Beverley Watts feasts on Roquefort and Livarot onboard MS Déborah with Great Rail Journeys
The Loire Valley produces some of the world’s greatest wines and there’s nothing like a crisp Sancerre or fruity Pinot Noir, teamed with exquisite French cheese. I’m a self-confessed turophile, though cheeseaholic probably sounds better. The Greek term for cheese-lover sounds more like a portable rasp. Yes, I do crave Camembert and salivate at the thought of Stilton. Forget chocolate, just give me a bowl of olives and amazing fromages.
Great Rail Journeys’ Loire Valley Waterways trip promised a calm barge cruise with beautiful scenery – and lots of cheese. I couldn’t wait. Best of all, no airports were involved in the enjoyment of this holiday.
GRJ’s Tour Manager Madeleine met me and fellow travellers at London’s St Pancras Station and accompanied us to Gare du Nord on Eurostar, where a coach was awaiting our train.
Traffic on Paris’s ring-road is one big snarl-up but as soon as we were clear of the French capital, we motored on quickly over the 100 miles to quiet Briare, south-east of Orleans, with a welcome ‘comfort’ stop at the halfway point.
MS Déborah was moored and ready for our arrival at dusk with drinks and smiles from the crew. A canal barge is a small vessel and we passengers numbered just 22, so were soon swapping life stories over meals. It’s astonishing how quickly you get used to generous breakfasts, leisurely two-hour lunches – with an exciting cheese course – and sumptuous dinners. I probably ate three times as much as I do at home.
The first cheese of the trip was no disappointment: the starter before the duck main course at dinner – a creamy ball of delicate mozzarella with tomato, basil and a flourish of balsamic glaze. Okay, so mozzarella is Italian but cheese is cheese.
The average French woman is estimated to eat an impressive 25.9 kilos of cheese each year and each day we were served at least two different French cheeses and carefully chosen local wines. On MS Déborah, morning excursions were followed by the highlight of the day: lunch, before afternoon cruising.
Briare became famous for its buttons and enamels in the 19th century and has an ornate canal aqueduct, constructed to cross the turbulent Loire by the greatest designers and engineers of the day, including Gustave Eiffel.
Sailing along this pistachio-green metal bridge to reach the Canal Latéral à la Loire was a great start to our trip the following morning, slowly progressing at about the same pace as the pedestrians ambling either side of the waterway. Soon all we could see were fields and tiny hamlets and were feeling just a little peckish.
Every cheese in France has its own story and Cruise Director Katalin told us all about each type we savoured. Valençay (an unpasteurized goat’s-milk cheese, dusted with charcoal and served with honey) was once pyramid shaped. The myth is it lost its pointed top when Napoleon cut it off in a bit of a sulk over his campaign in Egypt.
Tangy Roquefort, aged in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, is known in France as the king of cheeses. It’s said to have been unwittingly invented by a shepherd who left his ewes’ milk cheese in a cave while he pursued a young beauty and returned, some months later, to find his lunch had turned blue.
Both cheeses are divine. A lock-keeper’s dog who stared longingly down into the dining room from the bank probably thought so too. There were 20 locks to navigate on our route to Nevers and most were decorated with pretty flower troughs. Captain Camille explained that the route is so shallow that if MS Déborah did spring a leak, the barge would simply sit on the canal floor while we continued sipping cocktails on the sun deck.
Our second overnight mooring was at Léré, close to Sancerre, overlooking endless acres of vineyards where 15 million bottles of wine are produced a year. The hilltop town held off English forces during the Hundred Years War and was an important French Resistance centre in WW2. Sancerre wine, made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, is produced on the left bank of the Loire, the opposite side to Pouilly-sur-Loire and the Pouilly-Fumé fields.
Nearby the Chavignol area has been making goats’ cheese since the 16th century. The Alpine goats at La Brissauderie farm in Jars are fed on alfalfa, a type of legume, and produce Crottin de Chavignol, which we got to taste at different stages of maturity: two, six and 12 weeks. (I liked them all.)
Somehow, I still made room for the Saint-Nectaire and Langres cows’ cheeses at lunch. King Louis XIV loved Saint-Nectaire, with its hazelnut flavour, and melt-in-the-mouth Langres is a soft and crumbly delight.
After a glass or two of Cabernet Sauvignon, it was tempting to take a dip in MS Déborah’s Jacuzzi in the bow but an afternoon snooze felt like an even better idea. We had a chance to wander around the village of Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre, with its pastel wrought iron doorways, and before we knew it, it was time for dinner, nightcaps and bed.
On an outing to farm La Ferme Des Barreaux in Herry, chickens ran around our feet and huge swallowtail butterflies perched confidently on buddleia bushes. Then it was on to the 1059 Cluniac Priory of La Charité-sur-Loire in Burgundy, a huge Benedictine religious site on the pilgrimage path to Rome and answerable only to the Pope.
The Priory was divided up and sold after the French Revolution to private owners. Since the 1980s, the county council has been slowly renovating this majestic complex but some residents rather like living in the heart of a medieval town and don’t want to move out.
Further south, peaceful Fontmorigny Abbey’s former refectory is now used for occasional concerts and weddings. The 12th century Cistercian monastery was stripped and abandoned until its current family owners bought it 30 years ago. Our group was escorted by the patient and knowledgeable proprietor and his Labrador, the sun streaming through sensitively restored stained glass windows – my favourite visit of the week.
The cheeses I was especially looking forward to were creamy Livarot and pungent Brillat-Savarin, as I’d learnt to appreciate them in Normandy. Served together, they complement each other well, especially with a glass of champagne. That’s not to underestimate the log-shaped Sainte-Maure de Touraine, wheels of Comté, layered Morbier and Époisses de Bourgogne (so soft it’s served with a spoon).
All too soon we had arrived at Nevers, where we explored the narrow medieval streets on our last evening. In 52 BCE it was Julius Caesar’s Noviodunum and Roman relics are now housed in the 14th century Porte du Croux tower. Traditional Nevers tin-glazed blue earthenware brought prosperity in the 17th and 18th centuries and some dishes are displayed under lighted glass panels in pathways.
They look just the right kind of plates to serve a little cheese…
A Great Rail Journeys 7-day Loire Valley Waterways cruise, from London St Pancras, includes 6 nights aboard MS Déborah, all excursions, 17 meals, wine and selection of drinks. From £1,995 pp for a twin share cabin. A reduced mobility cabin with large bathroom is also available. Visit greatrail.com (https://www.greatrail.com/tours/the-loire-valley-waterways/) or call 01904 527180.