Upon publication of Peter Mayle's novel, A Good Year, we asked him a few questions about real life in Provence, what it's like to write about that life, and more. Here we present two of his answers. You may either click to listen to Mayle, or read the transcript below. The complete interview is available on the A Good Year audio book, published by Random House Audio.

About the plot of A Good Year: An Englishman in Provence
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About eating in Provence:
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About the plot of A Good Year: An Englishman in Provence

When I was in the middle of plotting the book I obviously fell back on people, personalities, and experiences I've either had myself or my friends have had, and one of the most inevitable things about anybody who moves to any rural area, anywhere in the world, I should think, is that they sooner or later come up against the local peasantry. Now in France, a "peasant" isn't a pejorative description of a person. It's what he is: a "paisson," a man of the country, usually a farmer or a farm worker. And they are, in my opinion, almost exactly the same as their equivalents in the southwest of England, where I used to live for a few years; and the Cornish and Devon peasant in England has exactly the same suspicion of all these guys that come down from towns with their clean shoes and fancy cars, as the peasant who lives in Provence. And I donÕt blame them either because there are tales at which they will regal you with with great relish of their neighbors being hoodwinked by a smart-aleck from Paris who bought their crumbling barn and 200 acres for half a crown and a bag of peanuts and now has done it up and it's worth millions.

And so they have a suspicion of sharp practice coming from the people who come down from Paris and, indeed, the people who come from London—although we, coming from England, suffer from a disadvantage in that we're not French and often don't speak their language quite as perfectly as we would like. Whereas the Parisiennes, although they have funny accents according to the Provencaux, they are very at home in French.

One of the things that I can remember very clearly as being a milestone in my feeling of being settled in Provence was when my neighbor—I took him out for a drink once; we had to talk about a tractor I think, or something—and he turned round to me at the end and he said, "You know, you're an Englishman, which is a disadvantage. But I have to tell you, on the whole, we prefer you to the Parisiennes." So I felt a lot better after that.

About eating in Provence:

I think that what one finds in eating consistently in Provence is you end up failing to be surprised by anything. I remember there was a wonderful photograph once of a dozen men sitting around a table with napkins over their heads, and they were inhaling the bouquet of small birds called "autolon." You're not allowed to hunt or cook them now; they're forbidden. I thought it was a terribly funny photograph. Nobody else did. They all said "Well, it's what you do." You don't want any of that wonderful bouquet to escape to your neighbor's nostrils, so you put your napkin over your head and your plate and you sniff up the whole thing like that.

And just the other day I was given some pate, which I like very much. It's thrush pate, and it came from Corsica. Actually, friends brought it over from Corsica, and it had the thrush's beak sort of sticking up in the middle of the pate, just as a decorative touch. It wasnÕt anything. You weren't supposed to eat it, or suck it, or stick it behind your left ear to bring you luck or anything like that; it was just a decorative touch to make it clear from a distance that it was a thrush pate, and not a pate of any other bird or beast.

I like those sort of touches which distinguish handmade stuff from factory made stuff. One of the great delights of France is that there is still a thriving industry in the small farmer who just produces wonderful goat's cheese or fabulous melons or terrific truffles or something like that, and he doesnÕt necessarily feel that he wants to be bigger. He has his life; it suits him. He makes enough to get by on, and he produces a totally wonderful product. You come across those sorts of things everyday, if you keep your eyes open, and I'm always on the lookout for somebody who does something rather unusual clearly for the love of it.

Read an essay from Peter Mayle about the vocabulary of wine


Photo © Jennie Mayle

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