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Feasting Along France's Garonne River

From foie gras to prunes, a writer samples native foods in historic ports during a recent barge trip through Gascony

ON the tree-lined canal flowing by their old stone farmhouse in southwestern France, Kate Ratliffe and her husband, Patrick, tie up their 85-foot Dutch-built barge, the "Julia Hoyt."

They're expecting seven guests from the United States at the nearby Agen train station.

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Mrs. Ratliffe, a professional chef, and her husband, a history scholar, host week-long culinary tours via their barge of the villages along Le Canal Lateral a la Garonne (the canal along the Garonne River). The couple are living on their luxuriously decorated barge while they renovate their farmhouse.

"My husband and I indulge our passion for history and good food for half the year here, the other half of the year in the United States," she says.

When they're at their home in Mendocino, Calif., Patrick works as a millwright and carpenter, and Kate does regional French cooking for special events. The Ratliffes also work on business plans for future barge trips.

Like the Ratliffes' six other American guests, I had come to explore the little-known regional French cuisine found in canal country and to experience three exceptional restaurants that are off the beaten track: Andre Daguin's Hotel De France, Marie-Claude Gracia's a La Belle Gasconne, and Michel Trama's L' Aubergade.

What Mrs. Ratliffe does best is introduce tourists to people and places they would never find on their own. She arranged for us to talk with both farmers and chefs, for example.

We'd also been invited to have dinner with a French family at their home to learn about Gascony dishes - especially the famous duck, larger than the North American duck and more often cooked in pieces rather than whole.

After meeting Ratliffe at the station, we piled into a small van for a short ride to the canal, through the rolling hills of Gascony dotted with red-roofed towns and family farms.

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"I'm convinced this is a food lover's dream of impressionist landscapes and hearty, perhaps rustic, farm cuisine," Ratliffe says. "The area is unvisited by the masses even though it's an ancient duchy halfway between the grand cities of Bordeaux and Toulouse."

Our first dinner took place at Le Prince Noir, a nearby country inn in the 12th-century village of Serignac-sur-Garonne, which served as our base.

According to Ratliffe, Gascony is famous for its ducks and geese, foie gras and confit, peaches and prunes. "There is a great respect for fresh fruits and vegetables, including those that are growing wild all around us," she says.

WE arrived at the barge and learned that like almost everything here, it too has an interesting history. The Julia Hoyt was originally built as a commercial barge in 1916 and then converted to a cruising barge in 1986.

It has double staterooms, wide decks, and roomy dining areas - all adorned with antiques and lace, much like a French country inn.

Kate Ratliffe bought the barge in the Netherlands in 1986 and with one friend as crew, brought it through canals and aquaducts from the Netherlands to the Canal Lateral a la Garonne. She then returned to the United States to work and earn money for barge renovations.

It was during this time that she met her husband, Patrick. She also chose the name for her barge while working at a California art gallery where she fell in love with a Vargas painting of New York actress Julia Hoyt.

France, like the Netherlands, is laced with canals. Today, however, they are used more for pleasure cruising than for transportation.

I had wondered if cruising along the canal might be boring after a while. It wasn't. Going into town is optional to staying on the barge for peaceful reading, but for me, it's the side trips that are most fascinating.

En route to lunch the first day, we stopped at the prune museum in Agen.

Agen prunes were originally brought here in the Middle Ages and are known to be among the finest in the world. During the week, they appeared in our food constantly - stuffed with nuts or chestnut paste, or made into jam and sweets, or used in dishes of meat, poultry, and game.

For lunch, we arrived at Ferme Auberge de Roussy, a farmhouse inn serving only food grown on its land. There we were welcomed with a big smile by Madame Roussy. She invited us to guess the ingredients of a bright-green, unusually flavored soup, served as a first course.

It took many guesses, from green peas to broccoli, until we finally got the main ingredient right: wild stinging nettles. We had seen them growing around the farm, and most of us had heard of, but never tasted, nettle soup before.

Dinner on the barge that evening was a traditional Gascon cassoulet, Lapin aux Pruneaux (rabbit with prunes), which Ratliffe prepared in the galley as she answered questions from the guests, most of whom were familiar with French cooking.

A complete and colorful menu posted on the refrigerator door of the barge galley informed us we would start our meal with an amuse-bouche (an appetizer, the French term translated means "tease the mouth") of rabbit liver on toasted rustic bread. There were fresh tomatoes from the nearby town of Marmande and handsome, large, fresh, white asparagus, finer that any we ever see in the US.

The next bright sunny day, there were no objections when Ratliffe decided we must have a picnic by the river just outside the walled city of Vianne.

A voluminous basket was packed with tiny sausages, crusty country breads, cornichons (tiny sour pickles), fresh local cheeses, ham, and an assortment of pastries.

ONE evening, we ate dinner at Claude and Yvette Pompele's home, which borders the canal near the town of Tonneins.

The star of the dinner was Poule Au Pot a La Gasconne (Chicken in a Pot, Gascony-style), the same dish that was prepared and served to French King Henri IV who, when he was crowned said: "I hope to make France so prosperous that every peasant will have a chicken in his pot on Sunday."

Mme. Pompele showed us the stuffed whole chicken in the pot where it had been cooking all day. "It has a garlic-bread stuffing, with parsley, onion, garlic, marjoram, thyme, bay leaf, and a few ounces of chopped jambon de Bayonne (fine French ham from town of Bayonne)," she explained.

Dessert was a luscious creme bre with prunes, served in individual pots and accompanied by a large round paper-thin apple tart - tasty and traditional.

It was the finest meal of the week - authentic home cooking eaten in an intimate family atmosphere that could compete with almost any four-star restaurant in the country.

* For information about canal cruises aboard the Julia Hoyt, write Kate and Patrick Ratliffe, 5 Ledgewood Way No. 6, Peabody, Mass., 01960; or call (800) 852-2625.

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