Wining & Dining & Barging in France's Languedoc
by RISA R. WEINREB
"I'm going to eat light tomorrow," resolved The Iron-Willed One, also sometimes known as my partner, Steen. "No more foie gras. Go easy on the wine. Skip dessert. What's that?" he queried, scrutinizing my dinner plate. "Truffles? Can I have a slice?" he added, kniving into my medallion of veal before I could protest.
Ah, good intentions ... like the centuries-old plane trees, they lined our barging excursion along the Canal du Midi in the Languedoc region of southern France. Although we saw our plans for lean cuisine go bust, we rediscovered the pleasures of place and plate, indulging our senses with everything from medieval fortifications to memorable local wines.
Before going further, I should explain that The Iron-Willed One and I are careerist gourmets. Pose that Gallic conundrum, "Does one eat to live, or live to eat?" and the chow wins faster than you can say mousse au chocolat. In addition to our day jobs, we're also wine growers, with seven acres of Cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley. During our barging tour de France, we also aimed to learn more about the vintages of this important grape-growing region.
"Before the Greeks, before the Romans, the Phoenicians introduced wine grapes here," one grower told us. Although Languedoc is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in France, its products were like Rodney Dangerfield: they didn't get no respect. The types of grapes planted here - Carignan, Cinsault - produced the vins ordinaires drunk by the carafe-full at cafés all over France - what the Bri-tish dismiss as "plonk."
But today, the region is one of the new frontiers of French viticulture, thanks to a new generation of growers - many descended from long-time wine-making families. Most importantly, they've started planting more exalted varietals, such as Chardonnay and Viognier among the whites; Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah for the reds. And better viticultural and wine-making techniques mean that oft-spurned grapes such as Grenache can now reveal their true potential.
Canal barging proved ideal for getting a true taste of the region. Built in the late 17th century under King Louis XIV, the Canal du Midi runs for 145 miles, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Garonne River - and thence to the Atlantic. Once a major commercial thoroughfare, it is now exclusively used for pleasure boating.
For our journey, we joined up with our friends Andy and Daya. Although it was our maiden canal barge voyage, they had done two previous excursions, and knew the ropes - literally, as well as how to steer, moor, and maneuver through locks, those essential but cantankerous contraptions that raise or lower vessels from one level to another. More about locks later on.
Our vessel, a Connoisseur Flying Bridge model chartered from Le Boat, Inc., was ideal for two couples. We had plenty of room to spread out, since the barge was 37 feet long with an ample 13-foot beam. Aft, there were two master bedrooms, each with private toilet and shower. At the prow, built-in benches encour-aged lounging, with a large, comfortable salon and kitchen located inside.
Most of all, we loved the "flying bridge" - the fact that we could steer from atop the outside deck. Since we had spectacular late-August weather - sunny and hot - we spent most of our cruise time up here. For evening moorings, we chose quiet hideaways in the countryside - you can park as you like, hammering in long, steel spikes with a heavy mallet.
Since Steen and I joined our friends three days into their journey, we missed out on the introductory series of locks from the boat's pick-up point in Trèbes (cunning, weren't we?). Instead, we rendezvoused in Capestang, using cell phones for makeshift GPS devices.
After stowing bags in our cabins (there were plenty of cupboards to tuck away suitcases and clothing), we all decided to explore the area. Most barge companies rent bicycles for a small fee, and the bikes are perfect for exploring the countryside or ped-aling into villages for fresh bread and croissants. The land around the canal is practically all flat, so the rides are easy.
First we cycled into Capestang, a village with higgledy-piggledy streets and a 14th-century church tower that dominates the landscape for miles. Then we continued east along the canal's shady banks, enjoying a breeze scented by leaves and earth.
Not far from town, we spotted a sign announcing "Dégustation Gratuite" - free wine tastings. "Ooooh, let's go," as we wheeled a sharp right that led to Domaine de Guery, surrounded by vineyards.
The tasting room was in the fabulous 19th-century stone cave, filled with oak barrels and old wine press propelled by a dizzying succession of belts and pulleys. Jean-Charles Tastavy, the owner, was himself behind the counter. His story was fairly typical of other Languedoc vignerons (wine growers) with whom we talked. Charles took over running the estate from his grandfather (his father had left the land to become a banker), and began improving the wines, replanting vineyards and using oak barrels for secondary fermentation. (Previously, many Languedoc vintners stored wine in cement vats.)
The attention to detail showed in the quality of his wines. An unusual blend of Chardonnay and Viognier, the white perfectly balanced fresh citrus and floral flavors, like a summer day in Provence. And his rosé immediately changed our snobbishness ("real wine connoisseurs don't drink rosé") into love at first sip. Combining Syrah and Grenache, the wine had the vibrant tang of fresh strawberries. Charles explained that he doesn't crush the grapes. Instead the weight of the berries placed in fermentation vats helps release the juice, maintaining the bright fruit flavors. We bought four bottles for 110 francs - about $15.
For dinner that night, we returned to Capestang and a restaurant we had scoped our earlier in the day, Domaine Cros-Reboul. Shaded by a giant plane tree, the dining courtyard is surrounded by wine caves built on Roman foundations; other parts of the stone walls date to the 12th century.
As we dined on grilled duck breast and coq au vin, owner Marie Cros dropped by to chat. In addition to running the restaurant, she makes the family wines (in many Languedoc households, it is tradition for the women to be the winemakers).
Along with Marie's cooking, we enjoyed her red wine - a very agreeable blend of Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot. She sent us off into the night with piles of pamphlets and maps about the region. We bicycled our way back to our barge in the half-moon light, saying "bon soir" to a group of young men seated on the banks playing a didgeridoo, of all things.
