Of Letters

A Year in Provence

 

A Year in Provence

Renovating a 200 year old farm can certainly pose some challenges, no matter in which part of the world that would be, and at first you have the impression of a repeated theme across the Mediterranean Europe of mishaps and laughable situations when dealing with local handymen or musty vignerons. But this one is authentic, as it delves into what it is to be French, and beyond what it is to be Provencal in habits, gestures, traditions and attitudes. This is Provencal life at its best.

Peter Mayle was made Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur by the French government for his descriptions of the french spirit, its people, atmosphere and cuisine as experienced first hand. The book is a travel through time, one calendar year paginated month by month, as a life lived through the becoming of an Englishman into an adapted Provencal. Mayle marks a style that is genuinely humorous in a very British but elegant way. And he tries to portray happenings that are genuinely french with tout la merde that accompanies it.

The Mistral welcomes the Mayle family in Provence in a very fiery and unexpected way. While people from London telephone to ask about the weather and sunshine in Luberon, their imagination is not yet ready to swallow the blowing cold air and the under zero temperatures that determine a turning point in the story, the installation of central heating. M. Menicucci the master plombier will traverse the story all along, besides helping to build the masterpiece boiler, heating pipes and radiators, he will also advise and state opinions all along about a variety of subjects around the house. They get attached and form a dependable and trustable relationship.

The model of property owner and the people working the land comes into the story, and this seems to be a long standing tradition in France, and it comes into action through Faustine and his wife Henriette, the keepers of the vines – the most cherished and valuable thing on the farm. First things first, when the Mayles arrive and meet Faustine they are to clarify their position towards continuing the tradition on the grapes, it was of utmost importance to maintain status quo, and happines inundates their faces and souls when the new owners agree to no change. Moreover, later in the story the vines are promoted at a higher value when new roots are planted to replace melon fields and to start producing even more bottles of the cherished elixir.

Cuisine is elevated to a form of art. Descriptions are rich, the palates are crying and the throats are mended by unique vibes of wines. You get to understand what it is to trust your source for procuring the materials destined to enrich your daily diet. There is no such thing as purchasing olive oil from the grocery store or from any other shops, it is about obtaining a verbal recommendation for a real source in the region. Olive oil appreciation and purchasing stands on equal terms with wine or cheese or bread. All of the food is highly valued and people have a profound knowledge and highly developed taste buds to arouse anybody in a very connoisseur way of a conversation.

“With everything edible in France, certain areas have the reputation for producing the best – the best olives from Nyons, the best mustard from Dijon, the best melons from Cavaillon, the best cream from Normandy. The best truffles, it is generally agreed, come from Perigord, and naturally one pays more for them. But how do you know that the truffle you buy in Cahors hasn’t been dug up several hundred kilometers away in the Vaucluse? Unless you know and you trust your supplier, you can’t be sure, and Ramon’s inside information was that 50 percent of the truffles sold in Perigord were born elsewhere and “naturalized”.

It is interesting to  follow the attitudes of the invaders, of the people visiting, the so-called tourists that have found a place to exist in the south of France over the summer. It is not so much their behavior but more the view and understanding that one gets once it settles into a new region and a new home. And it is a living proof that perception plays a role in the level of understanding that we all have as tourists when we visit a destination; we do not even reach the level of a traveller or a wanderer, and are being far from sensing a true local existence.

“Our friend from Paris examined his empty glass with surprise, as if evaporation had taken place while he wasn’t looking. I poured some more wine and he settled back in his chair, face tilted up to the sun.”
“We still have the heating on in Paris,” he said, and took a sip of the cool, sweet wine from Beaumes de Venise. “And it’s been raining for weeks. I can see why you like it here. Mind you, it wouldn’t suit me.”
It seemed to be suiting him well enough, basking in the warmth after a good lunch, but I didn’t argue with him.
“You’d hate it,” I said. “You’d probably get skin cancer from the sun and cirrhosis of the liver from too much plonk, and if you were ever feeling well enough you’d miss the theater. And anyway, what would you do all day?”
He squinted at me drowsily, and put his sunglasses on. “Exactly.”
It was part of what had become a familiar litany:
Don’t you miss your friends?
No. They come and see us here.
Don’t you miss your friends?
No. They come and see us here.
Don’t you miss English television?
No.
There mus be something about England you miss?
Marmalade.
And then would come the real question, delivered half-humorously, half-seriously: what do you do all day? Our friend from Paris put it in another way.
“Don’t you get bored?”
We didn’t. We never had time.

