A Good Year by Peter Mayle will treat Francophiles to some great mind candy – Mayle’s talent of bringing a scene to life with descriptive language and examples will have you armchair traveling in no time.
The story begins with London stockbroker Max Skinner. He loses his job and is about to be flat broke. Then fortune intervenes and Max discovers he has inherited a country estate and vineyard in France from his late uncle Henry. (Quite a difference from the movie, so my opinion is, read it before you watch it!).
Since he’s unemployed, and his friend Charlie ( a rising star in the real estate business) is willing to loan him money to stay afloat, Max travels to France to check out his inheritance. Charlie urged him to get a beret, take tractor driving lessons, get your hands dirty and become the French peasant! Why not….Max is a financial disaster at this point and could always enjoy some good French wine, revisit his Uncle’s home (where he spent many a summer growing up) and perhaps sell and get back on his financial feet.
This begins the journey to France. It is also a new start for Max as he slowly eases into the slower lifestyle, connects with the people he knew when he was a child and learns about wine. The bottles available from his uncle’s vineyard is swill ; ” it gives you a blinding headache and it makes you angry… I can’t imagine the damage a second sip might do.”
Later in the book you will see this isn’t the complete truth. Good wine is produced from this vineyard too but…well, I don’t want to give away the plot too much in case you plan to read it.
I have always enjoyed the descriptive writing style of Peter Mayle. Here is a classic example as well as an experience we have “enjoyed” when we visited Ireland years back:
“The shower was a classic example of late-twentieth century French plumbing, a monument to inconvenience, no more than a vestigial afterthought attached to the bath taps by a rubber umbilical cord. It was handheld model, thus leaving only one hand free for the soap and it’s application to various parts of the body. To work up a satisfactory two-handed lather, the shower had to be placed, writhing and squirting, in the bottom of the bath and then retrieved for the rinsing process, one body part at a time.”
More quotes from the book:
Christie Roberts: Are your memories of my father good?
Max Skinner: No they are extraordinary. My uncle loved women, although no one for a long time, and he never married. He loved England, yet lived in France. He was an adventurer, yet all my memories take place within 100 steps of this spot.
Further into the book you get an abbreviated lesson on how vines are cut, what soil is best, conditions, etc.
“See the diagonal cut on the stem? That’s a cut made by secateurs. And look – there are bunches all the way along this row…..They cut off two or three bunches so that the bunch left gets all the nourishment. This makes it concentrated, with a higher alcohol content. The fancy name for it is vendage verte. It’s slow and expensive because machines can’t do it.
“This is a great spot. The exposure is right; facing east, the stony ground warms up slowly, which is better for the roots and there is a perfect slope for drainage. Land like this would fetch a small fortune in Napa.”
There were many mentions of meals served and menus in this book:
Fanny placed him at a table on the small terrace, brought him a glass of wine and a saucer of sleek black olives, and left him the menu……………and of course, wine is mentioned throughout the book.
Deep fried sliced zucchini, vegetable terrine, pate, roasted cod, cheeses, tarte aux pommes, cream brulee and pommes frites, rabbit stuffed with tapenade …………
Dinner at Roussel’s home:
Civit of wild boar, “made in the correct fashion, with blood and red wine. Not like the English food.”
“The lamb is always good and so is the salmon. They serve it with sorrel sauce. And you should try the pissaladiere.”
A funny scene ensues when the American guest is brought tone of the dinners at Roussel’s home:
“And then, the sound of wheels, the Roussel’s daughter, emerged with a moveable feast – a trolley laden with slices of fat-dappled sausage, wedges of pizza, tapenade on squares of toasted bread, slivers of raw vegetables with anchoide dip, olives both green and black, radishes with white butter, and a thick earthenware terrine of thrush pate…”
Max warns Christie to pace herself and she asks, “Isn’t this dinner?” before being astounded with the answer that, No, it was just warming up for dinner. Unfortunately, Christie did not heed his advice to pace herself and was stuffed to the gills with all the food.
Well as you can see, there are many dishes to inspire me….I may well get to each and every one (with the exception of the thrush pate) but for today, allow me to share pissaladiere.
For a review of the movie based (loosely) on this book, please check me out at Squirrel Head Manor. The recipe for the pissaladiere is there as well.
More about Peter Mayle:
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