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[457] A Year in Provence – Peter Mayle

” The people who work on the land are more likely to eat well at noon and sparingly in the evening, a habit that is healthy and sensible and, for us, quite impossible. We have found that there is nothing like a good lunch to give us an appetite for dinner. It’s alarming. It must have something to do with the novelty of living in the middle of such abundance of good things to eat, and among men and women whose interest in food verges on obsession. ” (January, p.15)

And that I can only live vicariously through Mayle’s gastronomic experience with my eyes—how can I be not feeling hungry and drooling over the pages? In 1990, without much hesitation upon hunting down a house, Peter Mayle and his wife packed off to the balmy south of France—for good, kissing goodbye to the dreadful food and impenetrable cloud of England. Beginning, appropriately enough, on New Year’s Day with a divine luncheon in a quaint restaurant, he sets the scene and pits his British sensibilities against it. Though retreating in contempt of his national cuisine, Mayle seems unfazed—and that certainly helps him assimilate to living in France, where food is treated with more than obsession, fastidiousness.

[Monsieur Bangnols] had once been in England, and had eaten roast lamb at a hotel in Liverpool. It had been gray and tepid and tasteless. But of course, he said, it is well known that the English kill their lamb twice; once when they slaughter it, and once when they cook it. (January, p.17)

Mayle describes in loveng detail the charming, 200-year-old farmhouse at the base of the Lubéron Mountain, its thick stone walls and well-tended vines, its wine caves and wells, its shade trees and swimming pool, and, on a negative note, its lack of central heating and a modern toilet. He describes the ruddy local culture from an Englishman’s perspective as he fixes up the house and adopts the Côtes du Rhône region as his new home. His full expectation of living la dolce vita meets with some unforeseen obstacles, as he becomes embroiled in a series of (minor) catastrophes (e.g. a tabletop cut out of a slab of marble got frozen) and frustrations that require him and his wife to reshape their entire characters and perform some serious attitude adjustment. For once, time perates in a different dimension—often contemplated in terms of seasons, rather than hours and weeks. Then comes the annoyance of thick-skinned visitors who outstay their welcome and the tourists who picnic inside private territory.

One of the characteristics which we liked and even admired about the French is their willingness to support good cooking, no matter how remote the kitchen may be. The quality of the food is more important than convenience, and they will happily drive for an hour or more, salivating en route, in order to eat well. (May, p.94)

Although the transition to living in Provence is not the smoothest for the Mayles, and that everybody in the region has strong opinion about everything, the Provençales all agree on the importance of food. This book captures the first year of Mayles’ life in Provence, but also a food diary as they discover local, out-of-the-way quaint restaurants undertaken by old madames. What is better than learning a culture through its culinary art and gastronomic particulars? Mayle notes that the French spend as much of their income on their stomachs as the English do on their cars. His gourmet forays encompass rabbit pâté, lamb, fox, seafood, truffle, olive oil, and a variety of bread made to accompany specific dishes. This book really captures Provence from the inside, as he pokes gentle fun at the locals for whom he has developed a warm attachment.

208 pp. Vintage Departure Series. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

13 Responses

  1. Read this awhile ago. It was such a descriptive read.,

    • This is a great travel companion if anyone is heading to Provence. The vivid details of his gastronomic foray just leave me very hungry.

  2. Oh gosh, this book had me salivating the entire time I was reading it last summer. Very nice light read 🙂

  3. I so loved this book. All those characters that lived in his small town were hilarious! I have good friends who both quit their job and moved to France for a year, just because of this book. Unfortunately, the rest of Mayle’s attempts at writing aren’t near as good.

    • I heard this is the only brilliant book of Peter Mayle that deals with southern France. All the others just simply don’t measure up to this. The interwoven stories of the locals with his moving there are just brilliant. I feel like I’m living there with these people, and not to mention all the yummy food they are cooking up.

  4. I enjoyed this one when I read it years ago. Now with the gluten-free diet, I would probably faint from all the food references.

  5. I am embarrassed about how long this one has been on my shelves at home and I have never yet read it. I saw it on the shelf at the bookstore at SJ airport recently and it was in the section of “Bay Area Authors”. I guess he must live here now?

  6. This was my first ‘armchair travel’ book. I read it years ago with my book club and still remember it fondly. Glad you enjoyed it, too.

    • I’m so fond of this one, even though it makes me hungry all the time! I have a penchant for France armchair travel books. I am going to start reading the one about a guy who landed a job at Shakespeare & Co. while he was traveling through France.

  7. […] [457] A Year in Provence – Peter Mayle […]

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