Story and Photos by Jacqueline Harmon Butler.
Taking things slow and easy was Tina Turner’s advice in her song “Proud Mary.” Well, I’m taking her suggestion these days and the idea of a “slow and easy” barge cruise along the Northern Burgundy Canal on European Waterways’ barge La Belle Epoque sounded perfect. La Belle Epoque, built in 1930 to mainly carry lumber, is a barge of the Belgian spits category. Completely renovated in 1995, she currently cruises on the Burgundy Canal in central France.
The itinerary followed the Burgundy Canal from Venarey-les-Laumes to Tanlay, through some of the world’s most celebrated vineyards, medieval towns, beautiful chateaux and pastures filled with the famed white Charolais cattle.
My friend Cathy and I, along with 6 other passengers, were welcomed aboard with glasses of sparkling, chilled Champagne, delicious canapés, and introduced to each other and the crew, then shown to our state rooms. My shared room with Cathy was beautifully appointed; although small, it had twin beds covered with luxurious bedding, was air conditioned and included an en suite bathroom.
For dinner, Robert, our Hungarian chef, prepared delicious roasted pork belly garnished with apple sauce and served with a choice of a chilled white 2014 Charles Noellat Pernaud Vergelasses, or a red Santenay 1stcru La Comme Charles Noellat. The cheese course included Ossau Iraty, Bleu des Causses and St. Maure de Tourain, followed by a very delicious smooth and silky Créme Burlee for dessert.
The cheese course is always one of my favorites and we were offered a selection of three varieties at both lunch and dinner each day. The region offers a variety of cheeses from mild and fresh to aged and pungent, many of which we enjoyed during our daily cheese course. Two of my favorites, Brillat Savarin and Epoisse were highlights.
Our first day on board, we awoke to a beautiful, sunny morning and were delighted to find fresh, flaky croissants and pain au chocolate along with fresh squeezed orange juice and a choice of hot coffee or tea. Eggs cooked to order or cereal were also an option.
Early each morning one of the crew members would drive into a local village to gather the baked goods and bread. French people insist that their bread be baked every morning. I’ve been told that many of them insist their bread be baked early in the morning for breakfast and lunch and then another loaf be baked in the afternoon for their evening meal! “Oh my,” I thought as I crunched through a croissant, “this is delicious! A pain au chocolate? Oh yes! Surely something this light and flaky can’t be filled with calories.”
Our barge cruise passed several small villages through ancient looking locks. Some of our group chose to walk or bike along the canal tow path. I stayed on board and relaxed on the deck. I move rather slowly these days and the idea of trampling along the tow path trying to keep up with my much younger and more fit boat-mates didn’t sound like fun to me. I was perfectly happy to enjoy the sunshine and scenes of the Burgundy Canal from the comfort of a lounge chair. “Madame, would you like another glass of Champagne?” Oh yes, life is sweet.
On our first afternoon, Captain Jolanda loaded us into the European Waterways van and drove us to Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where the film “Chocolat” was set. The origin of the town goes back to the 18thcentury. It was constructed around a Benedictine Abbey founded in 719. The group decided to hike up a rather steep hill to see more of the village, but I decided not to join them. Instead I wandered around the area below where I explored shops and restaurants. Alas, this was in August, when many French people take their holidays, so most were closed and shuttered except for the Anis de Flavigny candy shop. The old Abbey is still present but part of it is used as a factory producing anise pastilles. I wandered around the old building, looking at its past history in photos and antique equipment used to create the candy. The candy is available in a dozen different flavors, from blackcurrant to violet, using the same recipe unchanged since the 16thcentury. I tasted many of the different flavors and particularly liked the lemon ones.
Dinner that night included fresh scallops with pea puree, lamb Provençal with Baume de Chateau red or white wines. Brillant Savarin cheese. Oh my!
Tuesday our chef, Robert, who is Hungarian, and to whom I had expressed a love of goulash, he prepared just exactly that for our lunch. It was absolutely perfect. I could almost taste the fields of Hungarian peppers, drying in the sun and waiting until the right moment to be ground into paprika.
Later, we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Abbey de Fontenay, founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118. We wandered through the remains of the old buildings and I was especially fascinated by the remains of the old kitchen and very thankful that I have a modern, up-to-date kitchen at home. Wednesday found us at Les Riceys, the only wine growing area of the Champagne region to have 3 Appellation d’Origine Controlées. We enjoyed a private Champagne tasting at Maison Alexander Bonnet with Frederic Sonzogno, the Commercial Director. “Another glass of Champagne, Madame?” he asked holding up a bottle of Cuvée Perle Rosée. “Oh yes!” I declared.
Holding the glass to my ear, I could hear the tiny bubbles fizzing as they rose to the top. The color was a soft pink and the gentle fragrance smelled fresh and delicate. I took a sip and let the wine settle as the tiny bubbles exploded on my tongue; then,as I swallowed, I breathed out and the taste bloomed in my mouth. “Oh my goodness,” I exclaimed. “This wine is extraordinary!”
