Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Encore Provence by Peter Mayle

I think this is the last of Mayle's non-fiction books about his sojourn in Provence, which is rather a pity, as I thoroughly enjoyed them all. He and his wife moved to America for a while, and then decided to return to France, so he really seems to take a fresh look at it all, and brings us along for the ride. About America, he notices that a curious outbreak of politically correct speech was going on in the late 80s.

"...sophisticated and influential Americans - those whose comments are sought by the media - were not content to finish anything but preferred to 'reach closure,' and I have a nasty feeling that it won't be long before this affectation is picked up by waiters in pretentious restaurants. I can hear it already; 'Have you reached closure on your salad?' (This, of course, would only be after you had spent some time bending your 'learning curve' around the menu.)"

He talks about the plentiful supply of good restaurants near his home, and comments on the fact that there are very few female chefs in France. When he asks one local, he is told, " France some things are considered too important to be left to women." He's a little hard on the food critics, and when one reports that in France, the selection of rose wines alone in the supermarket was larger than the entire aisle of cereals, cookies and crackers back home, he snarks, "More wine than cookies! There can be few more telling signs than that of a society in the grip of depravity." That was one of the things, incidentally, that I found marvelous about supermarkets in Portugal - aisles and aisles of wine, cheese, meats and olives. Heavenly!

Outdoor cafes seem to be something that the French do extraordinarily well, and Mayle spends some time capturing the cafe experience. Contrary to the stressful, hurried way in which we Americans most often gulp down our meals, "You are expected to linger. You can read a newspaper, write a love letter, daydream, plan a coup d'etat or use the cafe as an office and run your business undisturbed."

Dry cleaners in France are experts on the oddest things. "...she gave him a short lecture on the staining capabilities of various wines, according to their tannin content, and seemed ready to move on to particular vintages when the arrival of another customer distracted her."

Mayle pays a visit to a perfumerie, where he learns just how difficult it is to be a "nose", and discovers that sometimes the most peculiar scents are added to perfumes for just the right fragrance to emerge, such as pipi de chat. He tries to figure out how the natives of Provence stay so fit on what is supposed to be an unhealthy diet. "...the food police...have lectured us on the evils of fat, any kind of fat...Food products, even here in France, have to confess on their labels that they have committed a crime against the innards of society by including a percentage of fat."

He also goes on a quest to find the perfect corkscrew, visits an olive oil production facility, where he says of the oil, "There was a wonderful smell in the air, rich and slippery and promising, a warm smell I always associate with sunshine."

I feel exactly the same way about Peter Mayle's writing.

No comments: