by Leah Hyslop, The Telegraph, March 31, 2017
As I stood in a forest of oak trees in the Rhône Valley, the sky was a cloudless blue. All around, I could hear the hum of cicadas. And at my feet a small, curly-haired dog called Emy was digging furiously.
This, you see, was no ordinary forest, but a truffle farm. Within seconds, Emy unearthed her first black diamond and brought it proudly to her owner, Serge. He checked to make sure she had not taken too big a nibble – with his top truffles fetching up to €1,000 a kilo, it pays to stop Emy developing expensive tastes – and then led us back to the farmhouse.
As our tour group tucked into slices of baguette topped with truffle butter, washed down with crisp, pale pink rosé, he told us about the farm, which his family has owned for three generations.
“For every 10 trees you plant, only four or five will produce truffles, and nobody really knows why,” he said. “My grandma once cut down a few trees she thought weren’t truffling, and the whole farm stopped producing. They are a deeply mysterious food. But the taste – ah, it’s an explosion!”
The visit to Serge’s farm was just one of the excursions offered on our Burgundy and Provence cruise through the sun-drenched landscapes of southern France. One of Uniworld’s Connoisseur Collection sailings, the itinerary was designed with food-lovers in mind, with every stop offering a tantalising taste of local specialities and traditions.
In Lyon, we learnt how to make crêpes suzette at the Institut Paul Bocuse, a cookery school owned by a famous French chef. In the medieval town of Tournon we were invited to a crumbling château to watch the usually secret induction ceremony of the local Winemakers’ Brotherhood – a tradition that, consisting of drinking glasses of wine as the brotherhood chants the French equivalent of “Down it!”, bore an amusing resemblance to a night out at my local pub.
Our ship, SS Catherine, was just as memorable. Only a few years old, with space for 159 passengers, it often felt more like an opulent country-house hotel. Its two-storey lobby featured a Murano-glass chandelier and a trickling waterfall encircling a glass elevator. Cabins had comfy beds, roomy bathrooms with underfloor heating, and floor-to-ceiling windows.In the hilltop city of Viviers, following an organ recital, our guide Jeanette invited us into her centuries-old home, built into the city’s walls, before serving us local goat’s cheese and honey in her rooftop garden. For nosy people like me, who often wish we could peek inside those romantic French houses, with their shuttered windows and peeling paint, it was an unforgettable experience.
There was even a nifty automatic mosquito screen so that those who, like me, hate air-conditioning can sleep with the windows open.
One of the ship’s most distinctive features is the pool. This is not, as you may expect, on the sun deck, but is tucked away in a glass-walled chamber in the ship’s secondary bar, the Bar du Leopard. Tiny but beautiful, the pool has a lush mosaic of jungle life on one wall and towels fluffier than a freshly baked croissant. The only problem is that, although the room’s sensor glass walls magically turn opaque when you enter, they can flick back if you’re not splashing around vigorously – which means guests enjoying a late-night cognac in the bar might get an unexpected glimpse of your Speedos.
This was a unusual choice of holiday for me. A food writer by trade, my preference is to discover new restaurants and bars, and to visit places where I can immerse myself in the local culture rather than eat in one place every night.
But the quality of the food on SS Catherine was generally high, introducing the guests – most of whom were American retirees – to distinctly French tastes. It’s a brave chef who serves a mousseline of frogs’ legs to a group of rowdy, meat-loving Texans.
I particularly liked the menu’s local touches, reflecting that day’s excursions. After a visit to Tain-l’Hermitage, home to the famous Valhrona chocolate factory, bowls of the chocolates were left around the restaurant for guests to try.
And after a day spent touring the lavender fields and villages of Provence, we were served roasted confit duck leg with lavender and honey gravy and a side dish of Provençal vegetables.
Wine was taken as seriously as food. The sommelier, Laurentia, was superb at sourcing local wines for us to try; it’s a great experience to sip an elegant, perfumed Châteauneuf-du-Pape as you sail past the vineyard that produced it.
What left a real impression on me, however, was not the culinary offerings, but the service. Within seconds of us boarding the ship, the staff seemed to have memorised every guest’s name, and not once did I sit in the main lounge for more than 20 seconds without the bartender, Christian, popping up to offer me a glass of champagne or a kir royale (yes, I actually timed it).
The cabin staff, in particular, seemed to have attended some kind of ninja training school; if I nipped out for just 10 minutes I would return to find the bed smoothed and towels replaced.
Another touch that seemed impressively thoughtful – at least to a novice cruiser like me – was the pillow gifts, left while we were at dinner: a bottle of Hermès body lotion, a few chunks of gooey local nougat, and even recipe cards for dishes from the night’s meal. I stumbled across one of these while unpacking my suitcase the day after arriving home, full of post-holiday blues. It made me wish I was back on the tranquil waters of the Rhône once again.
Uniworld River Cruises offers an eight-day Burgundy and Provence cruise from Avignon to Lyon (or reverse), with departures until November 2017. From £2,719pp excluding flights (0808 281 1125; uniworld.com ).