Food, fresh produce and wine is integral to French culture. This way of life is also celebrated on board the Renaissance, a luxury barge cruise in the Loire Valley giving guests a front row seat to the Upper Loire and Burgundy regions of France. With menus that support local regional fare, showcasing Loire Valley cuisine and a chef who adores French cooking, a week aboard this barge will make you feel as though you are at a fine dining restaurant, every day.
Fresh, Local Loire Valley Cuisine
A Casual Breakfast
The smell of fresh coffee permeates the corridor outside our cabin on the lower deck. Despite not liking coffee, it’s that familiar sign that breakfast is calling us. Upstairs, the crew are busy bringing delicious items out of the kitchen that will keep us nourished until our midday meal. There is so much food served on board the Renaissance that snacking is not a word that is ever spoken nor thought of. It’s that time of day when we know we have to pull ourselves away from the luxury of our cabins and join the other guests upstairs in the saloon.
Breakfast is an informal affair, served mostly in a buffet style with the option for a hot dish that changed daily. We learned on the first morning that the small blackboard behind the bar told the story of our upcoming meal. It became the first port of call each day as our curiosity got the better of us, anxious to find out what food delights would be coming our way.
Over the course of the week, we had eggs in every form. They came softly poached with a delicate hollandaise sauce drizzled over the top, lightly scrambled with a serve of smoked salmon, and as omelettes filled with soft cheese and ham.
On other occasions, pancakes and French toast added a touch of decadence. All hot dishes are cooked to order should you wish to include these in your breakfast ritual. If you are keen on having the same kind of breakfast each day, like scrambled eggs, for example, the chef on board is more than accommodating.
In addition, each breakfast buffet included a selection of beautiful charcuterie, French cheese, fresh fruits, yoghurt and nuts. No French breakfast is complete without the appearance of croissants and we were spoilt with a selection of these and other pastries, acquired each day from a local boulangerie.
In hindsight, I didn’t eat as many croissants as I would have liked. My addiction was forced to make way for an abundance of food and clearly, only one stomach. With so much on offer, you need to pace yourself. After all, the day is still young at this point.
The Luxury Barge Kitchen
As we continued with our day and departed on a day trip, or made the difficult decision as to which deck chair we want to sit on outside, the kitchen never stopped. At the rear of the saloon, Chef Hannah plans, prepares and executes all of the food eaten on this barge from an area approximately three metres by three metres.
We spent some time in here, in Hannah’s stainless steel food headquarters, learning more about her style of cooking and the food being prepared. As people who enjoy our food, including learning, shopping, cooking and eating it, the ability to spend this time with the chef is an intangible benefit. It’s an experience that sets apart these small, intimate barge cruises from the larger riverboats and cruise ships.
French Cooking Lesson
The artichokes sat on the main preparation bench in the kitchen awaiting our arrival. These prehistoric looking vegetables have been the subject of many a cook’s terror as they have tried to convert them from something unwieldy into something more edible.
Stories of previous attempts and subsequent failures flew about the kitchen as Hannah showed us step by step how to trim down the artichoke. “Artichokes are known as the rich man’s vegetable”, Hannah chimed in, “because so much of it gets cut off and thrown away”. As the heart of the artichoke is scooped out, one of the guests leant over to his wife and stated “that’s why yours were so hard to eat, you left the heart in”. As it arrives at its final state, a little smaller and with a large hole in the centre, we all realised we’ve been taught a good lesson. All that was left was to stuff the artichoke and bake it ready to be served for our lunch.
The Leisurely Lunch on the Barge
Lunch is served on the stone table outside on the deck, taking full advantage of the stunning French weather. Mirroring the French colours of red white and blue, our 39-metre luxury barge cruises slowly through the canals, as we sit back and relax over lunch for several hours.
Each day the table settings changed and we admired the handiwork of the hostesses who seem to also have a degree in origami, such is the styling of a simple paper napkin. Against a backdrop of smooth waters, stone villages and countryside, we indulged in this daily ritual with a mutual sense of satisfaction and amazement.
We eagerly awaited the arrival of a hostess, a telling sign that our first wine lesson of the day was about to begin. We travelled, viticulturally speaking, through the vineyards of Saumur, Sancerre, Bordeaux and Burgundy, to name but a few, as we heard of the myths and legends surrounding many of their origins. Mostly we learned about the various factors that influence a wine’s taste and what we should expect once our glass was filled.
We sniffed each glass, searching for the flavours of fresh berries as our hostess intimated we might find. We swirled the reds around in our glass, waiting for the aromas to rise, and allowing our palates to determine whether it was a hint of berries, violets or chestnuts that we could taste.
