Rick Stein’s Delicious Waterway
The Canal Entre Deux Mers (the combined Canal du Midi and the Canal de Garonne) is the waterway that famous chef Rick Stein travelled in his much acclaimed TV series ‘A French Odyssey’, shown world-wide many times. The fine dining on the hotel barges that travel these waterways is likewise founded on the wealth of fresh local produce and delicious local cuisine, prepared on-board or enjoyed at any one of the superb nearby restaurants.
Explore the Delicious Waterway on a luxury hotel barge cruise
You can follow in Rick Stein’s footsteps aboard many luxury hotel barges cruising the Canal du Midi, including Alegria, Esperance, Roi Soleil, Alouette, and Savannah, on the Camargue Canal Rhone à Sete Le Phenicien and Anne-Marie, and on the Canal du Garonne route, the luxury hotel barges Rosa and Saint Louis.
The authentic cuisine of South West France
The culture of quality food in south-west France is widespread and deeply entrenched. It is part of a lifestyle, of a quality of life, that has changed little over the years. It is a land of plenty, with a wide range of products from land and sea ending up on the tables of these relaxed people.
Rick Stein’s French Odyssey series followed him as he journeyed west to east, from Bordeaux to Toulouse to Sete to Aigues-Mortes. You can visit many of the same places, the same markets, that Rick Stein visited.
RIVER GARONNE + CANAL DE GARONNE
This is where Rick Stein boarded the hotel barge for a journey up the River Garonne to the start of the Canal de Garonne at Castets-en-Dorthe.
Bordeaux airport is a possible guest collection point for the Saint Louis barge cruise, and is a stunning city, worthy of an overnight stay and a day or two of sight-seeing in its own right. Rick Stein appreciated the good traditional Bordelais cooking, sitting outside La Tupina café-restaurant in the centre of Bordeaux.
One of the excursions available is a trip to Bazas, famous for its Boeuf de Bazas, which Rick Stein described at ‘incomparable’. You can visit the local beef farm, buy meat at M. Jean Ascencio’s butcher’s shop and enjoy entrecote de Bazas at Le Bistrot St Jean in the Place de la Cathedrale.
Memorably, Rick Stein, who is a sea and river food master chef, went fishing for Garonne eels with a local fisherman in a small dinghy. Locally caught day-fresh fish, eels and crustaceans are delicious and frequently served aboard luxury hotel barges along this route.
Castets is at the end (or beginning) of the Canal de Garonne, a waterway that Rick Stein found not only delightful but which he also said represented the very best of French produce and French cooking. The village is well-worth a visit, with its extraordinary Canal-River lock (tidal, deep and with amazing historic flood markings) and its lock-keeper’s cottage built high above the flood levels of the last century. Not far from Castets lies Meilhan-sur-Garonne, where you can start your cruise aboard the Saint-Louis hotel barge and experience the following treats at first hand.
Next to the Bernes lock lay the Creperie des Matins Verts (now closed) where the owner Yvette Pompele cooked Canard au Vin for Rick Stein, using the local Marmandais wine that he tasted at nearby Cocumont winery.
During the French Odyssey series, Rick Stein often mentioned the wonderful “marriage” between local food and local wines, of which there are plenty. The Saint Louis, for example, only carries wines from south west France. Most are gold or silver medal winners, often obtained in National or International competitions.
Serignac sur Garonne
A lovely historic bastide village and an unmissably pretty mooring for a hotel barge. The church spire has a very interesting intentional twist. Close by is the village of Bruch, where Rick Stein enjoyed a Sunday feast of escargots (snails) at the Restaurant de la Paix.
Between Agen and Serignac lies the village of Colombe-en-Bruilhois and also the canal-side house and kitchen of cookery writer and teacher, Kate Hill. Rick Stein spent a lot of time with Kate, cooking many local dishes in her kitchen for a number of episodes of the series.
