After a stint in the United States, Peter Mayle returns to his first love in Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France. He doesn’t explain why he left his French home to set up shop on Long Island, just outside of East Hampton, but he’s back and whimsical as ever. Once he and his wife get over “traffic shock” and vocabulary confusion, which seems to shift with every continental relocation, they settle back into a relatively familiar routine of observation. First England, then France; United States, and back to France again. Has anything changed while he was away? Hardly. Everyone is just as quirky as he remembers. Truffle hunters have retained their mystique, but apparently melon wholesalers have moved up on the chain of command.
Published in 1999, Encore Provence is conveniently lacking in technology and cell phones, which is most enjoyable. However, I can’t help but wonder how the landscape of Provence has changed over the last 15 years. In a 2010 update, The Guardian interviewed Mayle about the original success of 1989’s A Year in Provence, the first in the series that launched his career and became an unexpected success. Not only has it stood the test of time, it spawned a new genre: aspirational lifestyle and travel. According to this interview, some of the locals weren’t impressed when his book promoted a region that liked being hidden, a quiet place to raise stock and cultivate crop for farmers, and a secret hideaway for expats. Mayle’s book inspired (and continues to inspire) a generation of tourists, much to the annoyance of everyone who wished the countryside could’ve remained a secret. Yet, it’s hardly fair to blame one man for the travel inclinations of the world. It’s certainly not his fault that the South of France is so appealing.
While it’s virtually impossible for me to not enjoy a book about Provence, Encore reminded me that the Provincial experience is still very far away. Halfway through, around the time when Mayle was providing recommendations for where to find the best wine, olive oil, honey, and bread, a general malaise settled in. You know, that feeling you get when something is unreachable or unattainable? (At least, for a big chunk of the foreseeable future.)
But, I was determined stay whimsical, avoid the disappointment churning in my belly, and capture the gastronomical elements to which I had access in my own city. La Bottega had a great selection of garlic stuffed olives, and the can I purchased happened to be from France. Score! Once again, food comes to the rescue. At Moulin de Provence, a local bakery, I found a loaf of “Double Olive Bread,” which added real life flavour to the chapter explaining the lingo of Olive Oil producers:
I could never understand how anything could be extra virgin. This has always seemed to me like describing a woman as extra pregnant. How can there be degrees of virginity? I’d assumed it to be one of those flights of Italian self-promotion – my virgin is better than your virgin – that served no purpose other than to look impressive on a label.
Olivier looked at me over the top of his glasses. “In fact,” he said, “there are three stages of virginity. All olive oil contains free fatty acids. To be described as extra virgin, an oil must contain less than one percent of these acids. More than one percent but less than one and a half, and you have a vierge fin. Anything above this, up to 3.3 percent, can only qualify as virgin.” He smiled. “Virgin ordinaire. You understand?” (183)
And so May in France continues. Now that I’ve run through most of the travelogues on my shelf, it is time to move on to some fiction, maybe even a biography or two. Now that the weather is clearing up, taking a stroll through the open market is not such an unappealing idea. Maybe if I close my eyes and listen to my fellow Ottawans order fresh green beans and tomatoes from the vendors, I could pretend I was in France. On the upside, many of the vendors speak French, so it’s not such a stretch.
Have you been to Provence? If so, congratulations, you lucky duck! Share your culinary experiences below!