Wining and Dining in Provence (A Good Year by Peter Mayle)


I’ve always been a fan of Peter Mayle, because he’s a wonderful foodie writer, and I love books set in the idyllic South of France.

I haven’t read any of Mayle’s fictional works since Chasing Cezanne, though, as lately I’ve been reading his non-fiction: Acquired Tastes, A Year in Provence, and A Dog’s Life.

I was yearning for something light and soothing one night, so I picked up one of Mayle’s novels, A Good Year.

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Frenching it up

Setting is one of the important factors that draw me to reading a book, especially when I’m trying out an author for the first time. I find that there are certain settings that appeal to me more than others, and sometimes, the setting alone influences my decision to purchase a book that I’ve never even heard of.

I’m particular about setting because by nature, I’m an escapist reader – I like getting lost in the imagery of the words, transported to the very heart of the story, forgetting for the moment the never-ending to do lists, looming deadlines, and the general chaos of daily life. The setting just makes everything so much more real for the imagination, bringing the plot and characters to life.


the escapist reader
the escapist reader


I like the centers of art: Florence (as in Sarah Dunant’s Birth of Venus, Diane Haeger’s The Ruby Ring) and Delft (Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring); the musical city of Vienna (Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer and Star of Kazan); Spain, rife with mystery (Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind and Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and The Fencing Master); the English countryside, sometimes romantic, other times forbidding (Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Eva Ibbotson’s The Morning Gift, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale); the vibrant Venice (Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan, Zizou Corder’s Lionboy, Donna Jo Napoli’s Daughter of Venice); and the exotic Morrocco (Barbara Hodgson’s The Tattooed Map, Zizou Corder’s Lionboy) or Greece (Eugene Trivizas’ The Last Black Cat).

The Italian countryside can be quite charming (Under the Tuscan Sun, Every Boy’s Got One), but for a rustic gastronomic adventure, books set in the French countryside always hit the spot for me, providing a heady experience of sights, sounds, tastes, and textures, as in Peter Mayle’s Chasing Cezanne and A Year in Provence; or Joanne Harris’ Chocolat.

Today’s books are non-fiction, but also set against the backdrop of pastoral France: Champagne: The Spirit of Celebration by Sara Slavin and Karl Petzke; and Sara Midda’s South of France: A Sketchbook (books #84-85 of 2009), both rummaged at Book Sale for P20 ($0.40) and P40 ($0.80) each, respectively (squee!).
Continue reading “Frenching it up”

An exercise in self-control

“The well-known food of Provence is summer food — the melons and peaches and asparagus, the courgettes and aubergines, the peppers and tomatoes, the aioli and bouillabaisse and monumental salads of olives and anchovies and tuna and hardboiled eggs and sliced, earthy potatoes on beds of multicolored lettuce glistening with oil, the fresh goat’s cheeses…

It had never occurred to us that there was a winter menu, totally different but equally delicious. The cold-weather cuisine of Provence is peasant food. It is made to stick to your ribs, keep you warm, and send you off to bed with a full belly…

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 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… We had entire breasts, entire legs, covered in 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.”

When you read about food being described like that, you’ll be sorely tempted to eat the pages off the book!

The passage is from Book #37 for 2009: A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, who is one of the best food and travel writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It’s also my book 6 in the Diversity Challenge (memoir).

This book wittily chronicles adventures in the French countryside as Peter Mayle and his wife move into a 200-year old stone farmhouse and live as the locals do, and it takes you right there with them.

The chapters are divided into months of the year, and each chapter regales you with engaging stories of settling into life in Provence: getting to know their neighbors, their first winter, renovating the house, farming, truffle-hunting, Provencal real estate, mailbox burglary, local markets, cycling, entertaining guests, ritual kissing, goat racing, and other comic anecdotes.

The highlight of the book is easily the cuisine: whether they’re in their own kitchen, out in the garden, at the neighbor’s house, in a cafe packed with tourists, or at a little-known haunt several hours’ drive away, the food is always glorious, glorious food described so vividly you can almost taste it.

The Mayles’ farmhouse (from

If only I could pack my bags and move in with them, I’d do it in a heartbeat!

Googling the book, I found out on IMDB that it was adapted into a BBC series… Now that would be interesting to watch. I still have several Peter Mayle books in my TBR — I think I’ve got A Good Year, Toujours Provence, Anything Considered, A Dog’s Life and Hotel Pastis in there; I look forward to reading those this year.

My copy: trade paperback, mooched locally

My rating: 5/5 stars

Chasing Cezanne by Peter Mayle

This was the first Peter Mayle book I ever read, and I had no idea that he was a travel writer so I was in a totally different frame of mind when I read it, expecting an art heist thriller. But like all Mayle’s books, Chasing Cezanne is more like a travel book than anything else. It also reads like chick lit, which is kind of weird, because the protagonist is male.
The premise was really good: photographer Andre Kelly is off on a shoot when he sees a Cezanne being removed from the premises of a former client. He photographs this event and is embroiled in a chase for the missing painting.

Except that it’s got to be the most leisurely chase I’ve ever read — Andre and his gang (a fastidious art dealer, plus Andre’s love interest Lucy) stop to eat and sightsee (and sleep together) every chance they get, hehe.

The language is languid and dreamy, the descriptions are beautiful and picturesque. No rip-roaring chases here — the book is more like Under the Tuscan Sun than Da Vinci Code.

Even Cezanne is only incidental, you can substitute some other painter’s name in the title and the story wouldn’t change, that’s how little Cezanne. And there’s very little actual art discussed, other than the process of selling famous paintings and a bit of forgery (haha, Incognito was a great movie for that!). Actually I think even the mystery is only incidental, it was just a reason for Andre to get together with Lucy and romp from New York to Paris and the South of France.

Worth reading for the travelogue and food commentary — this is what Mayle does best, and he delivers commendably, but mystery lovers might feel shortchanged.

My copy: trade paperback upgraded into a hardcover with dust jacket

My rating: 3/5 stars

Photo courtesy of Amazon (