The ‘capital of prunes’, Agen marked a week’s cruising. On the way here, Rick Stein visited the Ferme Roque at Montesquieu and cooked some dishes using these delicious dried plums. And, as if often the case throughout France, Stein also found the quality of cooking to be found in the simple railway station restaurant superb! You don’t need to find a smart restaurant to eat well. Good food, for Rick Stein, is about using fresh local ingredients, cooked to mouth-watering perfection, rather than to gastronomic excess.
Another possible excursion to take from a hotel barge is to Fongrave, a delightful village on the banks of the River Lot. Rick Stein watched the local patisserie delicacy, the Tourtiere apple tart, being prepared and baked at the Ferme des Tuileries in Fongrave. Not far away lies famous Prune ‘Museum’ (you’ll be amazed!).
Each August there is the most memorable week of evening performances of ‘Au Fil de l’Eau’ at the historic canalside village of Valence d’Agen, a regular mooring for the hotel barge Saint Louis. Catch this spectacle if you can.
Above Valence run the Quercy hills and the whole area is one of France’s premier fruit-growing areas. The Quercy melons and cherries delighted Rick Stein and you can also savour apples, kiwi fruit, apricots and the renowned Chasselas grape of Moissac in this area.
The port of Moissac is very popular, a fascinating marina and boating scene, loved by guests and crew alike. The Abbey (the oldest in France) and the town itself draw tourists from the world over. The broad river Tarn also flows close by providing an opportunity for a short river cruise on your trip.
Rick Stein cooked pike in the kitchens of the canal and riverside Pont Napoleon hotel and ate foie gras and goose in the restaurant. The chef in that programme – Michel Dussau – has now opened his own restaurant la Table d’Armandie by the river at Agen.
Like Bordeaux, Toulouse is historic and attractive – a fascinating mixture of the old and the new (the European Space Centre is located there). It is easy to arrange an extended stay there before or after your cruise, on board hotel barge Saint Louis, for example. The Victor Hugo market, thought to be one of the best markets in the world, was an immediate attraction for Rick Stein. Right in the centre of Toulouse, it is just food, nothing else, where he draws attention to the huge variety of freshly caught fish – octopus, tuna, gilt-head bream, sardines, garfish and fresh anchovy fillets.
He recommends the traditional dish of Pissaladiere and of course the famous Toulouse sausage, a firm mixture of cured and fresh pork (usually cooked in duck fat), which are available from the market’s Charcuterie, the best butcher in town. He dined, well and inexpensively, close to the market in an ordinary restaurant with everyday French families – “better than a posh gourmet restaurant”.
Rick Stein also enthused about the completely authentic character of Bar Pere Louis (founded in 1889) – and also enjoyed their speciality aperitif, Quinquina.
CANAL DU MIDI + CANAL RHONE À SETE
Rick Stein visits a renowned local wine-maker, Pierre Cros, to taste his ‘Vieilles Vignes’, made from the Carignan grape before moving on to Castelnaudary, home of the popular cherished dish of Cassoulet. He visits the canteen of the French Foreign Legion to discover that their lunches include simple French dishes of haricots verts wrapped in bacon, confit of duck gizzards and pasta with duck, but is so inspired by the huge number of nationalities in the force, especially from north Africa, that he devises a special recipe for a tagine of lamb and sweet spices.
Along this route you’ll be able to cruise with hotel barges such as Louisa, Alegria, Roi Soleil, Alouette and Emma – all offering varying levels of superb cuisine and luxury service, with excursions to many of the places mentioned here.
Once a stronghold of the Cathars, rebellious Catholics eventually exterminated under the Pope’s edict, the ‘new’ town of Carcassonne is dominated by its now restored Medieval castle, famously featured in many Hollywood films.
Here, Rick Stein explored the ‘cafe culture’ outside the old Cité walls, choosing to dine at Chez Felix, a seemingly ordinary but very busy cafe – ‘it’s nothing special, and that’s its genius’ – which is always a good sign.
He also visits the Hotel d’Alibert, a favourite hotel-restaurant in Caunes-Minervois, a medieval village nearby, to discover a local dish of tripe and veal legs, cooked in vinegar with a whole bottle of white wine.
