VINE VOICEon 23 July 2008
Peter Mayle is probably best known for his two travelogues set in Provence - "A Year in Provence" and "Toujours Provence". While "Bon Appétit" is also set in France, it isn't restricted to Provence - it follows Peter's (fairly random) travels throughout the country - basically going wherever his belly leads him.
While British chefs are probably known better for the swearing than their food, their French counterparts are widely viewed as artists. Having spent his early years in post-war England, Peter had come to view food solely as fuel - and certainly not as something you could seriously enjoy. It was a business trip to France, guarding the managerial briefcase, that opened his eyes - a trip that is recalled in the book's opening chapter. His boss, Mr Jenkins, proves to be the stereotypical Englishman - he doesn't have a good word to say about the French, makes no attempt to speak "their lingo" and advises young Peter that, should any further explanations be required, shouting is the best course of action. While there are some who relate very well to Mr Jenkins, Peter isn't one of them : he credits that trip with the loss of his gastronomic virginity, and - if this book in anything to go by - it became the launchpad to a love affair with French cooking.
Peter travels the length and breadth of the country, but doesn't restrict himself to the cafes and restaurants. By the looks of it, there must be any number of food-related festivals. There's a trip to Richerenches for the `Messe des Truffes' - which goes to show you, I guess, just how religious some people are about what they eat. Interestingly, Richerenches started life as a fort built by the Knights Templar. (Doubtless, truffles have something to do with the Holy Grail, the Sacred Feminine and Leonardo da Vinci's entire back catalogue - however, Peter thankfully sticks to the food and avoids the conspiracy theories). He caters for the famous French foods - he attends a Festival of Frogs Legs in Vittel, while he discovers the art of eating snails at a festival in Martigny-les-Bains. Here, he meets the enticing Mlle Coquille, and his education includes a talk on the dangers posed by Chinese counterfeiters. (They're even - oh the horrors - apparently making foie gras). He also attends a cheese fair in Livarot, home to one of the most (reputedly) pungent cheeses in the world. The festivities include the induction of several Chevaliers de Fromage and a cheese eating competition.
Two of the country's most famous wine regions are also visited. The Bordeaux region must be home to the world's most enjoyable marathon. The Marathon du Medoc, run through Bordeaux 's famous vineyards, had nineteen thousand applicants the year Peter visited, of which eight thousand were selected to run. Six thousand of these runners arrived in fancy dress - with France's national champion among the remaining two thousand. (He possibly felt it was worth taking seriously, since the winner apparently gets his weight in wine). For the remaining runners, however, this marathon is all about pleasure. There are over twenty different refreshment stalls along the course...each, as you might expect, offers high energy snacks and mineral water. However, oysters, steak, cheese and a variety of the most appropriate wines are also on the menu - and nobody is out to set a personal best time-wise. "Nowhere", comments Peter, could he "see any sign of the traditional loneliness of the long-distance runner. It wasn't that kind of race."
The trip taken to Beaune, in Burgundy, is for the world's greatest wine auction. Here, Mayle gets to sample the "kind of wine Alexandre Dumas said should be drunk kneeling, with the head bared." I've always loved France myself, but my admiration for some of the region's pharmacies just cannot be put into words. (They actually recommend different wines as cures for various ailments. What a country.)
Even the French take on a spa treatment goes above and beyond what you could ever have dared hope for. Michel Guerard's establishment at Eugenie-les-Bains - an establishment, lets not forget, designed to help people lose weight - has three Michelin stars. Chilled bottles of white Bordeaux, foie-gras, a variety of cheeses, slim, attractive and friendly young ladies who will quite happily power-hose you as part of the treatment...are health clubs seriously supposed to be this enjoyable ?
A very easily read, enjoyable, funny and - at times - informative book. Based on what I've read, there are now several places I've decided to visit...not least a certain restaurant in St Tropez. Absolutely recommended.