Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Year in Provence

According to the Weather Network, the temperature in Provence today is 15 degrees C. That's 17 degrees warmer than Toronto, so I suppose that's why I'm feeling a little nostalgic for my life in France. And, since I can't afford to visit, on grey February days I let Peter Mayle take me there vicariously.

In his sort-of memoir A Year in Provence, Mayle charts the first year of his (and his wife's) life in France. After dreaming about it for years, the couple decides to take the plunge and buy an old (read: 200-year-old) stone farm house in France's southern countryside. But, as Mayle soon discovers, paradise is something you have to earn.

The Mayles, having moved to Provence from England, don't really know what they're getting into. They get a little complacent about the weather (it's nothing compared to an English winter!) and then suddenly the Mistral blows in and they realize their old farmhouse has no central heating. And then their pipes freeze and burst. And then they have no water and no heat. So they call a plumber, and with the plumber comes the story of how the pipes are unsuited to the cold weather of Provence (it has been getting colder every year), and really, if they're going to live there they probably ought to think about some upgrades. And just like that you're immersed in France - funny expressions, roundabout stories and all.

The book is organized by month, which is the best way to set out a memoir like this, because at the same time as Mayle is describing his renovation woes, he is also describing how his life in Provence develops. It starts with the tradesmen, who are more than happy to gossip about the history of the little town and tell him all sorts of things about French construction and style (and how these things should be applied to his new home), and continues with his forays into the culture of French food.

And as much as I love anecdotes about home renovation (and they are always funny when related by Mayle) it's his descriptions of food that makes this book such an escape. Whether he and his wife are eating in a restaurant, at the home of a friend or simply cooking for themselves (which often involves a description of their shopping expedition), the enthusiasm and eye for detail that Mayle turns to cuisine really do make you feel like you're at the table with him. You can practically taste the wine and smell the golden potato-onion galette.

Really, the only thing that could improve this book would be an accompanying cookbook, because all you want to do while reading is cook seasonal French food so you can eat it while reading Mayle's description of it. If nothing else, you should keep a bottle of wine handy, although to drink every time he does would make the words blurry very quickly. So perhaps the best thing to do is find a comfortable chair (in the sun if possible) and just dream about your own stone farmhouse, because as Mayle proves, sometimes those dreams have a way of working out.

A Year in Provence
by Peter Mayle
First published in 1989 by Random House (cover shown from Vintage Books edition)

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