The next morning, we got into gear slowly. Steen and Daya biked into town, Daya for fresh bread, Steen in search of a charcuterie (deli) for lunchtime provisions. He returned with vine-ripened tomatoes, peaches, a local goat cheese, and thick cuts of the local ham - priced by the slice, not the weight, curiously enough.
After breakfast, we headed east along the canal, looking to explore a bit - but not too much. The whole point of canal barging is to slow down, to imbibe the landscapes of vineyards, farmsteads, and old stone bridges. Boats putter along at about three miles per hour - a poodle can trot faster along the towpaths.
The canal was narrower than I had imagined, just broad enough that two boats could pass comfortably. Learning to steer is easy - although I wobbled left/right/ left/right for the first ten minutes, I soon got the hang of helmsmanship.
There are navigational challenges, however - like the time a full-throttle bateau coming in the other direction swung wide around a blind corner - piloted by a panic-striken gamin aged about 10. "Maman, viens vite!" "Mom, come fast!" he yelled.
Fortunately, Mom was fleet of foot and knew where reverse was. "Les enfants - that's kids" she shrugged as we passed at a safe distance.
We decided to backtrack to a pretty town we had noted earlier in the day, Poilhes, which one guidebook described as "relaxed to the point of coma." Here we savored one of the best meals of our journey at La Tour Sarrasine, located on the banks of the canal.
"Do you mind if the veal comes with truffles?" the waitress asked me. How could one object? The veal was delicious, as was the pâté de foie gras and the fish course of turbot poached in beer. Most of all, we were awed by the cheese selection: a bleu d'Auvergne flecked with creamy blue pearls; a pear-shaped boulette d'Avenne spiced with paprika on the rind. The price for five sublime courses: about $32 per person.
With our dinner, we enjoyed excellent wines from Les Vignobles d'Ensérune - the Cabernet was especially memorable, with riffs of black currant and licorice, and an amazingly long finish. So the next day, we decided to explore the Oppidum d'Ensérune, remains of a fortified trading settlement dating to the 6th century BC.
A pleasant bike ride along the canal, followed by a steep uphill climb (we all dismounted) led to the top of a plateau. It was easy to understand why the site was good for defense: from the summit, you can see for miles ... a definite advantage if you needed to keep watch for invading hordes (Hannibal reputedly passed through in the third century B.C).
Returning to our barge, we continued west along the canal, abruptly reversing throttle when we saw a quayside sign announcing les chais - a wine shop. A stunning tasting room and restaurant set in 18th-century caves, Le Relais de Pigasse is owned by Robert Eden, proprietor of several important wine estates in the area (he's also related to the former British Prime Minister).
Our favorite wine was a very unusual Muscat de Saint Jean de Minerve from the Domaine de Montahuc made from 100% Muscat. With a minimum alcohol content of 15% and residual sugar, it packed both honeyed sweetness - and punch. "Very good with foie gras or chocolate," the hostess informed us. Our two favorite things on earth - we bought two bottles.
The next day, Friday, we needed to bring our barge back to her home port in Narbonne. We'd have to leave our beloved Canal du Midi, heading south on the Canal de la Robine - where we'd finally encounter those dreaded locks.
Soon, black iron gates loomed ahead. Having no idea whatsoever what I was doing, I was relegated to rope duty - tossing the line to Andy to stabilize the barge while the lock filled and opened.
Here, we encountered our first lock keeper - alas, five minutes before the whole canal system officially, irrevocably, unbargeably shuts down for le déjeuner - lunch. Dangling a Gaulois out the side of his mouth, he complained about the weather, his wife, the government, and - I believe - his carburetor, before turning on his heel and stalking back into the lockhouse. Since one of the most nefarious aspects of lock-dom is that every lock is different, it took us about 15 minutes to figure out how to work the mechanism.
Luckily, we got the worst over first. The rest of the lock keepers were very friendly and helpful, catching ropes, punch-ing gate buttons, and operating sluices. Soon, we fell into pleasant teamwork: tossing ropes to the person on land, then steadying the barge while she was lowered to the next level. In between locks, the banks of the Canal de la Robine were bucolic, lined with yet more villages and vineyards.
After the small towns where we had spent the previous week, Narbonne was a shock - a bustling city of about 50,000 people. But first impressions were completely wrong - we soon discovered that Narbonne was a delight, with a town hall dating to the 12th century and beautifully restored townhouses snug along the canal (one lock actually descends beneath a row of buildings).
Unfortunately, we arrived in town too late to visit the medieval dungeons. But we did step into the excavation showing the old Roman Via Domitia, which ran from the Rhône to the Pyrenees. Then we followed the cobblestoned Rue Droite past antiques dealers and bakeries to Le Chat Botté restaurant, where we feasted one more time on foie gras and duck breast grilled rare.
Afterwards, we strolled along the canal, zagging along tiny streets with names like Rue Voltaire and Rue Rabelais (the author practiced medicine here in the 1530s). But we did not want to stay out too late. No, we wanted to return to our barge for one last night, and thank her for all the adventures - and good meals - she had brought us.
Le Boat, Inc. offers both self-drive and floating hotel-barge cruises in France, Holland, Belgium, England, Scotland, and Ireland. For the self-drive barges, no previous boating experience is required; instruction is given at the base before departure. For details: Tel. 800-992-0291 or 201-560-1941; Fax: 201-560-1945; E-mail: LEBOATINC@worldnet.att.net; Website: www.LEBOAT.com.