The lack of touristical interest manifests itself also through the state of mind that dictates “NO” to travelling to the well known destinations of the southern France. And this is perceived with lack of trust from the friends across the channel. It shows how much the author has delved into the new life of a Provencal. As the immersion into the aromas and flavors of the region happens he looses the interest into going places. To one exception, as he explains below, he reaches out to Aix-en-Provence to admire the light glimmering into a place that seems to balance in perfection.

“These and other everyday amusements of life in nearby towns and villages were not doing much for our spirit of exploration and adventure. With so many distractions on our doorstep, we were neglecting the more famous parts of Provence, or so we were told by our friends in London. In the knowledgeable and irritating manner of seasoned armchair travelers, they kept pointing out how conveniently placed we were for Nimes and Arles and Avignon, for the flamingoes of the Camargue and the bouillabasse of Marseilles. They seemed surprised and mildly dissapointed when we admitted that we stayed close to home, not believing our excuses that we could never find time to go anywhere, never felt a compulsion to go to church crawling or monument spotting, didn’t want to be tourists. There was one exception to this rooted existence, and one excursion that we were always happy to make. We both loved Aix.
The corkscrew road we take through the mountains is to narrow for trucks and too serpentine for anyone in a hurry. Apart from a single farm building with its ragged herd of goats, there is nothing to see except steep and empty landscapes of gray rock and green scrub oak, polished into high definition by the extraordinary clarity of the light. The road slopes down through the foothills on the south side of the Luberon before joining up with the amateur Grand Prix that takes place every day on the RN7, the Nationale Sept that has eliminated more motorists over the years than is comfortable to think about as one waits for a gap in the traffic.
The road leads into Aix at the end of the most handsome main street in France. The Cours Mirabeau is beautiful at any time of the year, but at its best between spring and autumn, when the plane trees form a pale green tunnel five hundred yards long. The diffused sunlight, the four fountains along the center of the Cours’ length, the perfect proportions which follow da Vinci’s rule to “let the street be as wide as the height of the houses” – the arrangement of space and trees and architecture is so pleasing that you hardly notice the cars.
Over the years, a nice geographical distinction has evolved between work and more frivolous activities. On the shady side of the street, appropriately, are the banks and insurance companies and property agents and lawyers. On the sunny side are the cafes.”

The atemporal space that is experienced describes of how much the enjoyment was really fulfilling one’s dreams. No socks and no specifics on the date and time, watches locked up in the drawer,  just days passing by, floating through warm air and good taste. It is a state of fulfillment for the mind and soul that is hard to reach, and it has never felt better to experience it. This is quintessential to experience an episode of life at its best.

“The wearing of socks was a distant memory. My watch stayed in a drawer, and I found that I could more or less tell the time by the position of the shadows in the courtyard, although I seldom knew what the date was. It didn’t seem important. I was turning into a contended vegetable, maintaining sporadic contact with the real life through telephone conversations with people in faraway offices. They always asked wistfully what the weather was like, by warning me about skin cancer and the addling effect of sun on the brain. I didn’t argue with them; they were probably right. But addled, wrinkled, and potentially cancerous as I might have been, I had never felt better.”

Humor is present with ingenuity all across the book. Be it with French flavors or English laughters it is something that keeps desire ardent to traverse the pages in the book. One gets to react like Faustin below, whereas the shoulders start to shake to suppress the laughter, as the episodes are described with such essence of understanding only to be perceived at best via the humorous tone and comical situations.

