Some books are so seminal that from their first appearance they become untouchable, iconic archetypes, paving the way for future authors to imitate, but never replicate — a good storytelling recipe. I knew I was onto something of this calibre when I first read A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle when it came out in 1989. Mayle knew it too, since he has written many sequels that thread together his unique and exquisitely described outlook on French food and culture. It started out as “a year” and now, after a quarter of a century of Provencal living, Mayle is taking a look back in My 25 Years in Provence (Appetite by Random House, 2018). Provence is truly a magical place that spoke to Mayle through its food — a place where vin rose is “a taste of summer in the glass”, where making goat cheese is an art form, where eating a black truffle on foie gras is “the closest thing on earth to having heaven in your mouth”, and where the night markets provide the most pleasant grocery shopping experience he can ever imagine.
By taking up residence in such a unique locale, Mayle grew accustomed to picking up on the trends of the seasons by observing what farmers were up to and listening to the gossip of the patrons in local cafés. Provence is an agricultural region bursting with grape vineyards, olive groves, fig trees, and asparagus fields. It also has a bit of the wild side with truffle hunters and their golden-nosed dogs secretly plying their trade to keep their sources out of the sight of others, while game hunters with noisier instruments roam the woods in search of wild boar. Throughout the year, food festivals are governed by the seasons to display regional delicacies — rice, olives, truffles, lemons, melons, garlic. Mayle writes, “These are informal, good-natured affairs, organized by people whose sole desire is to give you a taste of pleasure, whether your particular weakness is a fresh sardine or an elderly cheese.” He continues by saying the range of festivals “supports the widely held conviction that, wherever you are in Provence, you need never go hungry.”
Just as Mayle navigated towns, fields and forests of the French countryside, so does his writing wander across Provence to suggest some of his favourite lunch items at favourite restaurants in favourite towns. With dining tips from the likes of Mayle, we could not ask for more as readers. One beloved regional speciality is bouillabaisse made with fresh seafood gathered off the coast of Marseille, which he describes as “part soup, part fish stew; delicious, but difficult to control. Many an immaculate shirtfront has suffered from garlic-stains and it is a wise customer who asks for two large napkins.”
His writings about Provence have inevitably caused others to follow him. His books have drawn attention to the region and tourism has blossomed, for better or worse. Certain things have changed because of tourism. Mayle hates that cafés have been replaced by boutiques that tend to be more profitable than selling cups of coffee. But it is the qualities that remain the same, that have endured the test of time, that have withstood the invasion of foreigners, that are the qualities that made him fall in love with Provence in the first place: the slow pace of life, the marvellous weather, spirited games of boules (lawn bowling), market shopping with fresh ingredients unhampered by plastic packaging or metal cans, and a regional anise-flavoured alcohol called pastis.
Even though I have been a fan of Mayle’s books since he began writing more than a quarter of a century ago, I was sadly unaware that he had passed away. I had been reading this book with the same enjoyment as always when I learned from the biographical insert on the back cover than he had died earlier this year, making this book a posthumous publication and his final words on Provence. Even though I missed his obituary in the social media news feeds back in January 2018, I reverently bowed my head at the start of each new chapter to honour his soul. It was a good run and I am sad this is his last book. The world lost a great author with the death of Mayle this year, but this author’s life gave Provence to the world in a way only he could.