Chef Cedric Bruyere is not a happy man. My fogasse is not to his liking. His usually affable Gallic charm is giving way to signs of frustration.
“You have far too much ‘erbs – it is way too moist,” he declares, shrugging his shoulders as only a French chef can. “It will never cook!”
Now, I admit my attempts at making the leaf-shaped bread of Provence may not be up to the standards of Le Meilleur Pâtissier, the wildly successful French equivalent of The Great British Bake Off. And yes, the dark dough certainly packs a herbal punch.
But when I serve it up with a dollop of brie aboard Viking Delling later, my fellow travellers declare it “tres bon!” And my profiteroles vanish off the plate, so they must be a hit as well.
We are sitting around an enormous table on the first floor of a 12th century mansion in Avignon, southern France; nine culinary explorers keen to learn how the French stay so connected to their food.
We have just visited the famous Les Halles market, where the tantilising aromas of cheese, charcuterie and pastries went right to our heads, and our guide is explaining the extraordinary harmony between the produce, the wine and the way it is served. Or is it just an excuse for delicious Gallic gluttony?
Fuelled by its ability to deliver great food and wine, history and amazing unspoilt countryside, France is making a remarkable rise to the top of many river cruisers’ wish lists, and I’m beginning to see why.
Our journey to the table of Maison de Fogasses began three days ago when we boarded Viking Delling, one of the famed Viking longships, in Avignon. We are in for a culinary journey through some of France’s best food and wine regions, and the 180 American, Australian and British guests are already licking their lips.
Viking’s longships are the staple that have created the biggest river fleet in the world. Filled with light, bright Scandinavian charm and adhering to Viking’s mantra of “the thinking person’s cruise line”, there are no kids, no casinos and no hidden charges.
The food is good and often locally sourced, wine is included at lunch and dinner and the staff are polished and friendly. Our tour leader Mia Drihem is a proud Provence native who loves to show off the region.
Ms Drihem believes the rise of French river cruising is all about gastronomy and the appeal of not having to drive through France to experience it. Viking’s pre and post-cruise add-on tours make a brilliant and relaxing two-week package.
Australians are out in force when we arrive in Avignon after a short drive from Marseilles Airport, board Delling and take a brisk introductory walk. Overnight, the ship will cruise to Arles, just 40 kilometres down the Rhône.
The 800-kilometre river flows from the Swiss Alps and has cut through the French countryside to create the Rhône Valley, a fertile area famous for sun-baked fields and Mistral winds, fine wine, cheese and truffles.
The Rhone’s currents are notorious, forcing the French government to build a series of locks that now preserve the waterway from the fluctuations that have been the curse of cruising rivers elsewhere.
The Romans used the river to fortify their garrisons, and have left an indelible footprint of engineering marvels. The amazing triple-deck aquaduct bridge Pont du Gard at Arles is a case in point.
For a small provincial town, Arles has a vivid history. Its fields of sunflowers inspired Van Gogh. It is also the town where he famously cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute after suffering a breakdown. The café where he lived is painted a vivid yellow in reverence, and there is a lovely secluded garden where he had a studio.
During our evening cruise back to Avignon we are treated to a talk on and tasting of French cheeses. We have more time to take in the sights, so as well as our cooking class, we view the Pont d’Avignon, a bridge made famous by being destroyed in floods so many times it has now been left unrepaired. The Palace of the Popes, built when Rome was abandoned by Catholic leaders during the 14th century, is another amazing landmark.
But perhaps for those seeking to test their palates, a tour of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, an area that produces arguably some of the best red wines in the world, has more to offer.
The Rhône is renowned for grenache and shiraz grapes, producing fruity reds that go well with delicious and hearty French meals like coq au vin.
There is a tour of the lavender fields which so often feature on postcards, and tonight the Delling chef, Frixos Tsapopoulos (yes, he’s Greek) cooks up a Provençale buffet.
It’s a true feast, served with local wine. There is duck, lamb, chicken, eggplant, pear tarte tatin and chocolate and strawberries. Oh, and someone has thougthfully provided us with a wonderful herb fogasse. Who needs a Michelin star?
Viking Delling offers two food venues; the main dining room has floor-to-ceiling windows, while the Aquavit Terrace has outdoor tables at the front of the ship, and food is the same at both. We opt for the river views most lunchtimes, but the dining room is where you get the best chance to meet some of our international fellow travellers. You just plonk yourself down and start a conversation. Donald Trump with the Americans and Boris Johnson with the Brits; either one will get a reaction.
We wake up in Viviers, a 5th century Roman settlement with cobblestone streets and a magnificent cathedral, then it’s off to Tournon and a steam train ride, which, we are told, is a favourite among Australian cruisers.
At the top of the hill, a café and farmer’s market await with local fruits and delicious pastries made from local honey.
Our final stop is Lyon, the climax of our journey. We’re excited because we’ve booked a Michelin-starred restaurant in town for dinner, and we are keen to sample the best France’s third largest city has to offer.
Lyon is famous for sausages – think smoky pork with pistachios served on a bed of mashed potatoes with a cream sauce – brochette with foie gras, coq au vin, tripe and onions, and salade Lyonnaise. Oh, and it’s home to marrons glacés and weirdly coloured macarons.
Next day, our last, we take a tour of the Château des Ravatys for wine tasting. The beautiful region of Beaujolais is as every bit as beautiful as the red wine is tasty.
Although it’s only been eight days, we’ve seen and tasted our way through many of the highlights of this great region. And yet, we’ve hardly felt the strain. Viking Delling, with its crew of 52, has felt like home, and the Aquavit Terrace our local wine bar.
Cruise line: Viking River Cruises
Vessel: Viking Delling
Star rating: 4 star
Passenger Capacity: 190
Passenger decks: 3
Entered Service: 2014
Facilities: Two eateries, bar, library, walking and sun deck, golf putting, piano entertainment, included shore excursions, Wi-Fi, movies on demand, 24-hour speciality coffees, bottled water, fridge, stateroom steward.
Bookings: Our veranda cabin (275 sq feet with real balcony with seats and table) costs from $5,995 per person with an air offer of $995 return to Europe. See vikingrivercruises.com.au
Highs: Light, bright and airy ship with a fabulous backdrop of French history, food and wine. The inclusions and itinerary make this a very easy cruise to love.
Lows: We would have liked to spend more time trying local delicacies – but that was mostly due to our own laziness and the tempting ship’s galley.
Best suited to: just about anyone of any ability, but the over 50s will be most comfortable with the clientele of mainly Americans.