L'Impressionniste's kitchen is similar to a kitchen in someone's home, if not a bit smaller. From this chamber, despite its size, come the most incredible hors d'oeuvres, meals and desserts. The chef, in our case, Aidan from New Zealand, uses his kitchen like an artist uses a palette, his canvases the plates put before the guests at every meal.
Breakfast is simple, with yogurt, muesli, croissants, butter, jam, juice, fruit, coffee and teas. It's served buffet-style from about 8 a.m. until either everyone is finished or a tour is about to start. A coffee pot is put out the night before for early risers.
Lunch is plated and served at the dining table, or presented buffet style, spread out over the bar for self service. It can be hot food, cold food or a combination of both, but always reflects the cuisine of Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon. The Provencal onion tart, made with onions and fresh tomatoes cooked together for hours and then baked on a home-made flaky pastry crust, was the food of the gods to those on my voyage, so good that we begged for it to be served again. The smoked salmon on a crouton with avocado cream cheese was another hit, as were the Bouzigue oysters served both raw and cooked.
On five of the six nights of the cruise, a candlelight supper is served at around 7:30 p.m. It consists of a starter (which in France is the "entree"), a main course, a cheese course and dessert, coffee and liqueurs. The meals are based on regional cuisine, and whatever is fresh at the market that day and strikes the chef's fancy will end up on the table. One day Aidan was rhapsodizing over the young, tender artichokes he had seen at the in-town market, little purple ones, and the fresh string beans just off the vine. He took one of the bicycles from the deck and rode over to pick some up; that night we had artichoke with a vinaigrette sauce as an entree, chicken breast stuffed with a chervil chevre and sun dried tomatoes over a bed of handmade pasta, and French-cut string beans for the main course. Dessert was a poached pear in white wine served with a slice of chocolate-pistachio nougat. It couldn't have been better had we been in a three Michelin-starred restaurant.
Lunch and supper are both accompanied by wines of the region we are visiting, usually a red and a white. The first two nights of the journey we were served wines of the Rhone Valley, most coming from near Avignon. After that it was a mix of the regions, maybe Avignon, maybe a wine from the Languedoc. After the meal a selection of cheeses is served with fruit and nuts, then dessert and coffee.
On the third night of this itinerary, the night the barge docks in Aigues Mortes, passengers are taken to an in-town auberge for supper. On our trip, we dined at Le Cafe de Bouzigues (named for the regional oysters) where we were encouraged to try torreau, the specialty of the region, bull meat. Also served were big bowls of Provence-style escargot, with a sauce of minced tomato and onion instead of butter and garlic. Laurent, our cheerful, funny and charming guide, made the wine selections for us and it was yet another evening of bonhomie.
The only down-notes in the dining experience were that the breads at all of the meals and the morning pastries just didn't seem as fresh as they could have been, and also, by the time the cheese course came, all the forks were missing, causing the guests to eat the cheese off the tips of their knives, not always an appealing option. Otherwise, the dining experience was top-notch.