The View From the Boat

Sometimes the slow boat is the show boat. Arlene Stacey explores the beauty of taking your time – one lavish meal at a time.

The exuberant chords of Beethoven’s Fourth crash over our heads as we raise our flutes of Champagne. It may be only 10 in the morning, but we’re toasting the Briare Aqueduct, a half-mile long canal high above the Loire River, from the deck of our luxury floating hotel. The Renaissance has been our home for six days of barging on France’s oldest canal, the Briare, through rural country and small villages while wining and dining like the idle rich. Our barge is 5.3 metres wide, the steel canal, six, so we slip into the canal like “a hand into a leather glove,” as my travelling companion, Aprile, says. Gustave Eiffel’s ornamental columns at each end mimic Pont Alexandre II, the most ornate of Paris’s bridges.

Barging on the French waterways is not like a week at sea on a cruise ship. In six days, we’ve travelled maybe 60 kilometres at an average speed of four knots an hour, a speed that is surpassed by cyclists, even hikers, on the towpaths that line the waterways, and gone through 34 locks (at one point, a duck swam past and beat us into the lock).

Nor is barging like river cruising, with boats that hold up to 250 passengers. European Waterway’s Renaissance accommodates only the eight of us along with five crew members, its compactness allowing us to explore smaller canals and rivers that riverboats can’t manage. Its leisurely progress through western Burgundy and the upper Loire has left all of us peaceful and composed.

It all begins – and ends – with Champagne. Bottles of the bubbly, to be precise. Upon our arrival in Montargis (about 100 kilometres south of Paris), Captain Nicolas Rancelot, his wife, Magali, who serves as deck hand and tour guide, and three crewmembers are on the sundeck to greet us with chilled glasses and hot hors d’oeuvres – to tide us over until dinner while we explore the retrofitted cargo carrier. The salon-dining room is the full width of the barge and its 40-foot length is outfitted with comfy couches, bookcases, paintings, fresh flowers, a fully stocked open bar and a fireplace demarking the dining area with its mahogany table and chairs. Down below, our luggage has been stowed in our surprisingly spacious cabins with teakwood bathrooms larger than my ensuite at home – 17 feet by five feet – with a shower stall, heated towel bars and two toiletry tables.

That night, moored outside the walled town of Montargis, known as the Venice of the area because of its many canals and bridges, we get our first taste of shipboard culinary art: Meursault Premier Cru 2003, a great white Burgundy with a lightly oaky aroma, and Nuits St. Georges Premier Cru 2001, a full-bodied Pinot Noir, are matched with goat cheese salad in red wine vinaigrette and a main course of breast of chicken with oyster mushrooms in Madeira sauce. And while Montargis may have introduced pralines to the world back in the days of Louis XIII and the shop that originally sold them may still be in business, chef Slawek Bielak forgoes the candied almonds and presents an elaborate cake with candles for Aprile’s birthday today.

The next morning sets the routine for the days ahead: breakfast between 7 and 9 with fresh croissants, baguettes, pastries, fruit, cereal, yogurt and juices. Each morning, the Captain greets his guests – four Australians, two Americans and us, the two Canadians –with plans for the day: Magali will take us by van on a tour of the historic town of Moret-sur-Loing, a source of inspiration for Monet, Renoir and Sisley; the next day, shopping in the town of Gien, famous for its Faience pottery; and another, to a wine tasting in Sancerre, a medieval hilltop village that moved from traditional agriculture to viticulture during the Roman times and has been perfecting its wine-making techniques throughout the 11 centuries since. Or we are welcome to stay on board, relaxing on the teak deck chairs or in the spa bath until the travellers return.

Charles de Gaulle famously said, “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” While I may have to search hard to remember every town we passed through, I remember all the cheeses we tasted that week – two at lunch and two at dinner. I may not be able to sample all 246 cheeses de Gaulle referred to, but here’s just a sample of what can be crossed off my bucket list:

Creamy Morbier with a black layer of ash separating the morning cow’s milk from the evening milk; melt-in-your-mouth Chaource, made from cow’s milk since the Middle Ages; Valençay, a pyramid of goat cheese blanketed in ash mold; sweet Brie de Meaux with flavours of hazelnut and fruit; crottin de Chavignol, a goat cheese named after the village of 200 inhabitants.

At each meal, one of our two hostesses explains the origin and kind of cheese, then introduces the wines for that meal, accompanied by chef Slawek with his presentation: beef carpaccio starter with a main course of duck magret in port sauce; for dessert, a perfect cool crème brûlée with its crackle of browned sugar topping. The next night, French onion soup gratinée – with only the intense heady flavour of braised onion yet no sight of the vegetable in the silky beef consommé – leading into a main of grilled pork medallion with beetroot followed by a Cointreau parfait in a red wine sauce.

Considering that he has to wine and dine eight passengers and feed four hardworking crewmembers and that Aprile is undergoing a kitchen renovation back in Canada, the two of us are anxious to see his kitchen. In a not-so-spacious galley, Slawek has a well-organized space, with pots, skillets and bowls stacked on low shelves and fresh fruits and vegetables and breads on the counters – and an aromatic stockpot always simmering on the burner. The notes he has stuck to his fridge remind him about guests’ likes, dislikes, allergies and health needs – “low sodium for XX”, “no nuts for XX.” And then the ultimate: “Do you want to come to the market in Montbuoy with me in the morning?” Slawek asks, followed by a gentle warning: “I’m leaving early.”

At the crack of dawn (or so it seems), he leads us into the heart of the village (population 7,000), with its robust market – everything from shirts, pants, hats and shoes to what Slawek is looking for: fruits, vegetables, seafood and cheese stalls. Our chef carefully examines the seafood, smells the fruit and hefts the vegetables before making his decisions.

For lunch, we indulge in a rich bouillabaisse with Parmesan croutons washed down with a flinty 2009 Sancerre la bourgeoise. Dinner sees the arrival of a goat cheese croustillant with baby spinach and fresh tomato, followed by a rosemary-infused lamb fillet in a black olive sauce, accompanied by a silky Rully Premier Cru 2008 and a smoky Corton Rognet 1992.

But lest you think a luxury barge cruise is only food and wine and cheese – as if that’s not enough – let me say that it is also about biking the towpaths and exploring the villages off the waterway, walking through castles and cathedrals, lounging on the sundeck and never making a decision about what’s for dinner.

By the time the crew is ready to return us to Paris, we’re as relaxed as sloths and don’t want to go. Without Slawek, how will we ever handle matching our food and wine? We arrange to meet our fellow travellers the next night on the Left Bank – this a group of strangers that a week ago we didn’t know and were concerned we wouldn’t necessarily like – and now we don’t want to break up. But as they say, all good things must come to an end. At least Aprile and I are going home with chef Slawek’s recipe for beef stock.

For more information on barging, go to www.gobarging.com or phone 1-877-574-3404.