09 Feb 2006
It’s an assignment that would make even the most jaded writer pick up his pen: Travel around France and report back about the oddest, most unusual ways that it celebrates its cuisine. Frog legs, snails, truffles, poultry, and, of course, its wine. Sheer heaven!
Peter Mayle accepted the challenge, and here is a book perfect for curling up on the porch alongside a glass of cool refreshment. “French Lessons” charts a year in Mayle’s life as he travels up and down and across France, describing with a combination of droll wit and wine-soaked facts (many times, he couldn’t read his notes the day after some festival) how a country blessed with not only a variety of climates and cuisines, but also a people willing to spend large amounts of money on their enjoyment thereof.
I am a longtime fan of Mayle’s writing, back when he was writing about pastis and other subjects for “European Travel & Life” magazine, but I hope not an uncritical one. I was disappointed in his account of his return to France in “Encore Provence,” and “Hotel Pastis” did not engage me at all. Sometimes, I wonder if, with skills learned in the advertising trade, where he was an executive, he doesn’t succeed in giving the French a gloss it doesn’t otherwise deserve. Certainly, when discussing chickens from Bresse, the only poultry to have its own label (called appellation contr?l?e), he touches only in passing, how most chickens we eat are raised (if we may call it that) in conditions not for nothing is it called factory farming.
But “French Lessons” went down like a lightly-garlic flavored escargot. This is a book which celebrates eating and drinking well, and is a balm to the soul as well as incentive for the appetite. Needless to say, it should only be taken in short dollops, after a good meal.
Not everything has to do with cooking. There’s the Le Club 55, a restaurant in Saint-Tropez where the Beautiful (and mostly undressed) People meet to eat and be seen, where an expert on plastic surgery was able to tell which surgeon worked on which lift (“Cosmetic surgery has its Diors and Chanels, and when looking at a suspiciously taut and chiseled jawline or an artfully hoisted bust, the informed eye can identify who did what.”)
Then there’s the Marathon du M?doc, where, amid the serious runners, jog several thousand more in fancy dress amid the ch?teux of Bordeaux, where wine is offered at the refreshment stations, and the winner earns his weight in wine. Rounding out the collection is a celebration of frog’s legs on the last Sunday in April in Vittel, where 30,000 people will eat five tons of the stuff.
Mayle’s genial collection of gastronomic wonders may well encourage you to try a walk on the wild side yourself.