Nine culinary adventurers are sitting around an enormous table on the first floor of a 12th-century mansion in Avignon, southern France, keen to learn how the French stay so connected to their food.
Chef Cedric Bruyere is struggling to explain why my fogasse – a French loaf particular to the region – is not to his Gallic taste.
“You have far too much ’erbs,” he cries, eyeing my dark, moist collection of leaf-shaped breads with the disdain only a Frenchman can muster.
It’s true my doughy leaves look a little autumnal brown. And they certainly pack a herbal punch. I used up most of the ingredients, not realising the neatly packaged herbs were also for the next dish.
But once the little loaves had been crowned with chevrotin goat’s cheese, they were declared scrumptious and gobbled up by my fellow foodies back on the Viking Delling river cruise ship.
Maybe it’s an Aussie variation on a French theme? Fusion food is all the rage.
We are sailing the Rhône in the beautiful region of Provence on an eight-day itinerary with Viking River Cruises – similar to the journey being offered as a prize in our Explore competition (see page 13).
There is great art: we visit areas that inspired the paintings of Van Gogh, Cezanne and Chagall. There are great architectural marvels such as the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct built in the first century AD which now features in endless selfies from the region.
But today is all about Gallic gastronomy. Or gluttony, depending on how you view it.
Avignon’s famous Les Halles market is awash with the tantalising aromas of cheese, charcuterie and pastries.
Perhaps it’s the famed health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, but this itinerary has captured the imagination and is now a firm favourite.
We had boarded the trusty Viking Delling – Viking has Europe’s largest fleet of long ships, all identically fitted out and perfect for these journey – three days before my encounter with Chef Bruyere in Avignon along with 180 American, Australian and British guests.
Our ship is filled with the light, bright Scandinavian charm that has made Viking the world’s favourite river cruise line. It’s adults only and relaxed, and there are no hidden charges. The value is extraordinary.
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 Provencal who loves to show off the region. Everyone gets one shore excursion included at every port of call.
In these times of COVID, Viking has transformed its experience, offering seamless flights and airport pick-ups, health checks and careful onboard protocols, including the use of masks where necessary. Each ship takes just 190 guests.
Viking has worked hard to make shore excursions as enjoyable as possible. Where local laws allow, you can tour on your own, though excursions are generally in small groups and supervised. The use of audio allows for distancing.
Our trip takes place before the pandemic, when Australians were out in force. Now that flights to Europe are back, river lines anticipate we will return.
The Delling cruises to Arles, just 40 kilometres down the Rhône from Avignon, on our first night.
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.
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.
During our evening cruise back to Avignon we are treated to a talk on French cheeses and given samples to taste.
The Rhône is renowned for grenache and shiraz grapes, which produce fruity reds that go well with delicious and hearty French favourites such as coq au vin. Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which arguably has some of the best red wines in the world, is on the tour list.
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 the food served is the same at both. During our journey, the chefs produce local produce and tastings. It’s a running gastronomic delight.
Our final stop is Lyon, the climax of our journey. We’ve booked a Michelin-starred restaurant in town for dinner.
Lyon is famous for sausages – 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. Getting hungry?
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: Lyon & Provence
Duration: 8 days.
Ship: Viking Delling.
Cruise line: Viking River Cruises.
On board: Two eateries, bar, library, sun deck, golf-putting area, piano entertainment, wi-fi, on-demand movies and stateroom steward.
Bookings: The small-ship tour includes seven tours and is on special from $3495 per person – a saving of $1000 and a flight credit. Even Chef Bruyere would be happy with that.
Explore more: vikingrivercruises.com.au