As summer turns to autumn and the clocks go back, we’ve been thinking about escorted travel & Robert has come up with an new idea for our annual escorted tours – as he puts it – “ After 35 years of designing and leading tours around France, we have decided to stop guessing what you want and to offer our services as tour organiser and leader for small groups of friends and family.”
In other words, you decide where and how you want to go, and with whom. Customised, private, small-group tours in other words. Read more here.
The food diary is back on the banks of the Charente, this time for a memorable cooking class at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Somehow, the chef found time to direct us in the making of a delicious lunch in his demonstration kitchen, while ensuring that everything went smoothly in the restaurant kitchen too. Great teamwork seemed to be the secret – the maitre d‘ helped with the dishes, the junior kitchenhands opened the wine, and lunch emerged smoothly and deliciously from both places.
Hotel-barge operators are adding to their already attractive classic cruises, with special themed weeks – including barge & bike, golf and spa weeks, opera tours, family-friendly activity weeks and more. See Boating News below.
Food Diary: September 2014 – la Ribaudiere Restaurant, Bourg-Charente – cooking class
Bourg-Charente is an appealing village on the Charente River, between Cognac and Jarnac. It has a good mooring just a few yards from la Ribeaudiere, the Michelin-starred restaurant where we have a cooking class next day. (See photo above.)
By nine next morning, after a very light breakfast on board our boat, we’re in the restaurant’s teaching kitchen, with Chef Thierry Verrat, who takes us through the three courses we’re going to prepare for our lunch – first, vegetable tarts with roast langoustines (aka Dublin Bay prawns or scampi) followed by a mushroom risotto with sea bass, and a traditional Tarte Tatin to finish. Phew.
The tarts have filo pastry bases, which we cut into circles, layer up in metal rings and cover with tapenade. Meanwhile, the tomatoes are skinned, sliced and de-seeded and put in the oven to dehydrate, the fennel and onion is sliced and cooked in olive oil. We then arrange the vegetables on the tarts, with varying degrees of artistry and a little more oil, and while they’re cooking, we get on with shelling and de-veining the prawns to serve with them.
The risotto preparation is mainly handled by Chef Thierry, though we lend a hand with some basic veg chopping. But mainly we’re watching and listening for tips on making the perfect risotto. Chef doesn’t bother with keeping the stock on the boil while adding it periodically to the rice – as long as it’s warm, it’s fine he says. He adds that we should keep an eye on the mixture while it’s cooking and stir it at intervals, not all the time. He uses an aged carnaroli rice from Piedmont for risottos, because of its creamy texture and superior flavour – thoughthose features may also have been enhanced by the addition of marscapone and whipped cream at the end of the cooking!
The fish to go with the mushroom risotto will be taken care of later. Now it’s all hands to the knives and peelers, as we prepare a small mountain of apples for our Tarte Tatin, the famous upside-down apple pie. The puff pastry has been made in advance, and we are turning out the peeled, cored and quartered apples that will be caramelised in butter and sugar.
When the chef is happy with look of the apples – a process which takes a while and quite a bit of shaking and flipping, no mean feat in a large heavy pan loaded with fruit – he covers them with a pastry duvet. In minutes he has it neatly tucked down around the filling, and painted with egg yolk. He cuts a hole in the centre to release steam and the pan goes in a hot oven for 30 minutes. When it comes out, there’s a few minutes over a hot element to remove any remaining moisture and complete the caramelisation, then the scary part – turning the tart over and out. But the chef simply puts a platter over the pan, does a quick turn, and voila, it’s ready for table – no slips, no drips, no drama. That takes skill, confidence and practice.
At the end of a very enjoyable and informative morning, we sat down at the dining tables beside the demonstration kitchen, looking back at an impressive array of cognacs on the back shelves. (This area is the bar/bistro part of the restaurant, when there isn’t a class on.) The dishes we had made and observed were all delicious and enhanced by a well-chosen selection of local wines and friendly, smooth service from some of the restaurant staff.
Lunch after a cooking class is quite special – you’re not just the customer, you helped make the meal, which adds another dimension to the experience. (Even when you realise that the vegetable tart you made is the wonkiest one on the table!)
This is one of the best cooking classes we’ve had in France – highly recommended, as is the restaurant.
La Ribaudiere, Bourg-Charente, closed Sunday evening, Monday, & Tuesday lunch
BOATING NEWS – themed hotel-barge cruises
BARGE & BIKE IN BORDEAUX
The 24-passenger luxury hotel-barge Mirabelle cruises in South-West France, on the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers and the Gironde Estuary. As well as being an perfect cruise for Bordeaux wine lovers, as it passes through five major Bordeaux wine areas, there are now “bike & barge” themed charter cruises available in August and September, with guided cycling excursions every day – including a leisurely ride along country roads to Sauternes, past vineyards and chateaux, with a stop at one of them for a taste of the famously luscious golden wine, of course.
There’s a cycle tour of the city of Bordeaux, and its vast squares, magnificent monuments and buildings, and also trips to the Cotes de Blaye, Margaux, and St Emilion. Each circuit is between 2 and 4 hours in length, leaving plenty of time to enjoy cruising, and being wined and dined on the Mirabelle through this historic region.
(And speaking of cycling, Backroad Discovery, our self-guided cycling tours now have electric-assisted bikes in most regions. They’ve been particularly popular in the Dordogne, our biggest selling region so far this season.)
