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Peter Mayle

29
Jan

What do you do, when you become disillusioned with the rat race, and realize luxuries such as indoor plumbing are no longer important to you? Become a wine columnist? No, wrong answer. You simply pack your bags, and nip off to Provence. After a brief encounter with the eccentricities of the natives, you record your dramas and triumphs in two books that quickly become best sellers the world over. Then, when everyone and his uncle suddenly appears on your doorstep, you pack your bags and move on, leaving your unwanted visitors to trample all over the once pristine French countryside.

This is precisely what happened to Peter Mayle whose Provence books captured the imagination of millions of foodies and winers around the globe.

PS: In The Year in Provence, you say that what makes life worth living is the happy shock of discovering that you have managed to give a few hours of entertainment to people you have never met. How did it feel when you realized just how many people were being thoroughly captivated by your writing?

PM: There was a sense of disbelief to start off with and it took me a long time to realize that the book was becoming well known and it was only when I looked at the printing numbers that I realized it had really taken off. For at least a year or two after I wrote it, nothing much changed as far as I was concerned. I mean nobody was dancing up and down asking for my autograph. Life just went on as it had been. And you know, I would get my nice notes from my publisher that we’re reprinting again, and one of these days you’ll get your royalty check.

And then I started getting letters from people, and then I started getting more letters and then I started getting so many letters I had to get a girl to help me out to answer them. And I have gradually got used to the idea that I really have been able to give a lot of people a few hours of pleasure. And it’s the most wonderful feeling because writing, unlike other forms of artistic endeavor…acting or music performance, or whatever…there is no immediate audience. In fact, you could actually go through most of your writing life, unless you came out on these sort of book tours, without ever meeting your audience. So, to that extent, once you start getting some feedback and it’s positive feedback, it’s a marvelously gratifying thing.

PS: You’ve devoted many pages of your books to the millionaire’s mushroom. Why are truffles so revered by gastronomes and why are they traded as if they were a controlled substance?

PM: To a certain extent they are a controlled substance in that they are unable to be cultivated and so they are controlled by the whim of nature. And they’re not necessarily everybody’s taste. I happen to adore them, but they are very, very pungent indeed. If you have some in your kitchen, the smell will go through the entire floor of the house. It will go through anything except glass and tin. So if you want a truffle omelet without having to use a truffle, you can put the truffle in with a box of eggs, and the flavor will penetrate the eggshells and you have a flavored omelet without using the precious fungus.

The trade in truffles is so murky because they are rare and because they command huge prices. Last winter in Paris they were going for 8000 francs a kilo, which is about seven hundred dollars a pound. And of course when things are that expensive, and they’re not branded, and they’re not manufactured, and you can’t really be sure of their provenance, you find a lot of funny business going on. You get dealers who are fairly unscrupulous and you’ll find them in bars and cafes around market towns in the truffle season. And if you ask for 500 grams of truffles, they take out a scale from their muddy pocket, rummage around in their bag, and they produce these wonderful truffles which they weigh. Then you get home and scrub them and begin chopping them and you may well find they’ve got lead buckshot or slivers of lead in the bottom to enhance the weight and therefore the price.

But you have paid for your truffles in cash, because checks or credit cards aren’t accepted. And since the guy probably won’t work that market again for another year or so, you’ve had it. There’s a truffle you can grow in French West Africa in Senegal, which is white and which is almost tasteless. But they ship them to France where they’re stained with walnut juice until they’re as close to a black truffle as they can be and then they’re packaged and sold as black truffles. It’s always fascinated me because it’s such a murky business, so that’s why I used it in my new book.

PS: People in your books spend an enormous amount of time enjoying a drink called Pastis. What the heck is it?

PM: Well, it’s dangerous in a word. It’s essentially a mixture of aniseed, licorice and herbs, all of which is very harmless. And then they put in forty-five percent of alcohol and what happens is…Yes, it is the most alcoholic drink in the world. I mean it’s stronger alcoholic content than whiskey or brandy. I think there is bourbon in the States that is forty-five degrees or ninety proof, whatever they call it. But I think as strong as the law allows is forty-five.

PS: What kind of food typifies Provencal cuisine?

PM: For me, the basis of it all is olive oil, wonderful vegetables in their various seasons like peppers, tomatoes, beans…things like that which I particularly like. Goat’s cheese is terrific down there. There is something like thirty-eight different kinds of goat’s cheese. Not a great deal of meat because very rarely do you get any good beef because there are no cows because there is no grass. So game is very good. And there is so much choice in the summer – you get wonderful asparagus. You get actually rather good fish too – Mediterranean fish. So, on the whole, probably in the winter I would think of game, stews, and things like that. And in the summer just enormous salads and fish done with fennel and barbecued over vine clippings and things like that.

It’s quite a healthy diet, in fact. The people in the southwest of France are the people who live longest of all French, and the French themselves are quite a long lived race and that’s why I think I haven’t really put on a great deal of weight. Because I think it’s probably a healthy diet and it’s somehow balanced, and I’ve been eating like a horse for the last eight years and haven’t really gained too much weight, much to the irritation of a lot of my friends. It’s a diet that I believe to be extremely sensible. Although sense isn’t what they graded it for in the first place. They graded it because it tasted good or looked good, but it seems to work.

And the thing that I find I miss very much in America, where there are some extremely good restaurants, I won’t deny that…Americans don’t have any cheese worth talking about…do they? I mean it’s just that yellow stuff. I bought goat’s cheese in New York because I thought it was real goat’s cheese and it had been so pasteurized and processed and it smelled vaguely of ammonia. It wasn’t anything like the goat’s cheese that I was used to. Because you can get them at various stages of ripeness and freshness and everything, and it’s the most delicate, wonderful taste when you get a proper goat’s cheese.

PS: To hell with my wife’s subscription to the health club. I’m moving to Provence. Talking of longevity, which moves me nicely onto wine, which wines do the locals enjoy on a daily basis and which wines do you enjoy?

PM: There are numerous little places now, springing up all over where they are really trying hard to make an impact on the already overcrowded wine market. But our local stuff, it goes down a treat. I don’t think it’s doctored in any way with sulfides or any of that stuff. It never gives anybody a hangover. Rather strangely pink-tinged teeth, but not a hangover. I don’t know if there is some sort of local chauvinism or something, but they absolutely won’t sell you Bordeaux or burgundy. The local wine stores can get them obviously, but as a matter of course they all say “Why? Why do you want that? Here is a very good wine. Enough of that overpriced rubbish,” they say.

And there is no shortage of choice. I mean I have been trying diligently to exhaust every available opportunity to find out about every local wine carve within a forty-five minute radius of the house and I still haven’t gotten more than halfway through the list.

PS: I’m going to wrap this up with my normal question. When the time comes for you to drink your last glass of Pastis, and pop off to that great truffle patch in the sky, what contribution do you hope to have made to the world through your books?

PM: If I have made a few people laugh, that would be a great contribution.

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