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Along the Canal du Midi

If it’s Tuesday morning, it must be market day in Olonzac.  And if you aren’t familiar with Olonzac, it’s near Homps and not far from where we have temporarily moored our small barge hotel, the Caroline, now en route between Carcassonne and Beziers along the narrow and ancient Canal du Midi.

Part of the attraction of a canal trip in France is enjoying the local food and wine, but local keeps changing by the minute when you’re living on a boat.  Last night, we docked at Marseillette and the night before that in view of the battlements of the castle in Carcassonne.

Uli Weber, the captain of the Caroline, also serves as tour guide and chief forager for the truly gourmet meals his wife Ute prepares daily for guests aboard the floating inn that has only three bedrooms.  Today the couple on board and I have joined Uli on his convivial pursuit of food and wine.  Like most markets in small towns, the one in Olonzac is huge, spilling out of the village square and down side streets.  However, I am always surprised more by the variety than the quantity.  Do these many different sausages, cheeses, spices, nuts and vegetables really exist in the real world?

We take an hour to stock up, then I take time to sip a pastis along with a double espresso before we head back to the boat (you don’t have to call a canal barge a “ship”).  Not long afterward, the fresh heirloom tomatoes and the small sausages we purchased have been whipped up by Ute into an on-board picnic lunch as we wait for a canal lock keeper to come back from his own lunch.  That evening the cheeses and meats make their appearance in the dining room below deck.

It is like that all week.

Similar scenarios are repeated throughout France and Germany as tourists take to the canals that cut through wine country on hotel barges large and small.  I particularly wanted the Canal du Midi, and I found the Webers and the Caroline through the France Cruises booking agency.

The Canal du Midi flows through the heart of Languedoc wine country, and throughout the week we take advantage of wines from Limoux, Cabardès, Minervois, St-Chinian, Corbières and La Clape by visits to wineries (always a very casual affair), at restaurants we dock beside in the evening and from Uli’s stash that he stocks for our on-board meals.  In fact, he introduces me for the first time to a small vin de pays-like appellation called Côteaux d’Ensenrune that makes delightful reds.

Later in the week, we also visit the indoor market at Narbonne – an old favorite that is not the largest in France but is one of the best in the quality of its seafood, meats and prepared foods.

Instead of shopping, we have lunch at one of the half dozen bars-cum-cafés that populate the market.  This is comfort food at its best – only four selections to choose from and enjoy with small pitchers of unidentified local red, white and rosé wines.  I pass on the obligatory selection of organ meat – calf liver, I think – and instead have a bavette of beef, which roughly translates as flank steak.  There is also a mound of hand-cut frites, but I dare not ask for ketchup.  We eat and toast our trip.

Tomorrow, we will be a few kilometers further down the canal, and “local” will have again changed.



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