Gourmet or gourmand? It’s the question of the moment aboard the luxury barge gliding along a canal in Burgundy near the end of a six-night cruise. My fellow passengers discuss the subtleties of each word. A dictionary pulled from the boat’s library settles the matter.
Gourmet, it reads, is “a person who likes and is an excellent judge of fine foods and drinks.” Gourmand, on the other hand, is “a glutton” or someone “with a hearty liking for good food and drink and a tendency to indulge in them to excess.”
We agree that in our case we prefer the former to describe ourselves, now enlightened by our journey through this gastronomic region of France. As our cruise comes to a close, though, we concede we might be dangerously close to the latter. Over buffet lunches and lavish plated dinners on board, we will have sipped 22 wines from throughout France, sampled 30 French cheeses and feasted on our French chef’s many imaginative starters, entrees, salads and desserts.
Plus a fabulous dinner ashore one night at a Michelin-star restaurant.
Savoring Food and Wine
A typical day begins with a continental breakfast of fresh fruit and pastries dropped off by the local bakery that morning. At lunch, the chef emerges from his kitchen in white apron and toque to describe his creations spread on the buffet. The barge manager does the honors in the evening, introducing each of the four courses in detail. One night we start with a foie gras in a raspberry reduction, followed by escargot. Lamb and duck appear in entrees on other nights. Dessert is crepes suzettes, crème brulee and a fig tart with caramel sauce and vanilla glaze.
Prior to each lunch and dinner, the white and red wines are described in detail. I nearly swoon over a 2001 Corton Charlemagne, a grand cru I sip with filet de boeuf en croute with sauce bordelaise.
In Your Bucket Because…
- To enrich your knowledge and educate your palate for fine French food and wine
- To see Burgundy’s attractions at a snail’s pace
- Good for those who love French food and wine
Salad always comes after the main course followed by cheese presented in what my fellow passengers have jokingly come to refer to as the “cheese chat.” One of the crew appears with a tray of three French cheeses and explains their region of origin, type of milk used, texture, rind or crust. Then we dive in, sampling some of each.
When I’m not drinking wine on the barge, I’m learning about it ashore, as I am led to vineyards and wine cellars on half-day trips.
From the time I arrive from Paris by TGV high-speed train to Dijon on Sunday until I board the train in Le Creusot on Saturday, the barge is accompanied by a comfortable motor coach. The guide drives us to the medieval wine capital of Beaune and leads a walking tour in Dijon, where we visit a mustard shop run by the same family for 50 years.
Our sightseeing includes both the well-known spots and offbeat places familiar to the guide, a native of Burgundy. We visit a 12th-century castle that’s in all the guidebooks and an 18th-century chateau where the handsome count still lives while it is being restored. He greets us in blue jeans. We go to the famous Clos de Vougeot grand cru vineyard, but also to a small winery for a private tasting in 18th-century cellars lined with barrels and bottles covered in dust.
Meanwhile, the barge prepares for our return: the staff cleaning our cabins, the chef working his miracles in the kitchen and the pilot and deckhand navigating to the next mooring.
Barge Resembles a Floating Snail
The barge functions as an air-conditioned inn that moves — slowly. In our six-night cruise it covers a mere 60 miles, traveling around 2.3 mph on the Canal de Bourgogne and Canal du Centre and five to seven mph on the Saone River.
Passengers can walk faster than 2.3 mph — so we do. At the 40 locks the barge passes through, we are free to get off and walk along the towpath or ride one of the bikes carried on board.
I take the opportunity to walk off the previous night’s meal, strolling along the canal lined with poplar trees. I pass terraced vineyards, fields of sunflowers and gardens of pumpkins and sugar beets. White Charolais cattle, native to Burgundy, graze in pastures. On a bike, I find ample time to detour off the path and explore a nearby village before catching up with the barge at the next lock.
Going Through the Locks
The locks operate manually, with the lockkeepers opening the gates to raise and lower the water level. Many of the old cottages next to the locks are still occupied by keepers or rented out to locals. Lovingly restored, they are decked with window boxes overflowing with blooms.
Like many canal barges, ours is long and slim, transformed from a cargo vessel to passenger barge years ago. Twin and double cabins on the lower level have en suite bathrooms. Upstairs the comfortable lounge, bar and dining room are paneled in English oak.
I spend much of my time on board lounging on the sundeck watching the slowly passing scenery or reading a book. As the barge approaches a lock, other passengers join me on deck to marvel as deckhand and pilot squeeze the barge through with just two inches of clearance.
Safely out in the canal again, another barge slowly approaches from the opposite direction. We smile and wave as it nears. Its passengers raise their glasses to join us in a toast to the good life aboard a barge in Burgundy.
- Several passenger barge companies operate on the 4,800 miles of navigable rivers and canals crisscrossing France. American-owned French Country Waterways sells passage on four barges carrying from eight to 12 passengers.
- Rates cover all meals and wine (including dinner at a Michelin-star restaurant ashore one evening), open bar, sightseeing excursions and transfers between meeting points and barges. Gratuities are additional. Hot air balloon flights, minimum of four passengers, are an option.
- Cruises operate April through October. Daytime temperatures in central France average in the 50s in April, 80s in July and August and 50s in November.
- Bring comfortable sportswear and walking shoes. Dress for dinner is smart-casual. For the one dinner ashore and the farewell dinner, women wear dressy outfits and men wear coats and ties.
Copyright 2012, Katherine Rodeghier. All rights reserved.