A very popular town, with the waterway lined by many smaller boats, was passed through on the way to Homps . He stops at Eric Saulnier’s farm and at a ferme auberge enjoys a five course menu – of garlic soup, rabbit and hazelnut pate, salade au chevre chaud, joint of roast kid with potato gratin and strawberries and chantilly cream to finish.
Built by the Romans 2,000 years ago it is reached by a branch canal from the Midi. Here, Rick Stein’s visit to the local market inspires him to cook sardines, fresh from the previous night’s catch, teamed with his simple tomato and red onion salad.
He discovers a local speciality called Boudin Blanc, white pudding – a type of sausage made at Herepian from bread, eggs, milk, neck of pork and seasoned with nutmeg. The mixture is then wrapped in caul before baking. To serve, fry slices in duck fat!
He tries out Marcel Proust’s favourite tea-time treat, the Madeleine, made with honey from local heather blossom and served with locally grown apricots.
He then stops at Pezenas to sample Clive of India’s legacy from his visit to Narbonne – little lamb pies, the Petit Paté de Pezanas. Tall, capped pastry cases are filled with minced meat and spices, always eaten warm, with wine.
A fine winery to do some tasting – a caveau degustation – is at Argeliers, with medal winning wines on tap, to taste and take-away at 40p per bottle!
At Lou Pescadou (now closed) in Agde, Rick Stein tastes the best bouillabaisse ever, followed by mussels cooked with ratatouille. His own chef then makes a dish from cuttle fish with home-made black pasta (using cuttle-fish ink) and oysters from Bouzigues on the Etang de Thau.
175 locks so far as he leaves the canal du Midi and heads into the Etang, full of mussels and oysters.
The famous vermouth, Noilly Prat (pronounce the t, please), is made here and stored in oak barrels for nearly a year in the open sunshine which improves the flavour. Rick Stein cooks with this to make a John Dory (corrupted from jaune d’orée = yellow gold) dish with cucumber and creme fraiche and basil sauce.
The oyster trestles support 800 growers, reliant on the Grade A waters of this inland sea to produce the best sea-food in Europe if not the world. He dined at a small restaurant on tiny clams, cooked in olive oil, garlic and parsley.
Joining the Canal du Rhone à Sete, the town borders the sea and is a busy fishing port. Although small fish is landed, it is not thrown back into the sea – everything gets eaten. Meat-stuffed squid is a local speciality, which Rick Stein has for lunch at Les Desmoiselles Dupuy, just outside the fish market. But he prefers squid another way, simply in a sea-food ragout with mussels, herbs, linguini, squid and langoustine.
There are about 50 restaurants along the quayside in Sete, perfectly placed to watch the water jousting, a team sport played every night up to Bastille Day (July 14th) when the winner is decided. Rick Stein cooks the famous cepes omelette, with mushrooms bought at the roadside!
Tielle de sete – or octopus pie – is the local dish in Aigues Mortes although Rick Stein dislikes the pastry – he thinks the Cornish pasty would be better! He discovers the local Fleur de Sel, which smells like violets as it dries and is tainted pink by the shellfish in the water. He bar-b-ques gilt-head sea-bream, known locally as dorade, in olive oil, fennel, garlic, thyme and Camargue sea-salt.
At the restaurant L’Estrambord Rick Stein had the best ratatouille and sardines in a relaxed and simple family atmosphere – no menu. This was followed by cheeks of black bull cooked in wine and served with Camargue rice.
An unspoilt city with Roman amphitheatre, it is famous for the local liquor, absinthe, and Van Gogh, who lived the region for it’s light. Rick Stein goes to the Hotel Nord Pinos, where many famous writers and artists stayed. Chez Ju Ju, some distance away into the marshy countryside, is where Rick Stein, finds the celebrated and secret restaurant with only the freshest food of the day. He eats sea-bass cooked on a wood fire, and drinks Picpoule de Pinet.
A major fishing port, and so Boullabaisse is its famous dish. Rick Stein watches the chef in a quayside restaurant cook up the small fish without being gutted with tomatoes and saffron and powdered lobster shells amongst other ingredients, plus 5 types of fish to serve as the perfect bouillabaisse.