After spending one evening on board our Canal du Midi barge, the luxury Savannah, there was one word I was confident of never hearing. That word was hungry. For seven nights and six days, our eyes would feast on the beauty of the Canal du Midi in southern France. Equally, our stomachs and our bodies would be nourished with an incredible array of food. With our own private chef the food and wine experience aboard the Savannah was exceptional.
The food and wine onboard a luxury cruise must be high-class. As people who love food and food experiences, the culinary aspect was something we looked forward to. The online brochure had already tempted us with images of great food. However, it was the opportunity to spend time with the chef, watching her cook and learning from her that I was most excited about. That, and a visit to the markets with the chef.
Not content to just wait for the meal to arrive at the table, I was guilty of popping down into the kitchen whenever I could to see what gourmet delight Chef Valérie Jarlet was whipping up. As a chef onboard the Savannah, Valérie plans every part of the meal with precision. With only a small kitchen to work from, she must plan well and she has to be very organised.
At meal time, there was very little “live” cooking and preparation being undertaken. Most of the meal has been cooked and prepared in the lead up to service. It made for a very calm atmosphere in the dining room. The majority of the food we ate onboard the Savannah was sourced from local producers. Where possible, the food is organically produced. The fresh ingredients and produce are also purchased from known French suppliers, ensuring they do not buy anything that is imported. France celebrates one of the things I love the most about food; fresh seasonal produce is used at all times. If raspberries aren’t in season, you won’t see them on our plate. If zucchinis are in season, then they will make a regular appearance, as they did on this cruise. If you are eating it, you know it is seasonal and has not been frozen or stored from some other time of the year.
A Hearty Breakfast to Start the Day
Each morning, our day started with a breakfast table filled with so much food there was barely any spare room. Passing a plate of warm pastries to a fellow guest meant receiving a plate of ripe and tasty heirloom tomatoes in return, such was the lack of available space. For close to an hour we would sit together and chat heartily, whilst turning our attention to what Chef Valérie Jarlet had prepared for us.
Present every day was a selection of pastries, bought fresh each morning from a local boulangerie. The ubiquitous French croissant was always an inclusion which of course we all loved. Unusual for some, but perfectly complementary to the table were plates of salads including tomatoes and cucumber. They served to cleanse the palate nicely after the richness of the pastries. Smoked salmon, fresh leg ham and other cured meats were also enjoyed. Of course, there was always cheese. The French love their cheese, for very good reason. Yoghurt, fresh fruits, fresh bread, cereals, honey and jams were also provided as were a selection of tea and coffee. As if there wasn’t enough food, a hot selection such as scrambled eggs, omelettes and crepes was also prepared.
Lunch is a Leisurely Affair
The French take their food very seriously and all meals are treated with the same level of respect and attention to detail. Being accustomed to a quick bite to eat for lunch most days, it took a little getting used to a full meal in the middle of the day, every day. Most days lunch was served as a formal three-course meal however on several occasions a buffet was the order of the day.
On our first lunch on the barge, we were treated to the following, a very tangible sign of things to come. A cooked snap pea salad and a mixed salad of artichoke, lardons, radish, eggs, pine nuts, tomatoes, lettuce and carrot started off lunch proceedings. Also included was carpaccio of beetroot with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and chives. Fresh prawns were flambéed in Pastis de Marseilles and served with a rich and creamy aioli. Grilled chicken was served alongside the prawns, to add variety to the proteins. Fresh bread, as always, adorned the table, and it wouldn’t be a French meal without dessert. Fondant au Chocolat, always a favourite was served straight from the oven with a liquid, lava centre of oozing chocolate. As if not decadent enough, it sat surrounded, like an island, with a vanilla anglaise, tainted every so slightly with a dash of Baileys.
Despite some early warnings from Captain Adrien Bramoullé, owner of the Savannah, that the quantity of food might overwhelm us, I think all guests on board rose to the challenge well. To have someone else cook delicious and amazing food for you really is quite a treat. We all felt we owed it to Valérie to be active participants.
Ending the Day in Style
Dinner time was a jovial occasion, as we gathered to discuss the day we’d had and learn from Adrien what was in store for the following day. Over a glass of carefully chosen wine or two, we would enjoy more of Valérie’s craft. An entrée of zucchini parmesan crumble, tempted our palate and reminded us once again of just how fresh the produce was here. Fish, once the silver-scaled Daurade that we had purchased earlier at the Narbonne market, was now a soft, flaky piece of white grilled flesh. Floating in a butternut squash veloute, with girolles, carrots, celery and leek, it was a shadow of its former self. It was truly delicious.
Cheese. No evening meal in France is considered complete without cheese. Throughout the week we tried many varieties from cows, goats and sheep. I made it my week’s challenge to remind everyone partway through the cheese course that they must remember to leave room for dessert. Each time I did this, a collective groan could be heard from around the table. Desserts like macerated strawberries with mint, lemon, cream and mascapone, atop a biscuit crumble were hard to beat.
All meals, with the exception of breakfast, were served with matching wines from the local region. From light reds to roses and a variety of white wines, there was always a new one to try. Heavier reds were added to the list and of course, the bubbles of Champagne were never too far away. As they were served, an explanation would be given as to where the winemaker was from and the blend of the wine, allowing us to absorb the finer points of wine from a lesser known winery of the area.
The Open Bar
An open bar, located in the stunning salon on the lower deck of the Savannah contained an enormous range of top-shelf liquor. For the cognac connoisseurs onboard, Camus, one of the few remaining family owned cognac producers in France was surely a highlight. To our American guests, the inclusion of Armagnac delighted them. From tequila to gin, whiskeys, vodkas and all manner of bottles for an afternoon aperitif, it seemed as though everyone’s favourite tipple would be covered. If it wasn’t, Captain Adrien would make sure that it was purchased and added to the bar. As well, as the selection of alcohol, water, tea, coffee and other drinks were accessible throughout the day.
An Exquisite Food and Wine Experience
Leaving the Savannah at the end of a fabulous week of cruising was difficult. Knowing that we were also going to have to fend for ourselves once more, and leave our private chef behind made it worse. The Savannah luxury barge cruise provides five-star food in a beautiful setting. When the weather is good, meals can be taken on board, adding to the overall ambience and wickedly taunting those who pass you by. The quality and quantity of the food eaten all week aboard the cruise was truly exceptional. Trust me, you’ll never go hungry.
Savannah Canal du Midi Barge Cruise, France
via Barge Lady Cruises
The Fit Traveller was a guest of the Savannah and Barge Lady Cruises for this cruise. As always, the opinions, words and images are authentically our own.