It's hardly surprising that Rick Stein chose to travel along the Canal du Midi and its Southern French sister canals/waterways: the Canal Latéral à la Garonne and the Canal du Rhône for his BBC2 TV culinary travelogue.
These 3 canals, at the heart of which is the Canal du Midi (where Minervois Cruisers is situated at the historic hamlet of Le Somail) cut across Southern France from the Atlantic west coast at Bordeaux to the Mediterranean east coast, and are a perfect, stress-free way to explore this sun-kissed landscape with its hearty culinary riches.
Rick, being a consummate foodie and one of the UK's best and most beloved tele-chefs was evidently in search of the best terroir de cuisine that he describes (echoing in turn the words of Francophile Shirley Conran) as: "the delicious simple food of southern France's Midi region which relies on a harmony of flavours rather than decoration or extravagant ingredients."
Whilst Rick made his long Gallic journey on board some mighty luxurious canal-boats, including the 8-berth 130ft Rosa - our far more sensibly-priced Minervois narrowboats are no less comfortable and well-equipped, and some even sleep up to 10 or even 12 people.
Towards the end of his voyage, this affable chef did a little chat to camera during which he listed: "10 Things I Like About France". Rick clearly likes the fact that things move at a leisurely pace and that locals take their time to experience and savour the finer things of life. Right near the top of his list was the statement that: "everything stops for lunch." He added that he found that:…"lunches and dinners were always taken at a leisurely pace, with always just enough and no more. There is a French saying to the effect that one should always leave the table wanting more. That is why, incidentally, the French women don't really get fat - they take their time about eating."
French women aside, Rick was pleased to note that: "there are very few signs telling you what to do, or not to do." Much to his pleasant surprise he discovered that "the French, certainly in the south, are actually nice."
The Bonuses (according to Rick) of southern French canal travel are many and include:---
- "The constantly changing vista: sometimes a ruined chateaux, rolling vine-laden countryside, yellow fields of corn.
- Small town shops specialising in really good-quality cooked food.
- Some of the bridges are so low you have to duck to go under them.
- The utterly serene pace of life.
- Coming into a village is particularly easy on the eye… The Canal du Midi was built when the waterways were the deluxe form of transport --- so that unlike entering a modern town by train, past back gardens, graffiti-daubed walls and rusty factories --- travelling by French canals you go through the best bits: …under elegant bridges and alongside towpaths with pretty houses, right into the centre.
Despite rumours that standards are dropping or prices moving upwards, Rick Stein is adamant that: "you can still eat better in France than almost anywhere else in the world, but you need to watch out. It's (paradoxically) often the case that the less you pay for a meal, the better it is. I can think of a simple (delicious) dish of clams in a veloute garlic and parsley sauce we had at Les Grillades, an (unassuming) roadside café."
Rick's "enduring memory of the whole odyssey is all the markets we Visited…The quality and range of food and the attention to detail are why I think France is still the best."
And finally, what would a consummate foodie like Rick try to include on his southern French culinary wish-list when visiting this truly blessed part of the Gallic world? Those hearty southern French staples are, according to Rick, simply a must: food like bourrides, cassoulets and boudins, sweet salt marsh lamb, wild pigeons and lamprey; and, of course, all washed down with some of the best wines in the world!
1) The above quotes were extracted from Rick Stein's book: Rick Stein's French Odyssey (BBC Books) available from all good bookshops, and online at www.amazon.co.uk. OR available direct from: www.rickstein.com. OR you can call to mail-order on 01841 533250.
French Odyssey is a journey from Bordeaux to Marseille by a canal barge called The Anjodi finding - apart from the above mentioned southern French stapes - much other glorious food and wine of the Midi, from entrecôte bordelaise and shad grilled over vine trimmings, to sarladaise potatoes fried in duck fat with garlic and parsley and on to snails Languedoc style and La Bourride, and an epic Bouillabaisse at L'Epuisette a restaurant on La Corniche in Marseille.
2) Why not check out Rick Stein's website (which lists all 4 of his Restaurants/eateries, and other Stein created culinary goodies) at:- www.rickstein.com
If the delights of the aforementioned French Odyssey motivate you to get in the kitchen, then why not come to Rick Stein's Cornish cooking school and experience a day course inspired by the series featuring classic seafood recipes from Southern France with a brief stop off in Brittany and La Rochelle on the way. Dishes like a new Spider Crab Soup from Sète with Fennel and Pastis and a sumptuous Seafood Ragout with Lobster, Squid and Mussels to name but a few. For more information please visit the Seafood School or telephone 01841 533466.