Slow Boat To Montargis; France’s Upper Loire Region Brings Big Slice of Food Bliss

Chefs, Recipes, Travel By Oct 11, 2012

Traveling by barge isn’t for everyone. The pace is luxuriously slow, so guests get a close-up gander at a relatively small geographic area, both canal-side and when touring on the barge’s van.

If visiting a country for the first time, travelers might not be charmed. But for me, a long-time Francophile, nothing could be sweeter as part of a French vacation.

Gliding aboard the Meanderer, a three passenger-cabin barge designed to spoil six guests, I savored the Upper Loire region in all its glory. For seven days, along with my husband and four dear friends, we barged from St. Mammes to Montargis.

There was the ooh-and-aah beauty of the fall French countryside with its picturesque cottages; dense forests and colorful landscapes with tree branches that made leafy canopies over our deep-green waterways and grassy banks. Villages in which the citizenry compete to create the best floral landscapes; a panel awards each town a rating of one to four based on their displays.

Magical chateaux, the vineyards of Sancerre and a hot-air balloon ride.

But it is the mouth-watering meals prepared by the very talented on-board chef that haunt me. Menus that now make me feel a little deprived, like a bratty child on Christmas Day pouting after opening a mountain of presents only to discover that none of them contained a pony.

It is chef Sylvain Moretto’s lunches I miss the most, meals that each day showcased three irresistible vegetable-based salads teamed with a delicious meat or fish.

Two wines accompanied each midday meal. Yes, and as a finale, two bewitching cheeses along with toothsome artisanal breads and some of the best butter on earth.

Moretto, born in Dijon, France, started cooking on luxury hotel-barges thirteen years ago at age 20, after completing a four-year restaurant apprenticeship. It is a career that he seems to greatly enjoy. His dimpled face erupted into wide, impish smiles when he described his dishes to us before each meal.

He takes great pride in the top quality ingredients he uses, explaining that the Meanderer owners, Susan and George Kovalick (she’s the guide, he’s the captain), give him free rein to buy the best ingredients. That’s the freedom to buy what he wants and needs, even though that often equates to higher grocery prices.

The sole he served tasted fresh-caught sweet. It was perhaps the best Sole Meunière I’ve ever tasted. He explained that he had gone to the market extra-early in that morning before the doors had opened, so he could select the fish from the truck before it made its delivery.

On his ambrosial salads, every ingredient was super-fresh and filled with flavor. He used oh-so-fresh nut oils made from walnuts or hazelnuts. Their flavor nuanced his salads along with a little crème fraiche or the subtle tartness of a specialty vinegar, chopped toasted nuts or fresh herbs.

Palate memories dance in my brain as I look at my lunch, a boring sandwich on my desk next to the computer. The clatter from my keyboard and the seemingly endless racket from a neighbor’s leaf-blower fill my noggin, instead of the sound of water gently lapping against the hull of a gentrified 1948 Belgian “Spitz” commercial barge.

Cooking is the “homesick” cure; so often it is. So here’s a menu based on some of my lunch-time favorites enjoyed on the Meanderer, a meal that will be perfect for entertaining family and friends throughout fall and winter. Merveilleux!

Sausage in Brioche served with assorted mustards and cornichons
Spinach Salad with Beets, Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Port Salut Cheese
 Celery and Apple Salad with Crème Fraiche
A Starch-Based Salad of Choice, such as Warm Potato Salad
Cheese Course: Mimolette and Camembert au Calvados
Wines: Chilled Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc) and Pinot Noir

Sausage in brioche teams two of my favorite ingredients: smoked sausage and brioche, that buttery, egg-enriched French bread. If you have a free-standing mixer, brioche is very easy to prepare. You can make it a day ahead and let it develop slowly in the refrigerator, or let it rise in a warm location for about 2 hours.

Brioche (Used to Encase Sausage)
Yield: enough to encase about 1 1/4 pounds of sausage, about 8 servings
1 (1/4-ounce or 7 grams) package active dry yeast, see cook’s notes
1/4 cup warm milk, see cook’s notes
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1 egg yolk
Cook’s notes: Check the “sell-by” date on the package of yeast to make sure it isn’t past that date. Often I buy them in packets of three and the date of the third packet has a way of expiring before I use it. Not good. Milk should feel warm to the touch, not hot, about 100 degrees.
1. In a small bowl combine yeast, milk and sugar; stir to combine and set aside for 5 minutes. It will bubble; make sure before you add it to the flour mixture that the yeast has dissolved. Set aside.

2. Place all remaining ingredients in the large bowl of an electric mixer. Start mixing on low speed using the flat paddle attachment. Add yeast mixture and mix on medium speed for 6 minutes, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl 1 or 2 times. Dough should be very elastic and should release easily when pulled.