THEMED CRUISES ON THE LUCIOLE
The Burgundy-based Luciole is offering a barge & bike week later this year from 11-17 October. Working with France a Velo, they have created an itinerary of half-day cycle tours led by an experienced biking guide. As the Luciole cruises along the beautiful Nivernais Canal there’ll be a trip through the wine-making area of Chablis, another to the charming town of Noyers, still with rows of half-timbered houses from medieval times, and a ride up to the ancient hill-top town of Vezelay. It’s well worth the climb to see the famous Abbey – a magnificent 11th century masterpiece of Romanesque architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Then there’s a ride through the Morvan National Park and a visit to the Chateau de Bazoches. Over its 800 year life, the chateau has had many owners, the most famous, being Marechal Vauban, Louis XIV’s military engineer.
The France a Velo bikes have 21 gears, or electric bikes are available (surcharge).
This cycle week in October is open for individual cabin bookings, but the Luciole also offers themed charter cruises for groups – there’s the adventure charter, popular with family groups, which includes activities like horse-riding, cave wall climbing, kayaking. Activities can be adapted to suit the make-up of your group.
Another popular themed charter on the Luciole is the “Girlfriend Getaway” – a girls-only cruise of relaxation and pampering, including sauna & spa sessions, vineyard visits, a little gentle walking, tea & cakes in a lovely garden.
The Luciole has 2 single cabins (no single supplement) and 6 twin/double cabins. Passengers are met and returned to a hotel in central Paris – Place Vendome.
VENICE OPERA CRUISES – July & September 2015
European Waterways have a couple of special tours this year, each beginning with an opera in Verona, at the Arena, the city’s famous Roman amphitheatre. After a night in Padua and a tour of that charming city, it’s back to Venice and welcome aboard the 20-passenger Bella Vita for lunch, an afternoon city cruise and a visit to the Doge’s Palace. Next morning, after a guided tour of the opera house La Fenice, it’s off to Mantua – a leisurely five day cruise, down the Lido to Chioggia, through the Po Delta nature reserve, (a bird-watcher’s delight) then up the river to lovely, lakeside Mantua.
Two departure dates for the 7-night cruises – July 11, or September 5 2015. The July opera is Puccini’s “Tosca”, and for September sailors, it’s Verdi’s “Nabucco”. The itineraries also include additional theatre and museum visits, wine tastings and a dinner ashore at a private stately home.
Contact us for a daily itinerary, availability etc. These are popular tours & there are only two of them this year!
PS: And speaking of opera..
The Paris Opera has its 2015-16 programme up on its website, so if you’re planning a trip to France well in advance, you can probably time it to coincide with something you’d really like to see. At their two venues, Palais Garnier and Opera Bastille, they present a lively and varied season of opera, ballet and music concerts and recitals. The 15/16 season opens in September with Madam Butterfly at Bastille and Rameau’s Platée at Garnier, followed later in the month by Don Giovanni (Bastille) and a new ballet for the company’s repertoire – 20 Dancers for the 20th Century – has its premiere at Palais Garnier on 22 September.
There’s a feast of Verdi in 2016, with performances of Traviata, Trovatore, Rigoletto and Aida.
Each season runs from September to the following July, so there’s still some months of the 14/15 programme to come.
See the very informative website (with an English language option available) – www.operadeparis.fr
And even if you’re not huge fan of opera/ballet/orchestras etc., you still might enjoy a stroll around the lovely old opera house that is Palais Garnier, in Place de l’Opera, Paris 9, which opened in 1875. Outside of performance times, visitors can take an unaccompanied tour of the public areas, which include a library and displays of theatrical memorabila. No guarantee you’ll spot the Phantom, but well worth a visit all the same!
BOATING SPECIALS & SNIPPETS
TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
Bullet The 21-passenger hotel-barge CAPRICE has a TWO FOR ONE offer on its six night cruises in Burgundy starting on 30 May, 6 June and 13 June. That is 2 people sharing a cabin for just 3075 euros – what a bargain! Guests are met at and returned to Dijon station which has high speed train connections with Paris.
OTHER SPECIAL OFFERS
Bullet European Waterways are offering a discount of 1000 euros per cabin on selected cruises. Just a few examples are the 12 passenger Panache cruising in Alsace on 12/19 July & 2/8 August, the Art de Vivre cruises on the Nivernais Canal for 17/23 May, 14/20 June & 19/25 July and the 8 passenger Anjodi cruising the popular Canal du Midi on 10/16 May, 7/13 June & 12/18 July.
The Anjodi meeting point is now the lovely town of Narbonne with its famous indoor market, as well as the cathedral, etc. and they have negotiated a preferential B&B rate at the querky, modern Clarion Suites hotel, so why not use the money you’ve saved to enjoy a night there before (or after) the cruise?
Bullet France Passion Plaisance (FPP) offer a wide variety of rental boats including the lovely Tarpon range, which they design and manufacture. This year they’ve opened a new base in Alsace, making one way cruises possible between Languimberg and Hochfelden. They are also following an agressive pricing policy with up to 30% off some boats.
Bullet France Afloat have a lovely one way route in Burgundy and now they’ve opened a new base at Bram on the Canal du Midi, making easy one way cruises possible past Carcassonne and Le Somail to Capestang.
Bullet The CEO of Le Boat recently visited us in Dunedin, and she clarified their dynamic pricing policy, which basically means their prices are always competitive. Plus we are now working in Australian dollars, so the very favourable exchange rate makes them the best value boats available and currently they have 10-15% off most of their boats in Alsace, Charente and the Camargue.