Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Final Thoughts, ramblings, and musings

Funny, about a month from today we will be returning to France, this time for a dry land visit in the Normandy region.

So finally we will end the chronicles of what proved to be a wonderful trip that will (hopefully!) live in our memory for a long time.  Car keys, no... food yes...

I think it’s fitting that we end by talking just a bit about the food in general.  One trick pony..

It is hard to divorce perception from reality and I try to do that, but it honestly appears to me that awareness of food and the enjoyment of same is just different in France than in America.  I probably wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “live to eat and eat to live” difference but something along those lines.  It somehow seems more of an integral part of their lives.  Witness the cafes all over the place in Paris.  Always well attended, and not just by tourists.  It’s what they do, it’s part of their culture.

Anyway food (and wine) was certainly the focus of our barge journey, and all twelve of us enjoyed every meal and glass with enthusiasm.  No foodie silliness, just the pleasure of being with people you like and sharing good things on a plate (and in a glass).  As I mentioned last time, there was a little packet at our final dinner, and in that packet was the menu for every dinner aboard,


along with a list of the twenty wines

 and twenty five cheeses

That were served on the barge

The food on the barge was wonderful.   I wish I could have gotten a couple of the recipes, especially one of the potato salads we had and gorgeous sauce that was glazed for a fish dish one afternoon.  I may still ask them for that.

Dining Out

One of the reasons we chose this route (Alsace and Loire to go!) was that it included a meal at a Michelin Three Star restaurant: Relais Bernard Loiseau.   It is located in the small town of Saulieu and is kind of an inn along with the restaurant.  As you might recall it's namesake committed suicide ten years ago.  It was speculated that one reason was the specter of losing his third star, but as usual there's more to the story.  Anyway it's kind of unassuming on the outside.

But it is beautifully decorated inside, and we were to be in a separate room but did go through the restaurant past elegant individual tables.
We were in a room that overlooked beautiful gardens on all sides

Under a beautiful wooden ceiling

And I don’t think it is a coincidence that that pattern is reflected in the table setting


There was a glass of welcoming sparkling wine for us along with the amuse bouche..  We each had our own special menu for the occasion
with three choices in each of the three main categories. of course cheese is ALWAYS served.
Besides the items you chose from the menu, little bits of something kept appearing between courses.  I tried to be discreet and hold down the pictures (reminded by elbows in ribs from MFO) so I only have a shot of my first course of the Jambonnettes de Grenouilles (Leg o’ the frog) the presentation of which reflected the style of the rest of the courses. 

Small portions, artfully placed, all lightly sauced and all very good.  As with all good restaurants each item on the plate stood out on its own.  Referring to the menu above, MFO selected the Crevettes, Filet de Boeuf, and the Fraises. 

Besides the Grenouilles (supposedly a house specialty), the Filet de Canette, and the Chocolat dessert. 


As I said, all along the way, things kept appearing and each was explained (I didn’t pay attention)

Wow.  And of course between the entrée and the dessert course was the always present “Chariot de Fromages Affinés”

Presented with a bewildering array of cheeses, mercifully we were asked if we would like goat, sheep, or cow, hard, soft, mild, strong, etc., and then several were placed on your plate.  What a meal.  It did, however present me with a bit of a problem.
musings and ramblings begin here
Up until this trip, the best meal of my life was at another three starred place, Lameloise in Chagny, on our first French Country Waterways journey in June of 1998.  I could not help myself from comparing them.
I am not sure I expected the meal at Relais to surpass the other, but it did not knock Lameloise off the pedestal.  I have been thinking about why I feel that way.  (One of the things I like about doing this blog is that it forces me to put things down on "paper" and sometimes makes me think more clearly (quite a feat), so maybe this is as much for me as you loyal readers).  
The way our itinerary worked out, we visited RBL on our first full day on the barge (Monday).  So maybe one factor was that we were still a bit revved up from the travel and not quite yet in a state of mind to appreciate the experience fully.  Another thought is that the Lameloise the food was more “traditional” and prepared with classic French preparation and presentation.  Here is the menu from Lameloise in 1998
Some of the choices were the same (Grenouilles), but you don’t see such traditional French items like veal, lamb, and pigeon on Bernard’s menu, plus Lameloise had the more traditional progression of a starter, then a fish course, followed by a meat course, and of course cheeses and dessert.  The menu at Relais eliminated the fish course and incorporated seafood into the entrée selections.  I suppose economy over the intervening 15 years may have had an effect.  While Lameloise presentation was more traditional, again times have changed and  I would place Bernard’s presentation in the “nouveau” category.  Things move on.
What was common to both meals however, was the attention to the smallest detail of service.  For instance upon seating, a small little rack appeared beside the ladies chair to hold their purse.  Ladies were always served first, serving with one arm, the other arm always behind servers back, wine glasses somehow were always full, silver replaced as necessary between courses, pand roper utensils laid for the upcoming dishes, things cleared at the appropriate time, on and on.  You hardly ever noticed the servers.

