After three days in Paris we were collected from the Hotel Ampere and driven to Auxerre in Burgundy where we boarded our luxury barge, La Belle Epoque. Some people choose to cruise canals the hard way, without a crew. We chose a luxury cruise and we were not sorry. Captain Nick, Louisa, Lola, Emma and chef Steve (from New Zealand) spoiled us rotten. The barge can, at a squeeze, take 12 guests, but there were nine of us – two Scottish couples, Ian & Nancy, Stanley & Kay, Mari from the Isle of Wight, and a really lovely Australian couple, Dennis & Patrick, whose company Colin and I especially enjoyed (they taught me how to do cryptic crosswords).
We were greeted with champagne and canapes, then Colin and I took a quick walk around the town of Auxerre. Here’s a photo taken the next morning, looking back at the huge cathedral:
Steve Wilson, originally from Wellington, turned out to be a very clever chef, totally unpretentious and really laid-back in true Kiwi style, though I bet there was a bit of teeth-gritting going on in the kitchen when some of the guests, who shall remain nameless, requested parmesan cheese to go with the gorgeous seafood pasta dish Steve prepared later in the week. Anyway, on our first night we had a taste of the week’s cuisine, and a warning of why I would stack on four kilos in one week – four course dinners with wonderful wines and cheeses. For example, this night we had duck entree, chicken main, vanilla and rose water creme brulee. But the cheeses, oh dear heaven above, the cheeses!
Regal de Bourgogne aux Poivres made near Auxerre, a semi-soft, cow’s milk cheese covered in crushed peppercorns.
Ossau-Iraty– a ewe’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees, (excuse my French, but I can’t do accents on this blog) made in summer, with quite a mild flavour. These two towns in the Basque region, Ossau and Itary, used to be at war and made their own cheeses separately, but they now make this cheese together.
St Felicien – a soft, mild, cheese made from goat’s milk, from the Dauphine region between Lyon and the Alps.
And the wines? Pouilly-Fuisse, from the Maconnais, 100 per cent Chardonnay but nothing like what is put in bottles and labelled Chardonnay in New Zealand.
St Romain, a Pinot Noir from the Cote de Beaune, a village well-known because of the barrel-maker, Francois, who sells his barrels to top wine producers all over the world.
The next day the barge’s engines started up and we cast off toward the first lock. Most of the lock houses have pretty gardens, though the lock keepers are very unionised, somewhat surly and lazy, and if you arrive on the dot of midday they refuse to let you through because it is their lunchtime so you have to wait for one hour. You’re not even allowed to do it yourself. But this is what some of the lock houses, or sheds, look like. Very pretty.
We cycled past a lovely gite, with a very colourful summer garden, petunias in abundance and geraniums everywhere:
When the barge is level with the land in a lock, you take the bikes off and cycle along the tow path, in a vain attempt to dump some of those kilos you’ve stacked on at dinner or lunch, which is also a magnificent repast.
Our first lunch was a terrific chorizo soup, followed by mixed pates made by Steve, a bitingly piquant chickpea salad, and a garden salad with grilled courgette. Then more seductive, alluring, salacious, mouth-watering cheeses, which I just have to tell you about because writing about them is poetic:
Selles-sur-Cher – a goat’s milk cheese from the Loire. Similar to St Maure de Touraine, it is covered in ash and ripened for up to three weeks, has a hard texture and is not very strong in flavour.
Brie de Meaux – from Paris, known as the Queen of the Cheeses, it has a creamy, smooth interior and a white crust ripened partly by moulds, bacteria and yeasts grown on the surface.
And to wash these down we had Macon-Villages Chardonnay from southern Burgundy, just above Beaujolais; and Cotes d’Auxerre, a lovely soft Pinot Noir from the hills around Auxerre, possibly the oldest vineyard still in use in the whole of Burgundy.
Not content with simply biking, CCQC decided to do some work and open the lock.
And here’s La Belle Eqoque making her stately way along the Canal du Nivernais.
The next day we would visit Chablis, and Domaine Laroche.