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.

agoodyearSet in Mayle’s adopted hometown, Provence, A Good Year is about Max Skinner, a young executive in a financial firm who is getting ready to close a deal that will give him a six-figure bonus, just enough to clear off his overdraft and other piling bills.

His hopes are dashed when his superior swoops in and steals his client. Eager for a change of scenery, and with an IOU generously granted by his ex-brother-in-law Charlie, Max decides to check out his languishing inheritance – a vineyard in Provence bequeathed to him by his eccentric Uncle Henry.

Max hops on the next plane to France and happily takes in this new environment — sprawling landscapes, sultry weather and sultrier women, and sumptuous food and drink.

But there is the matter of two hectares of vineyard to maintain, and Max suspects something is afoot when his caretaker shows too much interest in the land, strange when the estate’s Le Griffon wines taste absolutely revolting.

Throw in Uncle Henry’s previously incognito daughter into the fray and Max is in for more mayhem than he signed up for.

First off, let me just say that after reading Chasing Cezanne, I’ve learned that even when Mayle writes fiction, it still reads like a travelogue and a gustatory dissertation, so I was well-prepared to read another one of his novels this time around.

I really love how you can just kick back and relax with one of his books, whether they’re fiction or non-fiction. Mayle translates the sights and sounds of the South of France onto the printed page and transports the reader into the laid-back life, almost as if the Provencal sun was beating down your back, and you’re surrounded by the frenetic activity, assailed by the mouth-watering scents of freshly-baked bread and lambchops roasting on a spit.

One of my favorite passages in this book is when Max demonstrates the recipe for his special la sauce vinaigrette ma façon, which I want to try out one of these days:

“He put black pepper and two generous pinches of sea salt into the bowl, grinding them together with the back of a fork until he’d made a coarse black and white dust. A few drops of balsamic vinegar — a deep, deep brown — went in next, and then a long steram of olive oil, greenish yellow in the sunlight. Finally, a cherry-sized blob of full-strength Maille mustard from Dijon. Max picked up the bowl and held it against his stomach while he whisked the mixture with his fork, checking its consistency two or three times before he was satisfied. Putting the bowl down, he tore off a piece of baguette, mopped it in the brown puddle he had prepared with such care, and offered the dripping bread to Christie.”

A Good Year draws particular focus on wines, from the grape to the goblet. I do enjoy the occasional glass (or two) of good wine, but I’m no wine expert, so I found this aspect of the book fascinating.

Charlie gives Max a short lecture on the art of drinking wine:

“There are five steps,” he said, reaching for the glass, “that make all the difference between the art of drinking and the act of swallowing.”

“First, ” said Charlie, “mental preparation.” He worshipped his glass ofr a few moments before raising it to the light. “Next, the pleasure of the eyes.” He tilted the glass so that the differences in color could be seen — deep read at the bottom, fading into a lighter maroon at the top, with a rim that was faintly tinged with brown. “Now for the nose.” He swirled the wine gently, opening it up to the air, before dipping his nose into the glass and inhaling. “Ah,” he said with a slow smile, his eyes closed. “Ah.”

“Now for the pleasures of mouth, tongue, and plate.” He took a sip of wine, holding it in his mouth while he sucked in a little air, making a discreet lapping sound. For a few seconds his jaw ent up and down as though he were chewing, and then he swallowed. “Mmm,” he said. “The final step is appreciation. Messages from the palate to the brain. Thoughts of the wine still to come.”

Charlie also makes a hilarious revelation about the connoisseur’s vocabulary (“Do I detect tulips? Beethoven in a mellow mood? The complexity, the almost Gothic structure…“) — it’s all twaddle!

As Max settles into his uncle’s vineyard, he learns more and more about the lucrative and highly competitive boutique wine trade — from the grapes to the vines and the legalities of producing wine and the process of selling it– at the same time giving the reader an overview of the wine industry in the South of France.

Mayle’s love for the Provencal countryside and enthusiasm for wines shine in this novel, and offer hours of leisurely reading pleasure.

This book was adapted into a 2006 movie starring Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard. I haven’t seen it yet, although it appears to have been a flop. I don’t think Mayle’s books are the sort that would take well to the cinema — they’re much too laid back for movie material, and are better enjoyed lounging on a beach chair with a cold cocktail drink.


My copy: hardcover with dust jacket, mooched from the US

My rating: 4/5 stars

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