Tuesday, May 28, 2013

6 Great Reads if You're Traveling to the South of France (or only dreaming)

It's Spring and This Woman's Fancy is Turning to France.

Grape vines are flowering in wine country here in the Willamette Valley, and the sight reminds me of wonderful hours spent tramping through  vineyards, markets, and picture perfect villages in the South of  France.

But until it's time to get on the plane, I read books, wonderful books, that evoke the region, the culture, the wine and the food. I particularly enjoy books by anglophones who have settled in France, come to terms with a different pace and world view, and who share their trials and triumphs with those of us who only dream of someday .......someday....... staying longer than work and limited vacation time currently allow.

If you are lucky enough to be planning a trip, or if you are dreaming of a trip sometime in the future, feast your eyes and your senses on these great reads.

Let's start with My French Life by Vicki Archer 

Full of gorgeous photographs, the book is the the memoir of an Australian woman who lives a life between Australia, England and France and calls all three home. She, her husband and three children, purchased a derelict 400 year old mas  (farmhouse) on the outskirts of Saint-Remy-de-Provence, a village we will visit in October for one of the finest outdoor markets in the South,  Moulin Casetelas, the olive oil mill where the Archers take their olives to be milled, and lunch on Roman delicacies in the Taberna Romana  across the road from the ruins of Glanum just outside of town.

The book details the restoration of Mas de Berard with its ancient olive trees, and muses on French culture,style, the daily patterns of life in the country, and the integral role of food in French life. The prose is evocative and poetic,such as her description of the olive oil from Moulin Castelas:
"Their oil is evocative of  the Alpilles: it smells of fresh grass and olives, tastes of sweet almond trees and raw artichokes and finishes with a peppery bite, suggesting the olives were fully ripe before pressing, The texture is fine, the colour a transparent citrus green, and the taste sheer bliss."


Another favorite author is Kristin Espinasse,  author of the delicious  French-Word-A-Day blog and her two books  Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language from the South of France, and Blossoming in Provence. 

As in her blog, Kristin, (wife of winemaker Jean-Marc Espinasse and mother of two very French children) tells delightful vignettes of how a French language challenged American found her way from the Southwest to the south of France, fell in love, married a Frenchman, and began raising a family. Her prose is liberally sprinkled with french words (which she puts in italics and translates at the end of each chapter) to illustrate their meaning and use in everyday conversation; but along with the language lesson, you learn a great deal about the way the French live; how they think; how they behave;  and what they value. Her humor is self deprecating, and as in her blog, she is almost painfully honest about her trials, failure, and triumphs.  But no matter where you pick up the book or dive into a blog post, you are are always, always, amused. Here is a brief excerpt, where she and her children cope with the difficulty of a bilingual (barely) household:

What's foreign can be off-putting, and at times a word is a three-eyed monster. French words baffled me for years. Now, English words intimidate my children.............
"deesh-wah-share?", he repeats after me.He sits for a moment, considering my request, and then darts out of the salon.
Entering the salon de bains, where we keep our washing machine, I find Max crouched to the floor, pulling damp clothes from the lave-ligne. Like most French washing machines, the door is on the front side of the machine just inches from the ground.
"Max, what are you doing?" I say.
You said empty the wah-share", he explains.
"The dish-wah-share! You know, knives, forks, cups..."
"Ah, le lave-vaiselle," he translates, and heads off in the direction of the cuisine.
Poor little guy with the foreign mommy, I think as I set the plastic laundry basket on the floor, empty the wah-share and head outside to hang up the linge.
What a lovely way to learn words in French.

For sheer physical beauty, I recommend Michael Jacobs The Most Beautiful Villages of Provence. with photographs by High Palmer


This coffee table book explores  stunning villages in each of the major regions of the south, from the Vaucluse and the Bouches-du-Rhone to the Var and the Alpine departments of the east.  In addition to the brilliant photographs, there are map, listings of restaurants, fetes and markets for each of the villages, and sights to enjoy.
From the flyleaf:
Provence is a land apart, a territory of outstanding beauty and distinction that has fascinated outsiders since earliest times, The Greeks, the Romans, the barbarians of the North and the Moors have all left their traces in its villages and small towns, from the hills and mountains of the Luberon to the villages perches of the Alpes-Maritimes.

Travelers' Tales Provence: True Stories by Peter Mayle, M.F.K. Fisher, Lawrence Durrell, Yvone Lenard, Alain de Botton, Kermit Lynch and many more , edited by James O'Reilly and Tara Austen Weaver


Several of my favorites include Indu Sundaresan's Tureau, Tureau . a tale of how the author came to be running from a bull-in-training named Eduard in the traditional bullfighting style of the South of France where a rosette is tied to the horns of the bull, and the bullfighters, rather than slaying the bull, attempt to grap the rosette; and when chased, leap over  the wooden barriers surrounding the ring  like circus acrobats.

There is a chapter by noted wine merchant and Negociant Kermit Lynch on the wines of Cassis (which we will also visit) with the admonition to "Drink it where it was born."

M.F.K Fisher tells us of Aix-en-Provence, the University city, City of Fountains, and former Provencial capital before the Revolution, where she begins:
So here is the town, founded more than two thousand years ago by the brash Roman invaders, on much older ruins which still stick up their stones and artifacts. I was as brash a new-comer to it, and yet when I first felt the rhythm of its streets and smelled its ancient smells, and listened at night to the music of its many fountains, I said "Of course", for I was once more in my own place, and invader of what was already mine.
Aix will be our first destination and home base for our  4 days in Provence.

Carol Drinkwater, actress and English expat who turned a dilapidated farm house into an organic olive farm in the Var, wrote Pressing the Olive: Its a virgin birth of a different kind  of her first olive harvest and finding just the right mill to press it into their very own oil.

I loved Clive Irving's  evocative description of the Mistral, the wind that  is such an emblem of the Rhone and Provence in Relish the Rhone :
This was a pervasive, inhabiting wind. It raged across the hill above, tearing into freshly bloomed cascades of yellow broom so that the color writhed. Cypresses, the most exposed of the trees, flexed acutely in the line of the wind. They signaled its direction- and identity.  The intruder came from the north, sucked down the great valley of the Rhone and into Provence like a jet stream, This was the Mistral.
And there were many, many more wonderful vignettes to enjoy.

Finally, for this post at least, I heartily recommend  Peter Mayle's Provence A-Z: a Francophile's Essential Handbook

To quote the New York Times' review," Mayle's magpie dictionary yields amusing facts....and useful information.." on everything he finds amusing, intriguing, exasperating, and just plain fun. Take the entry on Bises et Bisous (hugs and kisses) for example:

Visitors from the north are frequently surprised by the intensely tactile nature of social intercourse in Provence. Most Parisians or Londoners, for instance, are accustomed to conversations that are purely verbal exchanges conducted at arm's length. In Provence, they find various body parts being hugged and squeezed, tweaked and tapped and prodded and occasionally massaged. I have seen men and women retreat from these encounters with alarmed expressions on their faces as they examine themselves for the superficial bruises.  It takes some time for them to realize that  speech without touch. for a Provencal, is like Aioli without garlic........
For the rest, you will just have to read the book.

So there it is- six books to make you drool, sigh, laugh, and yearn for the beauty. the clarity of light, the intensity of color, and the savor of some of the most delicious food and wine on the face of the earth. There are plenty more books on my list, so look for more recommendations soon.........and if you can, come with us and live it for yourself.

For more information about our food and wine tour of  Provence and the Rhone, visit us at http://www.tasteandcompareacademy.com.

 Bises et Bisous.