Monday, 15 August 2011

The Upper Nivernais Canal - by boat

9/8/11: It's been a busy 3-4 weeks, and largely without internet access; but now we're in one place again, in Prato, Tuscany.

It was quite hard to leave La Cour Barree, we had such a good time and made so many new friends; but we'll be back there some day, hopefully, or they'll head down south to visit us. With Russ on annual leave for a week, we headed for Tannay to pick up our boat with friends Jean and Jenny, feeling especially excited as we'd heard a couple of weeks previously that we'd been upgraded to a bigger boat.

We've travelled on the lower Nivernais, the Borgogne, and the canal de Midi at different times in the past, but Russ has always wanted to travel the upper Nivernais. I wasn't quite so sure, mainly because it has one stretch of 16 locks; he, of course, was delighted with this prospect; but then he would be.

We'd also heard it was 'wilder', more remote and without as many villages along the way, but in its favour those who have done it had said it's very beautiful. We've always taken 10 days for what is offered as a 7-day trip, as we like to have time to get off the boat and onto the bikes to do a bit of exploring in the villages, chateaux, local markets and the countryside if we can. Three to four hour's boating a day is perfect, and it means there's no rush to get to the drop-off point on time. In this case, that was Decize, about 90km away - ten days to travel 90km - hmmmm.

I'm sure that some people expect to be lounging on these boats with a book and a gin and tonic, (or bottle of chablis) but although of course there is down-time for this, while the boat is on the move you have to be alert for the next lock - and getting through the locks is, most often, quite a slow process - as it has been since the 1830's. That's the point, though - slowing down not to the point of inertia, but having the luxury of taking a few deep breaths as you step back in time.

On the way to Tannay to pick up the boat, we swung by Vezeley, a lovely walled town on a ridge we've visited on one of our previous canal trips. The cobbled streets here are inlaid with brass scallop shells, the sign of the 'Coquille St Jacques', indicating the pilgrim trail to Santiago del Compostella in northern Spain. Russ wants to walk this when he retires, it's only about 2,000 kilometres according to him - should be a doddle! In Paris there is a monument to St Jacques, with constantly playing films around the circular walls of all the pilgrim trails to Santiago del Compostella - the film maker walked them all, taking a photograph every 11 steps of the way, so that they appear as an animation of the journey - awesome. 

Vezeley is famous not only for that, but the cathedral claims to house relics (bones) of Mary Magdalene; and two of the great crusades (one led by Richard the Lionheart) left from the steps of the cathedral.
One of the villages from the Vezeley wall

Vezeley  - now which way's north?
We picked up the boat in searing 37 C heat, but much as I'd love to brag that we had great weather all the way, that wouldn't be the truth. It's very hot here in Prato now, but even Tuscany had unseasonably cool weather over the ten days we were on the boat. It really didn't matter, though, we had a great time, only got wet once and had lots of sunshine as well - off and on sunshine, admittedly, but it wasn't cold.

Louis, Claudine and the girls joined us on our second day, they've lived beside the canal all their lives but have never been on one of these boats.  The kitchen was a bit more spacious than others I've been on, but I kept lunch simple - rice and ham salad, a green salad, baguettes of course, and rock melon with prosciutto. I'd said to Claudine she could bring some Normandy camembert, which is just the best - but nothing else. Of course that didn't work, and the family arrived with not only two camemberts but a wonderful assortment of small cakes like Paris Brest and others, all of which were divine.

Unless the canal banks have been mowed, shorts and sandals can be hazardous if you're on the ropes, as stinging needles are a scourge in some places. Celine told me that when the plants are young, the young leaves are included in salads, or used to make nettle soup, and that they are more tasty than spinach. I would have loved to try, but where we went the plants were either too big or mown flat. I've often wondered why New Zealanders aren't more open to picking wild greens - chickweed, for example, makes a really good salad.
Of the two camemberts Claudine brought, one was made from pasteurised milk, and one was en cru, made  from unpasteurised. Both were delicious, but I guess there's no prizes for guessing that we all liked the  unpasteurised one best; another good reason for physically visiting France, obviously. Many French cuisine traditionalists regard pasteurised cheeses as almost a sacrilege - after all, many of the reputedly best French cheeses have been made solely from raw milk for hundreds of years, so why, they ask, should they stop now?

Just the way I like it !

Claudine and Louis, taking turns driving

The next night we were on the bikes, just cruising between villages from our mooring at Sardy when we came across a sign for a snail farm "le maison des escargots' (House of Snails), which of course we couldn't resist having a look at.

The farmer was very obliging, and showed us how the snails are farmed - they do look just like the ones in our garden, only a bit bigger!

I'm guessing he supplies restaurants as well as sells from the gate, as they weren't cheap - however, he obviously knew what he was talking about and took pride in his product, so after close questioning to ensure I knew how to cook them from frozen, we bought two dozen.  I have been served escargots in restaurants that have been overcooked and a trifle rubbery in texture, but I followed our snail farmer's instructions precisely, and have to say they really were delicious - tender and succulent, drenched in butter and minced garlic, parsley and shallot.

Bon appetite!

All that remained !
On the fourth day of our journey, we turned east and headed up the Sardy flight of locks. This was to be a highlight of our trip. It is a very beautiful area and one well worth visiting. In fact Russ considers it to be a French national treasure.

Checking out the 16 locks after dinner the night before

A lock keeper's cottage



At the top, we followed an elderly couple in a tiny boat . . .

into a couple of long and scarily narrow tunnels. . .

This is beginning to feel like a Disney ride!

to Baye and down into the Loire Valley.

We didn't always eat on the boat as it was nice to have the odd restaurant meal; most often, though, it was more convenient to cook where we stopped. From recollection, the most successful meals I served up were a spaghetti with smoked trout (easily as nice as smoked salmon), with olive oil, lots of lightly sauteed garlic, lemon zest, and lemon juice to finish, with flat leaf parsley as a garnish; and a deep dish frittata.

For the frittata I diced and boiled waxy potatoes until they were just cooked, sauteed onion, garlic, finely sliced courgette and red capsicum, then combined them with eggs, plain unsweetened greek yoghurt, a little milk, and a crumbled blue cheese. I had to bake it in an oval casserole dish so it was deeper than I've ever made one before, but I've decided I like it that way.

There was a nice cassoulet, too; beans with herbs de provence, a small amount of a tasty sausage like a chorizo,  a splash of red wine and tomatoes. . .

And, store-bought crepes, large but very thin, that I used like canneloni to encase sauteed pleurotte mushrooms (oyster) and roast eggplant, again with a creamy blue cheese melted in along with some creme fraiche. A few spoonfuls of tomato pasta sauce over the top, and baked - yum.

The Loire valley is quite a different landscape, much larger scale farming and lots more cattle, mainly charolais.

Charolais grande
But of course there were still chateaux to see, like these significant ruins someone is living in still

And this

Verdict? Don't let the locks put you off if you're contemplating a trip along the upper Nivernais.
There was even talk from el capitain that if he could, he'd turn around and do the trip back. . .

1 comment:

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