French Hotel Barge SAINT LOUIS
Cruising Southwest France: Canal de Garonne in Gascony
FOOD & WINE
Dining aboard the Saint Louis
Southwest France is a place full of delicious, locally grown, food and great wine.
Here on the Saint Louis, the French food tradition has become an integral part of the barging experience. Whether enjoying your meal in the wood-panelled salon or alfresco on the sun deck, the cuisine will remind you that you are in a part of the world where food is treated lovingly and seriously.
The superb food on board is largely based on traditional recipes from this region of France prepared with international additions and a twist of our native Scotland. Ingredients are prepared fresh from our local suppliers on a daily basis. Beautifully prepared by our resident chef, duck, foie gras and seafood are thus among the basics of the cuisine. Dietary preferences, vegetarian and special dietary needs are always respected.
Breakfasts are Continental-style - juices, cereals, fruit and yoghurt, with croissants and bread arriving fresh each morning from the local baker. Cooked breakfasts are available if requested.
Lunches are generally enjoyed on the sun deck as we glide gently through the French countryside. You may have a freshly-made savoury tart, or a variety of cold meats, with salads to compliment, or even a delicious bowl of fresh fish soup. (Barbara’s fish soup is rated by a professional French chef as being the finest in France!) Afterwards, the dessert course is likely to be fresh fruit or a dish prepared from fresh fruit. Lunch will be served with carefully selected wines from the region.
Dinners may either be served below or on deck, according to the wishes of the guests. Twinkling candles help to set the scene as the sun dips below the horizon. Guests will enjoy a delicious four-course dinner, all freshly made, tasty, and finely presented. To accompany, specially selected wines from this region of France will be served. The Saint Louis dinner experience is a fitting and enchanting way to round off another wonderful day on the barge. The wines on board are of excellent quality, selected personally from local vineyards including some wonderful examples from Gaillac and Fronton. Local liqueurs are well represented in the bar, with a range of Armagnacs and Flocs de Gascogne. The bar also stocks a number of special high-quality single malt whiskies from Scotland.
The Cuisine of Southwest France - Aquitaine and Gascony
The culture of quality food in southwest France is widespread and deeply entrenched – almost everyone here is a connoisseur of gourmet food. It is part of a lifestyle, of a quality of life, that has changed little over the years. This really is the “pays de cocaigne” (the land of plenty) with a wide range of products from land and sea ending up on the tables of these relaxed people. This is, for example, the basis of the French Sunday lunch which might easily start at mid-day and continue until six in the evening.
The range and the quality of the food of southwest France was very evident in the TV series French Odyssey, in which celebrity chef Rick Stein took a barge trip from Bordeaux to Toulouse, visiting farms and kitchens along the way. We should also mention Kate Hill, the American chef who runs a cooking school not far from Agen, who published the book “A Culinary Journey of Gascony”.
The region is well known for its consumption of duck, of geese, and of game. There is a range of well-known dishes prepared from the duck, including of course magret and confit de canard, but the best-known product must be foie gras, and this region is pre-eminent in France for its foie gras production. It is not always realised how old the method is - it does actually date back to ancient Egypt.
The range and the quality of the seafood in south west France is remarkable. A large part of the Atlantic coast is devoted to the production of oysters, mussels, scallops and other shellfish, and it is not surprising that the people in this area have developed many dishes based on these excellent products.
The Garonne valley is often referred to as La Vallée de Serres (valley of greenhouses). In the valley you have great soil, perfect climate, plentiful water for irrigation, and a population largely of Spanish origin - all the ingredients for the production of a huge range of high-quality fresh vegetables.
Southwest France is particularly well known for its fruit, particularly “top fruit” (fruit grown on trees) and there are extensive orchards devoted to the production of apples, pears, plums, cherries, apricots, peaches and kiwi fruit. The plums, particularly, are widely used in the dishes of this region, and Agen is known as the “prune capital of the world”.
Wines of Southwest France aboard Saint Louis
In the same way that we aptly describe our cruise area in southwest France as being the “Hidden Corner of France”, so the wines of southwest France can be described as unexplored – but definitely worthy of exploration!
The history of southwest (Sud-Ouest) French wines is in itself an amazing story. This official wine area can be divided into a number of specific wine regions, including Gaillac, Fronton, Cahors, Saint Sardos, Côtes du Brulhois, Côtes de Duras, Buzet and Jurançon. These wine regions are ancient (most of them date back to Roman times) and Gaillac is the second-oldest wine region in France. It was wines from these ancient vineyards that were exported by sea from Bordeaux, and indeed they were known as Bordeaux wines, or sometimes 'claret'. In the late 1800s land owners around Bordeaux itself started to plant their own vines, and all the small producers in the hinterland faced great difficulty marketing their product when faced with the industrial-scale production that then was established around Bordeaux.
Particularly in the last 30 years, the development of wine production in southwest France has been remarkable. The region is characterised by small-scale producers, many of whom have a high quality product, but they do not have the marketing budget of the big chateaux of international acclaim. On the Saint Louis we specialize in the wines of the region in which we cruise, and our guests often take great pleasure in their journey of discovery of wines that they had never heard of before.
In some cases the distinctiveness of the wine is the result of the use of very specific grape varieties, such as, for example, the Tannat variety found in Fronton, or the Malbec used in Cahors. In many cases it is also the skill of the wine-maker that results in something quite distinctive and exceptional. It is for this reason that producers of wines in southwest France are increasingly winning national and international awards.
On the Saint Louis we carry over 50 wines from South West France; many of which are award-winning wines. We have also developed some very interesting wine visits. These include a visit to the producer who is making wine to a formula that her ancestor used in producing wines for the court of Louis Quatorze. We also visit the descendent of d’Artagnan, of three musketeers fame. His motto is “Un vin pour tous, tous pour un vin!” (One wine for all, all for one wine!)
In southwest France, important though it is, traditionally-made local drinks go well beyond wine. During our second week (between Agen and Castets-en-Dorthe) we come into Armagnac country. Armagnac is a distillate from fermented grape juice – the up-market, artisan-produced version of brandy. Even better, most Armagnac producers also make Floc de Gascogne, using Armagnac as its base. These two drinks are of great influence in the culinary tradition of southwest France, and can often be found with such varied products as foie gras and prunes.
A further drink-based visit that always goes down well is to the remarkable 81-year old artisan distiller in Montech. This charming gentleman producer makes eau-de-vie and liqueurs from just about every fruit imaginable.
In many ways, the wine and other drink production that we find in southwest France parallels the other charms of this area – high quality, small scale, deeply rural, essentially genuine, and largely undiscovered. This is one of the many reasons why a cruise on the Saint Louis into the Hidden Corner of France brings with it so many unexpected discoveries.
SAINT LOUIS HOME > Cuisine aboard: Food & Wine of southwest France
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