from France's world-famous cows); we all agreed our chef's version was better than that served at the Michelin three-star restaurant (see A+ Excursions).

Wine glasses were filled and refilled. Such good wines, premier and grand cru (the highest possible), were always poured. Wine presentations - vintage, grape, style - made drinking educational and fun.

Gala Dinner Fruit Plate, Family-Style Presentation

Comfy Cabins

The Nenuphar had six suites (they are really rooms) below deck; king, queen or twin-size. I only saw my own, which was king. Despite its diminutive size, the room had provincial charm; French art, striped wallpaper and fresh flowers. The bathroom, with a Villeroy & Boch sink, was elegantly compact.

We were rarely in our cabin except to sleep. Napping was difficult; you heard the motor if the barge was moving. But after enough wine at lunch, well, anything is possible.

Room to Roam

The dining room, salon (with complimentary WIFI) and a canopy-covered sundeck comprised the shared space. Several bicycles were stashed onboard; we often biked along the canal-side path.

Since the barge moved so slow (we barely covered two hours of driving time in six days), and we stopped for countless locks, guests could debark nearly any time to bicycle or walk. The serene scenery of cows, pastures and wildflowers rarely changed.

Typical Barge Scenery

The canal was so narrow, flowering tree branches nearly brushed our faces. We could almost pet a tail-wagging dog, running alongside us. We teased each other, saying the setting was ridiculously perfect; perhaps we were really on a ride at Disneyland Paris and didn't know it.

A+ Excursions

I loved the open-air market excursions in quaint old villages. In France, food is first and foremost about flavor, not looks. To see tiny potatoes, still dusty from the earth, carrots of different lengths and thicknesses, leeks big and small, made me as excited as a Saks sale.

Fabulous Chocolate Finale at Michelin Three-Star Le Relais Bernard Loiseau

Visiting the 12th century Abbey of Fontenay, a Unesco world heritage site, was impactful because our crackerjack captain Matthew was a tour guide whiz. He drew a vivid picture of life in this Middle Ages monastic order.

Cheese for Sale at Farmers Market

Walking premier and grand cru Chablis vineyards, and experiencing barrel and stainless steel tank-tastings, was marvelous. We dressed for our one evening outing - to Michelin three-star Le Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu, France.

Vineyard Visit and Chablis Barrel Tasting

Appetizers and entrees were complex in composition, sophisticated in flavor, with Angelina Jolie-looks. The extras - breads, amuse-bouches, pre-desserts and tuiles (French almond cookies) wowed. Desserts, like my chocolate finale resembling Sydney's Opera House, were architectural wonders. Captain Matthew explained every dish so those less familiar with Michelin three-star fare felt equally at ease.

Shopping at Village Farmers Market

The Last Supper

Although the table was beautifully set each evening, the final night dinner table drew gasps. Multiple vases of freshly picked flowers. Petals strewn about the table. Napkins folded into tuxedoes. A gleaming candelabra.

After marveling at the setting, we sat in silence. Reality was sinking in. Smiling Louise would not present us with lunchtime cheeses tomorrow. No fresh-brewed morning coffee for slow-sipping on the sun-deck or a pre-breakfast stroll.

Antoine, dressed up behind the bar at cocktail hour, would soon mix someone else's favorite drink. Another passenger would marvel at his quick wit and share a "cheers." As a group we were enchanted with a luxe and luscious dinner, but felt like we were waking up from a dream.

And in the End

This voyage was flawless. The crew was all grace, elegance and style. They literally vanished - down hatches beneath deck - when not needed, but magically and appropriately re-appeared. It's a food and wine-driven experience, and without peer.

Here's the caveat: You must be open to sharing an intimate vacation with strangers. (You might even meet a new lifelong friend.) If you aren't, yet want this extraordinary barge experience, gather friends and book a sail together. It would be a true private yacht-like experience and you will feel on top of the world. Or at least, in heaven in Burgundy. (fcwl.com). All vessels depart every Sunday from April through October.)

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