It was indeed a wonderful experience, and I don’t mean to quibble over eating in two three star restaurants, both were memorable and I’m lucky to have experienced each.  Not to mention the food on the barge which was definitely (IMHO) in the "starred" category.

Okay, that’s it. Thank you for following our journeys and we’ll begin another in that scant 30 days.  Of course we will now be assured that all will be



Saturday, July 27, 2013

Au Revoir!

After our Fourth of July festivities, our itinerary for the last (sigh) full day on the barge
Noting that four of the five activities involved food and wine, we spent a lovely morning cruising the canal

Past lovely French countryside scenes

we went through several locks while being observed by the friendly lockmasters and family

MFO and I stayed aboard today and somehow it was soon time for lunch

 (Salade Caprese)
After a little rest we boarded the little bus and headed for the town of Chablis, the center of the Burgundian wine region of the same name.

And perhaps this is the appropriate place for a little discussion about Chablis. The region where Chablis is produced (exclusively from the Chardonnay grape) is the northern most region of Burgundy.  Reflecting the flinty soil and cool conditions, it exhibits an austere steely, dry character, and is very age worthy.  Those traits are very hard if not impossible to produce in North America, and the name Chablis has been abused to the point where it has come to mean a dry white wine of: “uncertain provenance and no specific grape variety bearing no resemblance other than its color to true Chablis (Jancis Robinson)”.  A true French Chablis can be a great wine and is much underappreciated in the New World..  There are four levels of Chablis, beginning with the lower quality "Petit Chablis", then "Chablis",  on up to "Premier Cru" and the top level of "Grand Cru".  The terminology for the two highest designations is used throughout Burgundy for both reds and whites.  It is always confusing (to me) as to the relative rank of 1er and Grand Cru, and I have resorted to remembering that they follow alphabetical order with the top rank of “Grand” being above the second class of "Premier".  A tip from the Feeder!!  The various vineyards carry those designations, and many are very small.  There are only seven Grand Cru Vineyards, with a total about 100 Hectares.. 

Anyway we bussed to the town of Chablis which is surrounded by vineyards and our guide (Matthew!) knew of a little road that led to a hillside view of the Grand Cru Vineyards.

There could be several owners with just a few hectares of the Grand Cru designation.  After learning about the viticulture of the grapes and wine production (like most vines in France they are grafted on Phylloxera resistant American rootstock), we went down into town to Domain Servin, a producer of quality Chablis.  We were hosted by the (Aussie!!) winemaker Marc Cameron

who gave us a tour of the facility, and eventually to their cellars where we barrel tasted several of the their wines before adjourning to the real tasting room where we sampled several of their other vintages and various grades of wine.  A very enjoyable afternoon.

After getting back to the barge we rested, and then cocktail hour before sitting down to our final dinner aboard, the so called “Captain’s Dinner”.  Each traveler had their place marked by a little envelope containing the weeks wine and cheese list along with the menu for each evening meal (more later). 

Note the evening’s napkin fold of a tux shirt (we were DFD but not to that level!).  For the special evening the chef pulled out the stops and the menu was

Foie Gras et Figues Fraiches
Vinegrette de Balsamic


(the Foie Gras!)


Soupe aux Poireaux

Filet de Boeuf
Grattin Dauphinois
Sauce Pommery 

Fromages (Aboncance; Brie de Meaux; Roquefort) 

Tarte Tatin Pomme – Pistache
Glace Vanille

Vin Blanc: Meursault-Charmes 1er Cru 2005;
Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru 2008
Vin Rouge: Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru 2005

A fitting meal indeed, and we concluded with a toast to/with the crew, of what else… Champagne

We retired after another satisfying day (and after dinner libations) quite full and happy.  Of course the next morning arrived with the harsh reality facing us that it was over with only a little reminder of what we were leaving behind

Bags were then loaded into the little bus and we headed for Paris and airports with a final wave to the crew

So there you have our journey. It will remain with us for a long time.  And the last (finally!) France entry will recap my food and wine impressions..





Wednesday, July 24, 2013

1776 Remembered Abroad

While I may hear the murmurings of “enough already” in the background, we only have a couple of more days to relate, and then I want to spend some (virtual) ink on the food in general and a recounting of our three star meal at Relais Bernard Loiseau, then it will be c’est fini..

So after our rather longish day of doing two thing (gasp) in a single day, July the Fourth was spent in a more leisurely fashion.  Checking the little itinerary card that always greeted us in the morning:

Revealed that we were cruising in the morning and would visit the Cathedral in Auxerre in the afternoon (surrounded by lunch and dinner)

And cruise we did.  Can you imagine being at the other end of 128 feet of steel trying to steer a rather unresponsive vessel (it is, believe me, I tried) into a lock that has maybe eight or nine inches of clearance on either side?

