French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle
Length: 240 pages
I read a couple of Peter Mayle’s books prior to this one, and I really enjoyed them. A life in the south of France as a writer, drinking pastis and eating three-hour lunches, is a life I’d gladly live. He’s a British ex-pat who’s been living in France since the late 80’s, so he’s in the interesting position of being integrated into the culture enough to really understand the day-to-day life, while also having a different enough background that he can pick out what’s interesting to foreigners. He’s also an incredible descriptive writer, and quite funny, so his books are a joy to read.
The early part of my life was spent in the gastronomic wilderness of postwar England, when delicacies of the table were in extremely short supply. I suppose I must have possessed taste buds in my youth, but they were left undisturbed. Food was fuel, and in many cases not very appetizing food. I still have vivid memories of boarding school cuisine, which seemed to have been carefully color-coordinated — gray meat, gray potatoes, gray vegetables, gray flavor. At the time I thought it was perfectly normal.
My favourite bits of his last books were the food-related stories, of which there were many. He enjoys his food and takes great pleasure in seeking out the unusual and traditional, which I love to read about. So I was very excited to pick up French Lessons, his book consisting entirely of food-centric stories.
Strangely, though, I found this book less compelling than his others. In his other books he describes incredible meals and wine tastings that leave you salivating and unable to sleep, but most of these stories were around festivals involving food. He focused more on the story of his time at each place rather than the food itself, which I found to be a bit of a let down. We go to a frog fair in Vittel to taste frog’s legs, but there’s very little written around the actual taste and preparation. It’s still an interesting, and at times hilarious, story, but it was a bit like sitting down for dinner and instead getting a movie. However good it may be, I was distracted by the hunger.
I still have Encore Provence, which I think might be the last of his French memoirs that I haven’t read. He’s also published quite a few novels, and I have the first of his mystery series on my shelf now, so maybe it’s time to jump into those.