The first few days on the canal felt a little unorganised, and having expectations of a string of quaint little restaurants and cafes at our disposal along its tree-lined banks, we soon learned that villages and produce markets were not always open. You may not know it, but the locks pretty-much control your daily activities.
The system of locks along the Canal du Midi not only control the comings and goings of boats, but they run on their own roster. Well, the lock keepers do, anyway. Lock keepers start work at 8am and work through to 12.30pm. They take a break for lunch, then return to work at 1.30pm – ending their day at 5.30pm. If you’re lucky and a lock keeper feels like it, they’ll let you pass at 6 or 6.30pm. This is where you need to plan your cruising day and make sure you either have enough food (and booze) on board, or time it correctly and spend the night moored at a closed lock near a village that has all the amenities you require.
It doesn’t help when you hear that there is going to be a lock keepers strike on one of the days you’re meant to be cruising, either. A strike means no locks open or close, and that meant to us that we were stuck for 24 hours between two locks; as were hundreds of other boats along the entire length of canal. Thanks to a bit of speeding, we timed the strike (knowing it was happening on a particular day) to affect us on the longest stretch of the canal between Argens lock (#77) and Fonserannes lock (#78), a stretch of about 55 km.
The township of Trèbes, a little while before the lock keepers decided to throw in the towel, is somewhere we stopped to plug in the boats battery, refill on water and get out and actually explore somewhere that had several places open for business. The town is known as being the “Gateway to the Minervois” as it’s located on the main tourist route from Carcassonne into the vineyards of the Minervois wine region.
The cute little medieval village sits to one side while a couple of canal-side eateries tempt you with their regional fare at the marina. The bridge connecting the old town to the new overflows with colourful blooms and adds vivid bursts of colour to the waterway. We needed another stock-up of food and after noticing a supermarket icon on our map, a few of us walked the fifteen minutes to its whereabouts, praying it would be open.
All I can say is the supermarket we found was the Mecca of all things food. This place was the size of a football field. Bread, dry goods, aisles of wine and cheese, baked beans, even stuff from Thailand and Vietnam. Can we spend the night here?
In the centre of town by the canal we couldn’t ignore this little place. Le Fournil du Canal, an artisan boulangerie and patisserie stocked with just enough bread and pastries to have us enticed. It’s a tiny place that seemed popular with the locals, and thanks to them we had fresh baguettes and a few pastries to take back onboard.
My only disappointment was the roulés au frommage (€1.8), a cylinder of puff pastry filled with savoury bèchamel that was crusted with dry grated cheese on the sides. As beautiful as it looked, it had barely a breath of flavour. The chocolate ganache (€2) and passionfruit mandarin (€2) cakes made up for that, however. Silly me didn’t grab one of the piggy or figgy cakes, or even the apple tart. Maybe I’ll come across them later in our travels.
After a short stroll through the deserted medieval town centre we had lunch on board, using some of the wonderful produce we got at the huge supermarket and patisserie in Trèbes. Fresh crusty baguette with a selection of local cheeses and charcuterie, sitting up on deck in dapples of southern French sunshine.
Aside from the Canal du Midi being lined by endless rows of mature plane trees, many of the other trees were abundant with plump and juicy figs. Nobody really owned them as they were left to grow wild and just wastefully drop their sweet fruit and rot on the ground. Such waste! Not only did I run around and pick the fruit to eat it there and then, but I also bagged many to have onboard as snacks.
Seeing we had some stinky local blue cheese and a tub of honey onboard, I knocked up a little afternoon snack by cutting a deep cross into the figs, crumbling some cheese into the incision and grilling it until caramelised. A drizzle of thick golden honey and all that it needed was an accompanying glass of chilled local rosé.
Located next to Ognon lock (#73 & 74) is this cute little cottage and restaurant beneath the shady plane trees. Perfect spot for lunch, methinks. Le Baron d ‘Ar is a small family business whose main clientelle would have to be those from the canal boats. Menu du jour sets you back €14 and gives you a homemade terrine, a main dish, dessert, a glass of wine and coffee. How could I not?
Miss K chooses from the small menu card and ends up with the most delicious goat cheese salad (€9) so far on our travels. The simple construction of lettuce, onion, cucumber and meaty tomatoes with crisp-yet-soft fried goat cheese on toasted baguette slices is beyond beautiful.
The coarse homemade terrine is a nice starter before the sensational cassoulet makes its appearance. Mr K and I both order one and after breaking the rugged crust and taking the first steamy mouthful, we know it’s a good one. The cassoulet we had in Carcassonne paled in comparison, as this one at Le Baron d ‘Ar has been slow-cooked for many hours and has developed the most wonderful richness in flavour from pork, duck and white haricot beans.
It’s no wonder the towns of Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary have been arguing for centuries over which of them created the dish. You can safely say that wherever you go you’ll have a different one each time.
Cassoulet fans can even venture down the Route des Cassoulets, a gourmands dream tour that trails from the Mediterannean to Toulouse, highlighting small inns and Michelin-starred restaurants that render this dish to the extreme. There’s even a Universal Cassoulet Academy, an establishment that takes the cultural heritage and everything about cassoulet very seriously.
Further downstream as I’m driving the boat while Miss K takes a healthy jog to the next lock, I notice a gorgeous building that Mr K is quick to point out is the Château de Ventenac – a wine cave and museum that he remembers watching Rick Stein stop at on his cruise down this same canal on his French Odyssey. Within a minute we scream out to Miss K and say we’re pulling over to taste and buy some wine at the château, interrupting her afternoon jog.
Sorry love, booze comes before health.
The approach to Château de Ventenac from the canal is a stunning sight with low afternoon sunlight highlighting the striking facade and turret. Stepping inside you’re met with beautiful vaulted ceilings and massive vats containing red grape varietals such as Syrah, Carignan, Mourvedre, Merlot, Cabernet and Cinsault as well as the whites – Maccabeu, Vermentino, Bourboulenc, Grenache, Chardonnay and Ugniblanc.
Wine tasting comes without charge and I’m happy to see very affordable prices per bottle. If you’re on the cheap and ok to drink a bit of the table variety, you can bring your own empty plastic bottles and have them filled at the wine bowser. There are three choices – white, red or rosé and it’ll cost you around €1.3 for a litre. I tried all three and found them very harsh on the palate (ie: cheap and nasty) but if you’re into that, go crazy and get 10 litres.
With half a dozen regular bottles in hand, we head back to the boat and make our way to our next overnight stop … Le Somail.
Check my other Canal du Midi posts –