Wine-ing through France by Peter Mayle
By Melissa Conroy
“I think it was the sight of a man power-washing his underpants that really brought home the differences, cultural and otherwise, between the Old World and the new” author Peter Mayle writes in his book Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France. “Standing some distance away, out of ricochet range, was the aggressor, in cap and muffler and ankle-high zippered carpet slippers. He had adopted the classic stance of a soldier in combat, feet spread apart, shooting from the hip, a merciless hail of droplets raking back and forth. The underpants didn’t stand a chance.”
Travel writing lovers, foodies, French culture aficionados and all readers who enjoy a well-turned sentence and a good chuckle will love the works of best-selling author Peter Mayle. He has authored more than 30 books, and his dry wit and keen insight has covered everything from French drivers, personnel battles in a high-stakes business environment, how to properly eat caviar and the proclivities of a man’s most intimate of companions. (Note: The latter is not a dog.)
Born in Surry, England, in 1939, Mayle embarked on a long advertising career in London and New York before quitting the frenetic workforce in 1974 to write full-time. His first book Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life without Any Nonsense kicked off the start of a series of education books. Mayle and his wife relocated to Provence, France, in the late ‘80s to write. In 1989, he published A Year in Provence which became an international best-seller. He followed with more books as well as being dubbed a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor) in 2002. Increased fame meant that unannounced visitors were stopping by his house in Provence several times a day, prompting a move to New York to escape his adoring fans. Mayle eventually returned to Provence where he lives to this day.
Peruse any of Mayle’s work and it is immediately apparent that he is well accustomed to wealth. Mayle speaks with confident ease about the delights of single-needle stitching on a handmade shirt, custom shoes and truffle-laced foie gras. Yet, he is refreshingly free of pretention or snobbery. “I have heard about a limo that has a Jacuzzi in the back, and the thought of careening through town stark naked and raising my champagne glass to startled pedestrians is enormously appealing,” he chuckles in Acquired Tastes. Mayle whole-heartedly enjoys luxury that is good in its own right: Cashmere sweaters are warm and soft, single malt whiskey tastes wonderful, a tailored suit is a classic that will last you 20 years. Yet he adores the “native dress” of Provence, which is “old shirt, shorts, no shoes,” the pleasures of a well-crafted bottle of 20-franc wine, a bowl of olives and good bread for lunch in the sunshine.
It may be possible to gain weight simply by reading Mayle’s work. Food is a predominate theme running through his books and novels: meals described in loving detail, butter used in extravagant quantities, enormous desserts collapsing under the weight of their chocolate sauce. French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew is a delicious romp through the best of French cooking. As a boy, Mayle was forced to eat British school food, and the rest of his life and writing seems to be an attempt to make up for all that deprivation. “At the first mouthful of French bread and French butter, my taste buds, dormant until then, went into spasm,” he writes in describing his first experience with French food.
Mayle is best known for his personal memoirs about living in France. A Year in Provence, Encore Provence and Toujours Provence are lovely and loving books which amusingly catalogue his life in the French countryside: mistral winds “strong enough to blow the ears off a donkey,” alcoholic wasps, the annual village fete, listening to Pavarotti sing in an open air stone theater and a yearlong home renovation project. (Mayle writes, “My wife passed me a note that said Drink your coffee before it gets dirty.“)
Mayle is the author of several novels such as A Good Year (made into a movie starring Russell Crowe), Anything Considered, Chasing Cezanne and Hotel Pastis. His novels are replete with beautiful women, shady business mergers, bullying thugs, million-dollar wines and rustic French dinners, plenty of verbal delight to keep the reader intrigued. His stories are beautifully constructed and a true pleasure to read and, like red wine, get better with age and further reading.
Mayle is quietly but enormously funny, and that is apparent in a brief read of his book titles which include, How to Be a Pregnant Father: An Illustrated Survival Guide for the First-time Father, Divorce can Happen to the Nicest People and Congratulations! You’re Not Pregnant: An Illustrated Guide to Birth Control. In the midst of casual references to personal attendants and the merits of helicopter commuting, Mayle peppers his writing with constant self-deprecation. Cutting lavender in Toujour Provence, he writes, “I looked up, hoping for praise, and sliced my index finger nearly to the bone.” His book, A Dog’s Life, is written from the perspective of Boy, a mongrel canine that catalogues the failings and foibles of “the management” (meaning the writer).
The only danger of reading Mayle’s books is that you will soon find yourself thumbing through The Joy of French Cooking and idly toying with buying an abandoned vineyard in southern France. After publishing A Year in Provence, Mayle found himself deluged by letters from people considering doing just that, undeterred by his warnings about how cold stone floors can get on a subzero morning, the hazards of young wine and the snail pace of French bureaucracy.
While you may not think fresh truffles are worth a cross-continental move, you can still vicariously indulge in some French culture, good food and many laughs with Mayle’s wonderful writing. Homey yet elegant, witty, loving and gracefully expressed, Peter Mayle is a classic writer and we can hope that he will continue to eat, drink, write and live life for many years to come.
Melissa Ann Conroy is a semi-foodie and a well-traveled author. She can’t tell a pinot grigio from a Chateauneuf du pape, but she adores French bread and misses coffee and churros from Spain. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org