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Chef Cyril Bedu’s kitchen doesn’t look all that different from the one in my Toronto condo. His 2.5-metre-long nook is roughly the same size as my cooking space, and the spices I find while shamelessly nosing through the shelves match mine at home. There are, however, two key differences: one is the gelato maker, which Bedu uses to make sorbets of white peach, pear or whichever other fruit he’s picked up. The second is that while I mostly whip up meals for one, Bedu is cooking for a full boat.

But with just eight guests and six crew aboard, the food and beverage – and pretty much everything else – on French Country Waterways’ Nenuphar is far from the massive scale that has come to define cruising. Smaller in length than two Toronto subway cars, and about double the width, our retrofitted barge’s slim profile means it’s able to navigate the narrow canals and locks of France’s Champagne region, though sometimes with barely a palm-span of clearance on each side. Barges open up waterways even river cruise ships couldn’t dream of touring – and with nearly 8,000 kilometres of navigable rivers and canals, France is a prime destination for this kind of voyage.

Over six-and-a-half days, our vessel, outfitted with wood paneling and antique-style furnishings, meanders along three waterways from Château-Thierry to Courcy, near Reims. We visit champagne houses and World War I monuments in the mornings, then stroll or bike alongside the boat after lunch. The area’s road signs recall the wine lists of luxurious restaurants: Moët & Chandon, Taittinger, Bollinger, Veuve Clicquot. One afternoon, when our route brings us close to Hautvillers, home to the abbey where Dom Pérignon first developed bubbly, four of us hop onto a minibus with Captain Alan for an impromptu pilgrimage to the legendary monk’s tomb. But while the small group size allows for a more relaxed, flexible style of cruising, and the pace pairs well with an endless flow of golden bubbles, it’s the dinner party-like intimacy – and chef Bedu’s food – that turns out to be the true delight of this Champagne crawl.

Drinking champagne

On the first night, we politely trade biographical basics like hometowns and careers over veal flambéed in cognac. But within a couple of days we’re making eyes at each other as Captain Alan arranges for a tableside accordion performance. When the song changes from Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose” to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” we shrug and, one by one, join in a champagne-fuelled singalong.

A host at the top of his game, chef Bedu prepares lunch and dinner each day. (Breakfast, per the French tradition, is a buffet of fruit, cheese and fresh croissants picked up from a village patisserie by one of the crew.) Working off a handwritten menu, he rejigs as the week progresses, scratching off items or using arrows as he makes swaps. Even with the steak tartare and escargots, Bedu’s lunchtime salads become the first thing I think about each morning. There’s endive and apple with Parmesan; du Puy lentils with garlic, turnips and thyme vinaigrette; and sliced carrots with orange and cilantro.

One afternoon, I stop by the kitchen with a glass of brut from Guy Charbaut (we’d moored close to the house one night). Bedu has a crust for tarte tatin in the oven, terrine of foie gras poaching on one burner and gravy simmering on another. As we chat, he presses a mix of tomatoes, onion and basil into circular mounds for bruschetta.

“Want me to put those together?” I offer, gesturing at the tartines. He shakes his head and, with a wink, leads me to the sink, another task in mind; but a crew member has already done the dishes. Here’s the thing, though: I would have happily rolled up my sleeves. On a big cruise, you’re a passenger – but on my barge in Champagne, I feel like I’m home.

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FRANCE