Later we arrived at the Chateau de Ricey-Bas where we were welcomed by the Baron and Baroness de Taisne. As we sat sipping Champagne in the gardens, the Baroness described some of the horrors and joys of renovating and remodeling the 12thcentury complex with vaulted cellars and bringing the plumbing and electricity and, well, everything up to modern day standards. Permission to restore every last inch and nail had to be submitted to the authorities and approved before anything could be touched. Egads! I like to watch the “fixer-upper” shows on TV and can only imagine how the Property Brothers would handle this place. We were served a sumptuous luncheon in the falling apart but elegant private salon. Much of the produce was grown on the property and was delicious. I wish the Baroness had asked the chef to give me the recipe for the divine salad dressing.
Later, walking in the gardens, the Baron told me about a potentially terminal disease afflicting the extensive double boxwood hedges. Steps have been taken to protect them, but still, it is worrisome. Egads! Another major problem to be taken care of.
Our Wednesday dinner of pan fried Monkfish with prosciutto and watermelon, a chilled white 2015 Louis Jadot La Doix Le Clou d’orge or a red 2011 Moulinau Vent Clos de Rochegnes was served and the meal was finished with a grilled peach and ricotta. It was sensational. Oh, my goodness. I didn’t want to remind myself that I would be preparing my own dinners when I returned home.
Thursday, we visited a farmer’s market in a large outdoor space lot just outside the Chateau d’Ancy-le-Franc. The fragrance of the fresh fruits and tomatoes at one booth had me swooning. It was hard to tear myself away until I spotted a cheese vendor across the way. It was hard to resist buying little packages of my favorite Epoisse, but I reminded myself that this stinky cheese would never make it home to Petaluma in northern California. Later we entered the Chateau d’Ancy-le-Franc and marveled at the huge Renaissance murals.
At the Chateau, I fell in love with an adorable painting of a polar bear all dressed up with a red scarf around his neck. His big brown eyes seemed to follow as I walked around the room. I laughed when I came across a special potty chair built in a private room for a visiting King. Indoor plumbing was non-existent, but the King just could not use the primitive facilities provided for his subjects.
We were delighted to find musicians setting up when we returned to the barge, Martial Henzelin on keyboards and his partner on drums. I found myself singing along with some of the familiar tunes. The cattle in the field alongside the canal stopped munching on the grass and almost seem to sway to the sound of the music. Dinner that evening featured ripe, juicy tomatoes and fresh Mozzarella, followed by duck breast, cheese and a chocolate tart. Wines were white 2015 Bouchard pere et fils Marsault Les Clous and a red 2011 Gassies Margaux.
Friday found us wandering in the vineyards of Chablis and sampling some extraordinary Domaine Jean Marc Brocard wines and giggling at the owner’s unusual collection of erotic cork screws on display,a (a little too erotic to post photos.) Chablis, made from Chardonnay grapes, is often described as smelling and tasting of citrus and a flint-like minerality.
The Chablis region is the northernmost wine district of the Burgundy region in France. Its cool climate produces wines with more acidity and less fruity flavors than Chardonnay wines grown in warmer climates. The Chablis Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée is required to use Chardonnay grapes solely and is aged in stainless steel, not oak barrels.
The Captain’s dinner, on our last night on board, was absolutely delicious. It began with foie gras accompanied by apricots and hazelnuts, then featured steaks from the famous white Carolais Beef. Charolais cattle are one of the world’s finest beef cattle, their origins date back to the time of Charlemagne, with their fame spreading throughout Europe by the time of the French Revolution. The Charolais fillet was tender and succulent and I could almost taste the farmlands where the animals feed. We had seen dozens of them as we cruised along the canal. They would look up at us with a mild interest as we passed by, then would return to their grazing.
A red 2007 Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru and a white 2011 Chablis Grand Cru were featured. The cheese course featured my favorite Epoisse, along with some wedges of Roquefort and Comte. For desert, Chef Robert created a tower of little Profiterole crème puffs, then drizzled the whole extravaganza with liquor and set it to flame! It was a spectacular finish to an incredible week on the inimitable Burgundy Canal.
IF YOU GO:
- European Waterways offices are at Riding Court,Riding Court Road,Datchet, Berkshire SL39JT, England; phone number; + (0) 1753 598555; email: email@example.com .
- Champagne Alexandre Bonnet, 138 Rue du Général de Gaulle, 10340 Les Riceys, France; Phone: +33 3 25 29 30 93 .
- The Chateau of Ancy-le-Franc, 18, place Clermont-Tonnerre, 89160 Ancy-le-Franc, France; Ph. (+33) 03 86 75 14 63; Fax (+33) 03 86 75 10 30; Email: information@chateau-com
- Fontenay Abbey, Montbard 21500, com;phone: 03 80 92 15 00; fax: 03 80 92 16 .
- Chateau Ricey-Bas; B.P.#6, 21500 Montbard, France; Phone: 03-80-92-15-00; Fax: 03-80-92-16-88;(+33) 126.96.36.199.32 .