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Last words: The late Peter Mayle’s ‘My 25 Years in Provence’

July 10, 2018
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FILE - In this June 20, 1997, file photo, author Peter Mayle is shown in New York. "My Twenty-Five Years in Provence," a posthumously published collection of essays by Mayle, who died in January, takes readers back to the idyllic, slow-paced world of cafes, sunshine and an Englishman trying to make sense of culture in the south of France that he first explored in his charming 1989 memoir "A Year in Provence." (AP Photo/Wyatt Counts, File)

A new, posthumously published collection of essays by Peter Mayle takes readers back to the idyllic, slow-paced and occasionally befuddling world that Mayle first wrote about in his best-selling memoir “A Year in Provence.”

“My Twenty-Five Years in Provence: Reflections on Then and Now” was published in late June by Alfred A. Knopf, five months after Mayle’s death in January at age 78.

The collection is all new material. But it treads delightfully familiar ground for fans who succumbed to the charms of Mayle’s first book. The new volume transports readers to the South of France through the eyes of an Englishman who never ceases to marvel at the sunshine, fine food and sometimes inscrutable culture of his adopted turf. (The cuisine and weather are easy to love, but Mayle never gets used to disorderly lines, aggressive driving and long, detailed consultations with pharmacists.)

What counts as excitement in Provence? A game of boules, or lawn bowling, which Mayle describes as “rural ballet.” Finding tender green beans (haricots verts) at the farmers market just hours after being harvested. Or simply watching the parade of ordinary village life unfold from an unhurried, front-row seat in an outdoor cafe over a glass of delicately hued rose wine.

Mayle worked in advertising and educational publishing in England before he and his wife Jennie moved to France in 1987. “A Year in Provence” was published two years later with little fanfare. It eventually sold millions of copies and inspired an entire genre of books about the expatriate life, including Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun.”

In the new book, Mayle explains that he and Jennie ended up in Provence after their planned vacation on the Cote d’Azur was rained out. They started driving toward Aix-en-Provence, hoping for better weather and a good meal. They found both, along with “a scattering of villages” where they would eventually buy a 200-year-old farmhouse abutting woods and a national park. The book offers vignettes from the region’s “leisurely approach to life,” Mayle wrote, which “seemed to produce amiable people with a relaxed temperament. ... Did it really matter if the occasional pressing chore was postponed in favor of lunch?”

Every season, Mayle noted, “brought its own fascinating reason not to settle down and work.” Summer was perhaps the most challenging, with its triple plague of houseguests, tourists and heat, but it was followed by golden Septembers and the bountiful harvests of fall, easily enjoyed at markets or cafes.

While the book is not a guidebook, for travelers it offers both inspiration and information. A chapter called “Lunch Break” mentions of some of Mayle’s favorite restaurants, like La Closerie in Ansouis, Peron in Marseille and Le Comptoir and Le Numero 9 in Lourmarin. Also listed are several local festivals: the September celebrations of rice in Arles and olives in Mouries; the garlic festival in Piolenc in late August; and the cherry festival in Venasque in early June.

And don’t forget the culinary highlight of winter: truffles, harvested in the forest with the help of trained dogs. At the Fete des Truffes in Aups, held the fourth Sunday of every January, “the normally secretive truffle hunter offers a glimpse of the tricks of his trade, including a demonstration of the hunt and a truffle dog competition.”

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