The proposition was tempting: a four-day, floating cheese and wine party. How could we resist the opportunity to cruise Burgundy’s canals on the 30-metre barge Le Papillon? Run by the French Canal Boat Company and built in 1902, she’s been lovingly restored and now takes a maximum of six guests on trips usually lasting a week. Four of us we were to enjoy a pre-season ‘taster trip’.
On arrival, we sipped Champagne on deck, were tempted by warm gougeres (cheesy choux buns) and were introduced to the crew of four.
This was a gastronomic experience and ‘berets off’ to Jo for producing splendid meals from a tiny, narrow galley. The table in the small dining room, was always beautifully set: more informally for lunch and with starched napery at dinner. A simple, but effective, touch was differently folded napkins at each meal. On our first night we tucked into griddled asparagus with salsa verde before succulent chicken in tarragon sauce on a bed of butter beans. In the French style, cheese was served before pudding, individual warm tarte tatin. Cuisine was typically French, with local ingredients picked up on route. Snails were offered, and I tasted my first escargot, which as everyone points out, could be a garlic mushroom.
Cheese was a focal point of lunch and dinner, when Erell our host, introduced us to two cheeses before presenting us with two slim wedges arranged on our plate with a range of dried and fresh fruit, nuts and the ubiquitous French crusty bread and salted butter. No longer will I be plonking down a slab of cheddar and whole brie in the middle of the table and bringing out the cream crackers.
We ate cheese from cow and goat milk, smelly and subtle cheese, hard and soft cheese, cheese in different shapes including the heart shaped Neufchâtel, blue cheese, washed cheese, young and old cheese. One night, Erell presented a single cheese, but before we got withdrawal symptoms, explained the Reblochon would be served hot and cold. In all, we tasted fourteen cheeses and I loved them all.
Wine was as important as the food with white at lunch and both white and red at dinner. As with the cheese, we were never served the same wine twice, and Leigh our skipper and wine connoisseur, had a tale to tell about them all. Whilst normally a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc girl, I quickly became converted to rouge Bourgogne and Chablis.
After coffee, there was a range of French digestifs including Calvados, Brandy, Cointreau and one I’d not tried before, Manzana Verde. Leigh was an excellent raconteur and as the drinks flowed, so did his tales which included rescuing young Danish damsels from a canal, pranks played by guests and how he developed an allergy to fish which appeared to involve wearing wellies in a posh restaurant!
After such stupendous dinners, breakfasts were deliberately light: fresh fruit, cereals, creamy French yoghurts, freshly baked croissant and bread bought from the local boulangerie with Mirabelle plum jam all served with freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee or tea. Buffet salad lunches were similarly light, but varied and tasty.
Between meals, we glided on Northern Burgundy’s waterways from Accolay, on the River Yonne, to Clamecy on the Nivernais Canal negotiating 25 locks and a swing bridge. We passed few other boats but when we did, Le Papillon attracted huge admiration from what Leigh called, ‘plastic noddy boats’. On two days it rained, so we contented ourselves in the cosy lounge with its excellent library (there is also complimentary wifi). However, in better weather, we sat on the open deck and admired the ever-changing scenery of lush green pastures, rock outcrops and homes ranging from humble abodes to grand chateau. The more active can walk or cycle alongside as the barge travels at between 4 and 6km an hour, whilst the more adventurous can take a turn steering, not as easy as you might think.
Afternoon excursions were expertly led by Arnault our guide, who took care of the logistics ensuring a vehicle was always available by driving ahead and cycling back. The first was to Vezelay, with its magnificent hill top basilica and UNESCO world heritage status town, where we wandered through the narrow, shop filled streets. At Saint-Bris-le-Vineux, we climbed down into the old cellars at Domaine Bersan and, as Leigh described it, ‘sniffed and swirled’ five white and five red before a Ratafia of Bourgogne, a fortified wine. Wine was bought to drink that night and we also succumbed, buying 3 bottles of red and a magnum of Chablis. Our final outing was to the Chateau de Bazoches du Marvan. After driving through narrow twisting roads and rustic French villages, we had the place to ourselves, finding out about the famous French general and his battles.
Throughout our stay the service was exemplary with drinks or snacks being offered at exactly the right moment. The inside and outside of the boat were kept sparkling, sofa cushions were constantly plumped, beds were turned down and pillow chocolates left. With two French and two British crew, Irish and British passengers, Entente-Cordial reigned, with Brexit a mere background subject rather than the main course.
The three cabins were compact but well appointed, with wardrobe, adequate shelves, good hair dryer and mirror combination and shower with plenty of hot water (the barge carries enough for two weeks). Having won the toss for the only double, we discovered one of us, not me, had to leap over the other to get into the side next to the wall. The barge had both central heating and air conditioning but unfortunately, we needed the former more than the latter.
The pace of life was relaxing and unhurried and over the four days, we only covered some 30+ km. This ensured we left Le Papillon lighter in spirit, but sadly pounds heavier.