Loic managed this with ease, never once having to resort to “stick the nose in and give it the gun” technique.  It was while the barge was in the lock that you could jump ashore (rather step ashore if you chose the right time) and bike or walk beside the barge.  While MFO and I generally preferred to stay on board, since this was the next to last day, we figured that we should engage in bicycling beside the barge at least once.  So we disembarked and Thibaut gave us a couple of bikes, and a short lesson in gearing, breaking and so on.  Once the barge has (in this case) lowered enough in the lock there is no going back.  So, although we had not ridden a bike in a long time, we figured how hard can this be?  You never forget, right?.  Well, there is something about the French (?) barge variety of velocipedes that kind of belie that statement.  The engineer in me would say that they are very short coupled.  Meaning that, if you give a slight correction to the handle bars, there is an immediate response which is not gradual.  That results in over correcting with the resultant movement in the other direction which eventually turns into a divergent oscillation.  We struck off uncertainly down the path (fortunately several other passengers were far out in front of us, so it was only a small audience left).  Long story short, this is how we “biked” the barge path..

Mercifully there was a bridge not too far ahead where we could again board the barge with the aid of a ramp so we didn’t have to get to the next lock.  We were quite ready to accept their offer

That was the end of our extra-barge activity.  Fortunately it wasn’t too long until lunch with aids to softening the memories of our less than memorable morning experience


The lunch entrée that day was the Turbot obtained from the broken down fish monger the day before

Done “en papillote”, in this case "en foil" which he says holds the moisture better than the traditional parchment paper…  it was very good.

After lunch and the requisite period of post lunch settling down (nap) we boarded the little bus and headed for Auxerre.  As with a lot of cities, the town is dominated by the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne d'Auxerre (or Saint Stephen in English)

As you can see, it was on the other side of the River Yonne, so to get there involved a bit of walking, and as you can also see it was a lot higher than the river, so it also involved a bit of climbing.  But, get there we did, and inside it was as impressive as all these tend to be.  It was built between 1215 and 1233 above an 11th-century crypt, and like any remodeling added on to into the 16th century.
One of the windows depicted Joan of Arc

We did descend into the crypt (again, special permission for the tour) where we saw some of the remnants of the original walls

After that we walked over into the city where we enjoyed some shopping and a glass of….Chablis.  Following that we got back on the bus and dozed until we were back on the barge.

When dinner hour came (the hour following cocktail hour) there was a table set for celebration of the Fourth of July!

With those always special place settings (the Franklins weren't real unfortunately)


Mercifully they didn’t carry the American theme to the food (no hot dogs or hamburgers) as the menu included:

Oeuf Meurette

Carré et Souris d’Agneau
Sauce Nivernaise
Puree di Panais


Gateau au Chocolat

Vin Blanc: Chablis 1er Cru 2007      
Vin Rouge: St. Emillon Grand Cru Classe 2009

The Gateau did honor a Fourth of July American tradition however


And I shouldn’t have to repeat that we were

We were not looking forward to our last day of the barge journey, but retired happy

Monday, July 22, 2013

Back across...

And through the magic of digital wizardry……zap!! we’re back in France!  The day after visiting the forges of the Compte de Buffon we visited a very (I WILL not use the word charming) nice “medieval” city of Noyers..


Dating back to (they think) roman times, but became important in the 11th and 12th century.  It is nestled in a meander of the Serein, it’s full of half timbered buildings and pleasant little alleys, with cafes, and little shops.



It also has a number of little markets and what we would now call food trucks with all sorts of locally grown or made good stuff, including God's gift of food.



Plus there were several open air markets on this cloudy and misty day, which somehow kind of fit the place.

Lovely food fresh from the surrounding farms

Including these lovely artichauts

And cut flowers of all kinds

Just a very nice place to wander around.  No cars either..
Kind of an interesting aside, when we first arrived and walked into the courtyard where the some of the food trucks were, Matthew said “uh oh this is not good!”  What’s the matter?  Well, this is where he meets the fish monger every week to get fish for the kitchen on the barge, and there was no fish monger!  About this time in the middle of the medieval village, his 21st century cell phone rang, and it was said fish monger.  The truck had broken down on the way to the market.  After a bit of conversation (in French) Matthew allowed as how he would have to go to where the broken truck was and obtain the fish.  These kinds of things happen when you truly “Buy local”.  So he abandoned us so to speak and off he went in the van to get the fish.

That was fine, we all sort of wandered around the little streets to see what we could see. 
Just lovely little places tucked here and there to discover
Besides the markets and stuff there were a fair amount of galleries and little craft shops, and MFO managed to help the local economy a fair amount.  We did find a little shop and lady who did beautiful medieval illuminations  Her name was Diane…..Calvert!!  Of course that name has special meaning to us St. Mary’s City people (George Calvert, Lord Baltimore who founded St. Mary’s City).  However, this one came from Texas!

After an hour or so, Matthew and fish reappeared and we bussed back to the barge for lunch


Well, there was food also.

After lunch and a rest, we toured  a 16th century renaissance Chateau, which is being restored.   No pictures were allowed inside, but it had beautiful antiques and paintings and so on.  After that return to the barge, get ready for cocktails and