“Even Faustin was in fine holiday humour. His work on the vines was finished for the time being, and there was nothing he could do but wait for the grapes to ripen and try out his repertoire of English jokes on us. “What is it?”, he asked me one morning, “that changes from the color of a dead rat to the color of a dead lobster in three hours?” His shoulders started to shake as he tried to supress his laughter at the unbearable funny answer. “Les Anglais en vacances,” he said, “vous comprenez?” In case I hadn’t fully grasped the richness of the joke, he then explained very carefully that the English complexion was known to be so fair that the slightest exposure would turn it to bright red. “Meme sous un rayon de lune,” he said, shrugging with mirth, “even a moonbeam makes them pink.””

But the fundamental aspect of this book is essentially dedicated to the love of food, the cuisine as experienced in an unsophisticated way, taste of simplicity but with heavy accents and unique arrangements. It is a love affair with food culture spiced with cultivated tastes. The best proof of such cookery and culinary delights are presented not far from the beginning of the book when les Anglais are cordially invited for dinner at a Provencal house. And what a show that turns out to be… Bon Appetit!

“It was a meal that we shall never forget; more accurately, it was several meals that we shall never forget, because it went beyond the gastronomic frontiers of anything we had ever experienced, both in quantity and length.
It started with homemade pizza – not one, but three: anchovy, mushroom, and cheese, and it was obligatory to have a slice of each. Plates were then wiped with pieces torn from the two-foot loaves in the middle of the table, and the next course came out. There were pates of rabbit, boar, and thrush. There was a chunky, pork-based terrine laced with marc. There were saucissons spotted with peppercorns. There were tiny sweet onions marinated in a fresh tomato sauce. Plates were wiped once more and duck was brought in. The slivers of magret that appear arranged in fan formation and lapped by an elegant smear of sauce on the refined tables of nouvelle cuisine – these were nowhere to be seen. We had entire breasts, entire legs, covered in a dark, savory gravy and surrounded by wild mushrooms.
We sat back, thankful that we had been able to finish, and watched with something close to panic as plates were wiped yet again and a huge, steaming casserole was placed on the table. This was the specialty of Madame our hostess – a rabbit civet of the richest, deepest brown – and our feeble requests for small portions were smilingly ignored. We ate it. We ate the green salad with knuckles of bread fried in garlic and olive oil, we ate the plump round crottins of goat’s cheese, we ate the almond and cream gateau that the daughter of the house had prepared. That night, we ate for England.
With the coffee, a numbered of deformed bottles were produced which contained a selection of locally made digestifs. My heart would have sunk had there been any space left for it to sink to, but there was no denying my host’s insistence. I must try one particular concoction, made from an eleventh-century recipe by an alcoholic order of monks in the Basses-Alpes. I was asked to close my eyes while it was poured, and when I opened them a tumbler of viscous yellow fluid had been put in front  of me. I looked in despair around the table. Everyone was watching me; there was no chance of giving whatever it was to the dog or letting it dribble discreetly into one of my shoes. Clutching the table for support with one hand, I took the tumbler with the other, closed my eyes, prayed to the patron saint of indigestion, and threw it back.
Nothing came out. I had been expecting at best a scalded tongue, at worst permanently cauterized taste buds, but I took in nothing but air. It was a trick glass, and for the first time in my adult life I was deeply relieved not to have a drink. As the laughter of the other guests died away, genuine drinks were threatened, but were saved by the cat. From her headquarters on top of a large armoire, she took a flying leap in pursuit of a moth and crash-landed among the coffee cups and bottles on the table. It seemed like an appropriate moment to leave. We talked home pushing our stomachs before us, oblivious to the cold, incapable of speech, and slept like the dead.”

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One thought on “A Year in Provence”

  1. Dmitri

    Thanks for the excellent review. Certainly made me want to read the book…and perhaps move to Provence for a year or two too 😉

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