When I was in middle school, with grand ideas about the world and my career path, I had a vague long-term plan. I wanted to travel the world, end up in France and become an esteemed food critic. This may sound odd, but it was my dream. Now in college, my dreams have morphed a bit to make room for the harsh reality that simply becoming a food critic is a highly rare career to land, and traveling takes more money than I could have possibly planned for. However, like a glowing bubble of irrational positivity, my retirement goals of one day settling down in France to eat all the fancy bread, wine and cheese my stomach can handle remains nestled firmly in my brain, undaunted.
In the spirit of nodding to this dream of mine, I present a book review of the delectable, hilarious and heartwarming travel memoir book, “A Year in Provence,” by Peter Mayle. This book, and its two award-winning sequels, “Encore Provence” and “Toujours Provence,” embodies what perhaps was the start of my early gastronomical fantasies.
Although I usually make a point to review newly published books, this review will have to be called the vintage edition, since “A Year in Provence” was written in 1989. However, it’s an oldie but goldie, a book that, despite its popularity when it first was published—Julia Child even said she loved this book, which pretty much puts it on my recommendation list for life— has remained largely unread by the current crowd of college foodies.
Ah, I’ve now brought us to the ‘foodie.’ What an elusive term for something that should be so easy. For quite a while I have longed to be the kind of person who knows which type of cheese is best simply by the smell. I want to be the girl who makes outlandishly delicious dishes for friends everyone is secretly jealous of. I long to go to the local farmers market and chit-chat with all the vendors, my arms full of fresh vegetables and with a sunflower or two in my hair, just because I’m natural and beautiful like that, and duh, food is my ultimate passion. Oh, what a life!
Unfortunately, being an honest-to-goodness classic foodie in college is hard if you don’t have the resources, time or energy to dedicate to picking out sunflower seeds varieties or learning the finer complexities of olive oil. However, Peter Mayle invites one into a world where everyone, even the reader, is a die-hard foodie, well versed enough in matters of both food and life to live in France, the cuisine capital of the world, and fit right in.
He manages this with crisp storytelling, dry wit and descriptions of ripe stuffed peppers, warm bread and pink champagne detailed enough to make you salivate buckets. Get your napkins out and your cheese board ready,
because not having something (preferably gourmet) to munch on while you read this book will risk getting you ready for Thanksgiving-size feasting eight months early.
“A Year in Provence” follows exactly what the title implies; England native Peter Mayle and his wife, along with their two trusty dogs, decide to fulfill a long-coveted dream and move into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in Luberon, Provence, an area of France famous for its beautiful, remote countryside. The book takes us through the first year of living in Provence; all the ups, downs and delicious meals that come with moving to a new country with a daring new menu and robust new culture. The stories Mayle shares over his first 12 months run a delightful gamut from enduring the frosty January Mistral wind, which plunges Provence into the likeness of a freezing wasteland every winter, to learning how to secure the freshest baguette available in a competitive and cutthroat French marketplace.
Richly appreciative of French culture and cuisine, and with a wit sharp enough to cut at times, (such as when describing the unpleasantness of being overburdened with unannounced houseguests too eager to explore the countryside) Mayle paints an engaging picture of quiet Provençal life, at once both amusing and deeply insightful.
To be completely honest, it made me want to drop everything and move to France, but I find myself thinking that quite often, so perhaps I am biased.
What really makes Mayle’s book special, even more than an authentic glimpse into a gritty nuts-and-bolts depiction of Provençal culture or the scrumptious food, is the timelessness it manages to capture in its descriptive, sharply crafted sentences. Reading the book in 2015, it’s obvious that Provence has probably changed in the last 30 years. However, the golden snapshots of experience in Mayle’s novel and its sequels will last forever, a warm and wholesome reminder of life at some of its most relatable, enticing and uncomplicated terms: Good food, good friends and good memories.
For a student in college gearing up to soon brave the haze of final exams sustained mostly by coffee and stress, that sounds like a pretty wonderful read to me. From the wannabe foodie to the world traveler, “A Year in Provence” has a flavor for everyone who dreams of trying something new.