” 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/
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