Peter Mayle: A Life in Provence

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I was recently saddened to learn that one of my favorite authors, Peter Mayle, has died. The first book I ever bought by Mr. Mayle was Where Did I Come From?, which was purchased over 40 years ago in anticipation of telling my children about the facts of life. Decades later, when I was introduced to his travel memoir, A Year in Provence, I had no idea that this was even the same author. During the intervening years, he had published several other books for children and worked in advertising. He and his wife then took the plunge and gave up their lives in England to relocate in France.

The book was serialized for the BBC, and I came across the videos (yes, videos) at the library, while living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Filmed in Provence, the story was mesmerizing. I could relate in some small way to what he and his wife faced, having myself moved to various parts of the U.S. and adjusted to unfamiliar cultures. Those changes never required learning another language, however!

The views and vistas portrayed in the films were like nothing I have ever had access to on a daily basis, even in the most scenic areas of Michigan’s Great Lakes, North Carolina’s shores, Virginia’s mountains, or Texas Hill Country. Beyond the story’s familiar theme of moving to a different type of world, one can also find the more elusive theme of life never being too far along to try something new. This is such an important belief, and I think it resonates for many of us.

The mini-series wasn’t a critical success, evidently, although John Thaw’s portrayal of Peter Mayle was excellent. I loved it, though, and have watched it more times than I care to admit. Thanks to finding the series on the dusty bottom shelf at the library, I was led to the body of works by this wonderful author. I still remember the pleasure of cuddling up by the fireplace with a snowstorm raging outdoors and experiencing the warmth of the French countryside and the scent of lavender.

Peter Mayle wrote several successful sequels to that book, which are presented a bit more like collections of short stories. All the books contain humor, food, wine, weather, friendship, local culture and beautiful locales. How else would I ever have bumped into truffles (the mushroom-like fungi, not the chocolates), boules, the mistral, or pastis? This author wrote other enjoyable non-fiction, in addition, usually centered on various interesting aspects of French culture. To my delight, there were also his novels to devour, which portray many of the same characteristics as his memoirs, along with crimes solved, business deals conducted and wine produced. There’s some romance to be found, as well. A lovely movie with Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard is based on Mayle’s book, A Good Year.

With regret, I have to admit that I didn’t bring the entire collection of Mr. Mayle’s books with me when I moved. I did keep A Year in Provence, of course, and I especially value my ARC (advance reading copy/uncorrected proof) of A Good Year, with the plain blue cover. This format seems just that much closer to the author’s keyboard, somehow.

Try his first book, and if you love it, you’ll have a treasure trove to explore beyond that one. I’m extremely sorry that he’s gone, but surely this author knew that his writing had affected the lives of others, as evidenced by the book sales and fans, increased tourism to Provence, and readers who sought him out when visiting the region.

Merci, Monsieur Mayle!

Herbs and Spices: an Affair of the Palate

I love having the power at my fingertips to lead a potentially good meal around the corner to becoming even better, with simple touches of just the right herbs and spices! What’s the difference between the two, you might ask…is it just the form they’re in, whether fresh or dried? Actually, it has more to do with their origins.

In doing some research to refresh my memory, I was reminded that herbs come from the leafy, green parts of the plants, while spices are derived from the bark, stems, root or bulbs. I’m always surprised if a friend admits to not using many of either, since my over-the-top collection of the dried varieties boasts about 50 little bottles neatly arranged alphabetically. Sounds like a lot, I know, but they all get used, eventually.

Fresh herbs are my preference, but they don’t last very long from the grocery store, and chives is the only one I have luck with growing, long-term. I can keep rosemary, basil, sage and parsley alive for a while, either outdoors or in, but the time is limited. I have a growing penchant for the pungent ones that arrive at the stores in their own little tubes, mixed with a little oil, like ginger, cilantro and basil. You may want to try these, if you haven’t already.

The dried combinations available in the supermarkets are tasty, too, like Italian, Greek and Moroccan seasonings containing herbs and spices that naturally lend just the right touch to foods from those areas of the world. The concoction that I wouldn’t want to do without, though, is Herbes de Provence. The high prices sometimes hint at being imported directly from France, but don’t let them fool you. The less expensive brands in the plain plastic containers work just fine, or you can make your own blend. As Peter Mayle points out in his book, Provence A-Z, there are rules in place that assure the resulting “recipe” for mixtures actually bottled in France: 26%, each, of oregano, rosemary and savory, followed by 19% thyme and 3% basil. I also enjoy a bit of lavender thrown in!

While using a pinch of that favorite “French” concoction recently, my mind started wandering to what “Herbs of Michigan” would contain, leading me to think about which ones might be tied the most closely to regional foods from this state. Better yet, what about a mixture particular to the Upper Peninsula, called “herbs da U.P.”, if you will! I’m sure the combination could vary widely, since immigrants including Finnish, French Canadians, Swedish and Cornish traditionally came to this part of the country to find work in the mines. A specialty that comes to mind first is the Cornish pasty (pictured below), that meat pie so well-known in the upper reaches of Michigan. Many pasty (rhymes with “lastly”) recipes call for onion, tarragon and thyme, which could make an interesting dried blend.

Based on your location or cooking areas of expertise, you may already have your favorites. You could even bottle your own personal blends, to have ready and waiting as you don your apron! It would be great to hear from readers about their herb and spice preferences.

Culture Shock as Fodder for Writing

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An entire sub-genre of writing exists that zeroes in on people who leave their homes to set up housekeeping in radically different environments. The unfamiliar habits of the locals then make interesting and often amusing stories. Some of my favorites are offerings by Peter Mayle, Julia Child, Adam Gopnik and Frances Mayes. I love their books and often picture what it would be like to wake up and find myself in similar situations.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, while planning a trip to visit my daughters and their families in Texas. We lived there together, in what seems like another lifetime, after spending the beginning of our lives in Michigan. As the memories flood over me, I realize that I’ve lost sight of how alien everyday things sometimes seemed during those years. Many writers have experienced relocation to another culture, even if it’s not in France or Italy, and details of those experiences can add interesting twists to story plots.

For example, I remember the chuckles I received from several office mates one day in the “Lone Star State”, when I referred to stopping at the “party store for pop”. At the same time, I never understood why Texans called all soda pop “Coke”, no matter what the label said. At the end of a long workday, “See you guys” contrasted sharply with, “Bye, y’all”. There were differences wherever I turned. Due to the “Blue Laws”, sale of clothing on Sundays, at that time, wasn’t allowed, and many counties were “dry”, meaning they didn’t sell alcohol at all. Of course, the rich drawls and twangs took some getting used to, especially when my older daughter tried them on as her own. I had always thought of my speech as being just plain, but was told by my new friends that I spoke with a “funny accent”!

Travel outside the borders of one’s own state isn’t even required. Within Michigan, people living in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas have interesting differences in ways of speaking and in the foods they enjoy, just to name a few idiosyncrasies. If you’ve never tried cudighi, a type of sausage, or the meat pies called pasties, you still haven’t lived.

Do you think anyone will notice if I take notes during my Texas visit? I’ve forgotten so many of the cute little quirks and need a refresher for future writing!

For books about moves to parts unknown, my “Reading Lists” page details several authors with one of their titles, each, for starters.