We tasted and drank, learning about these wines and trying ever so hard to identify a favourite amongst them all. The wines are carefully matched to the food you eat.
Lunches were served as a mix of buffets or a more formal plated option. On the day we joined the chef at the Gien markets, it made perfect sense to bring together the fresh produce Hannah had brought home from her favourite local vendors.
We helped add to Hannah’s ingredients through a selection of cheese and other fruit and vegetables that we all agreed we would like to eat. There were some that never made it back to the barge however as we all sat huddled around Hannah eating ripe, red and very delicious strawberries straight from the punnet.
Cheese was always served as a course with lunch. Chèvre, or goat’s cheese, in varying forms was perhaps the most dominant cheese to be eaten all week, a certain link to its presence in this region.
We loved the days where we cruised in the afternoon when our wine glasses were continually topped up and lunch covertly blended into the afternoon.
On a number of occasions, our dinner timing was pushed out a little owing to a later than expected return from a day excursion. This supported the flexible arrangements that exist on this barge that allow for some movement of timelines as required. On a cruise that extols the virtues of slow travel, an aggressive timeline would erode this feeling.
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The Formal Dinner
It was as though we were part of a progressive dining event, as dinner moved back inside the saloon each evening, and to a more formal setting. Dinner time was always a great chance to relive the day, speaking of our favourite moments and places. It was also a time to chat with the other guests over a glass of wine and more fabulous food.
Our food dreams were met early in the week when a duck breast, cooked tenderly using the sous vide method, arrived with braised red cabbage, caramelised apples and a tingly pepper sauce. Veal roulades, lamb loin, quail, fish and incredible beef added variety to the protein served each day. Each plate of food was introduced by the chef as the courses kept on coming. Desserts, always wonderful in France came in the form of citron tarts, cheesecake, chocolate mousse, baked fruit and apple and rhubarb crumble. The vanilla panna cotta with berries was a standout although it had very tough competition.
A Well Planned Menu
With so much local Loire Valley cuisine to be eaten during the week, it’s important for harmony between the food served and the usual eating regime of the guests. Hannah’s menu shows perfect balance, with rich desserts offset by fresh fruit, or a cream entrée followed by a more subtle main. The meal sizes are not excessive and you can always opt out of something by simply having a conversation with the chef. No one forces you to eat anything here that you don’t want or like, but it is a great opportunity to try foods not usually on your radar. Cheese was once again a feature, and we took the journey willingly, exploring the gamut of strong smelly cheeses through to those a little milder in taste.
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A Special Dining Experience
Although the food on board is fantastic, we are also treated to a special dining experience at the one-starred Michelin restaurant, Auberge des Templiers. Located in a small village, about 30 minutes drive from where we were moored for the evening in La Gazonne, the 12th-century coaching inn set the scene for a night of culinary excellence.
Auberge des Templiers is one of only eight luxury hotels originally founded in 1954 under the association banner, Relais and Châteaux. Today, there are over 550 hotels all over the world who belong to this association.
Key attributes include having a unique location or offering, a luxurious five-star hotel and a gastronomic dining experience. Looking more like it belongs on the French/German border of the Alsace region, Auberge des Templiers delivers on all of these and more.
Over a six-course degustation, we enjoyed all the flavours, textures and artistry of food prepared by a Michelin starred chef, in the dining room of an old-world building. It’s a true foodie experience, heightened by the detail of the food that is placed before us.
Matched with both red and white wines, the more formal six-course meal is extended with the addition of amuse-bouche, various entremets (the palate cleansers between courses) and mignardises, the small petit fours.
Served at the end just as we felt we could not possibly eat any more, our hostess was keen to ensure we sampled a number of the delicate items from her trolley. A few macarons, tuiles and nougats later and it was finally time to call it a night.
The food on board the Renaissance is a standout. If you love food like us, every part of the food process is a great experience. If you are not a foodie but love eating food, then you’ll also find great pleasure here. Even better, if you love eating but don’t like cooking and cleaning up, then this is the perfect experience for you also.
Whatever your thoughts on food, two things are clear. You will never be hungry and you will always have an incredible dining experience. Having your food cooked for you is truly luxurious. To be able to eat and enjoy it on the European Waterways flagship barge the Renaissance takes it to another level entirely.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of the Renaissance, European Waterways and Barge Lady Cruises for this cruise. The opinions, words and images are authentically our own.
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Kerri McConnel is the owner of travel blog Beer and Croissants.
A world away from the frantic corporate life she once lead, Kerri now chases her travel dreams with her husband.
Often in a motorhome, they love seeking out unique travel experiences that always include great food and wine.