3. You have two options. One, place dough in large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate and use the next day. OR two, place dough in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm (but not hot) location for 2 hours or until doubled in bulk. I think the cold-from-the-fridge dough is easier to work with. (Directions for kneading and wrapping are in Sausage in Brioche recipe.)
Nutrition information (per serving): 170 calories, 40 percent of calories from fat, 7 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 25 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 340 mg sodium, 0.1 g fiber
Source: adapted from “La Methode” by Jacques Pepin (various publishers, has been republished many times since it was pinned in 1979)

When serving Sausage in Brioche for lunch, I accompany it with an assortment of interesting mustards for optional topping, as well as a good-sized bowl of cornichons, those little French sour gherkin pickles flavored with tarragon. Chef Sylvain Moretto topped the slices with a light Port sauce, which was a delicious alternative.

Sausage in Brioche
Yield: about 8 servings
1 batch of brioche dough (recipe included)
All-purpose flour for dusting
2 (3/4-pound each) smoked sausage, such as wide smoked kielbasa, see cook’s notes
Egg Wash: 1 egg beaten with 1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon softened butter
1 tablespoon fresh bread crumbs
Cook’s notes: Traditionally, cooked (and cooled) French garlic sausage (about 2 inches wide and 10 inches long) is used. I have used kielbasa as well as Aidell’s bulk (11-inches long) smoked Andouille that was purchased at the butcher counter at Bristol Farms Market; it’s spicy sausage but not over-the-top hot.
1. On a lightly floured surface, knock down dough. Cut in half and dust each half with a little flour. Flatten each piece with your hands into a rectangle about 3/8-inches thick. Brush sausages and top surface of brioche with egg wash. Sprinkle a little flour on top of the dough. Place a sausage in middle of each rectangle of dough. Wrap dough towards the top and encase sausage. Press to seal dough. Put leftover egg wash in the refrigerator for later use.

2. Using 2 pieces of aluminum foil, big enough to generously wrap around brioche (there needs to be room for expansion), butter 2/3 of the surface (the middle portion) and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Place brioche wrapped sausage on portion of foil that is buttered and sprinkled with crumbs.  Wrap foil around leaving a little room for expansion. Seal ends and place on rimmed baking sheet. Place in warm part of kitchen (about 80 degrees is best) and let it rest 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place seam-side up and bake in preheated oven 40 minutes, rotating the packets a quarter turn every 10 to 15 minutes so the sausage doesn’t sink into the dough on one side more than the other.

3. Remove from oven and increase temperature to 400 degrees; remove foil. Brush again with egg wash. Bake 5 to 8 minutes to nicely brown surface. Allow to rest 10 to 15 minutes before cutting crosswise into slices, about 1 1/2-inches thick.
Nutrition information ( per serving): 400 calories, 69 percent of calories from fat,  31 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 27 g carbohydrates, 13 g protein, 1440 mg sodium, 0.1 g fiber
Source: adapted from “La Methode” by Jacques Pepin (various publishers, has been republished many times since it was pinned in 1979)

Most chefs don’t use exact measurements when they prepare salads. Fresh vegetables and fruits vary in their taste, so there is a lot of sampling going on during the preparation; a little more of this, and little less of that. So I have written the salad recipes in narrative format, hoping that you will keep a keen eye on things as you go along and taste in the process.

Spinach Salad with Beets, Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Port Salut Cheese: Place about 6 to 7 cups of loosely packed, clean baby spinach in a large bowl. Peel 1 1/2 medium fresh beets (raw) and cut into the thinnest slices possible (use a mandoline if you have one); add to spinach. Drain 4 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes and cut into 3/8-inch pieces; add to spinach. Cut about 2 to 3 ounces of semi-soft cheese, such as Port Salut or Havarti, into 3/8-inch cubes; add to spinach. Drizzle enough roasted hazelnut oil (available through Sur la Table, Bristol Farms, specialty shops and online) over the top to lightly coat the leaves once it is tossed; toss. Add Champagne vinegar or sherry vinegar, using about 1/3 the amount of oil that was used (ratio should be 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar). Add coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Taste; adjust seasoning as needed.

Celery and Apple Salad with Crème Fraiche: Cut two hearts of celery into thin crosswise slices and place in bowl. Cut two cored, unpeeled apples (Gala, Ambrosia or Fuji) into 1/2-inch cubes; add to celery. Add enough crème fraiche to very lightly coat the celery and apples; toss. (Crème fraiche is a thick cultured cream that looks like sour cream, but has a nuttier taste. It is sold at Trader Joe’s and some supermarkets, generally stocked with – or close to- the specialty cheeses.) Add finely chopped Italian parsley (be generous) and coarse salt to taste. If you want it perkier, add a little fresh lemon juice and toss. Sprinkle with a little bit of ground paprika and toss. If desired, add some chopped toasted pecans or almonds.

Cheese to please: Mimolette and Camembert with Calvados are two of my favorite French cheeses. Mimolette is dark orange, the color of pumpkin flesh. It’s a hard cheese and as you chew it, delicious flavors develop in the mouth; according to Chef Moretto “it grabs the back of your teeth.”  Camembert au Calvados combines two of Normandy’s best exports, Camembert and Calvados (apple brandy). I found both cheeses at Bristol Farms, but there are several great cheese sources in Orange County.

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