Provence The Right Way

Peter Mayle. Writing about living in southern France can inspire jealous rages among writers. Go figure.

Although I can’t stomach French wine, politics, literature or most of its outre forays into food, I have a soft spot in my heart (critics would suggest a little higher) for Provence, courtesy of Britisher (quelle horror!) Peter Mayle. “A Year in Provence” was a delightful book, and the audio version turned it into a language lesson as well. It’s a tribute to the book’s deserved success that very few that followed it were able to match it. The dream of moving to another land, another culture and make it your own is an appealing one, and Mayle’s success gave too many writers the notion that, they too, could find their dreamland and write a best-selling book about it.

Now he’s back, a mere 16 years after “Year” was published. “Provence A-Z” is an eccentric, humorous guide to the region. It’s not meant to replace the standard guidebooks, only add to them the voice of a longtime resident, passing along bits of news and information impossible to get anywhere else.

Take, for example, this description of la cacheille, a Provencal dish that I doubt will be found in any cookbook:

Any soft or semi-soft cheese will do. Put all the leftovers, with garlic and herbs according to your taste, in a deep pot and knead them until they are blended into one unified mass. Pour in a generous slug of marc, and mix thoroughly. Now you have a base, to which you can add more cheese — and always more marc — in the weeks and months to come, or even years. There are stories of a legendary cacheille that reached the ripe old age of ten on its diet of leftovers and marc. And ripe, in fact, is the word that best describes both the smell and the flavor of this dense, tangy, stick-to-the-teeth mixture. 

I have known people who grill it on toast to make a fierce Welsh rarebit, one with a kick. But I prefer to eat it straight from the pot, spread on a piece of baguette and helpd down by the heaviest red wine in the house.

Like I did before with the Nicole Kidman biography, I’m going to return to Provence this week and share a few more bits of Peter Mayle’s wisdom.

NEXT: Cartier Henri-Bresson and Cezanne