I just finished reading Peter Mayle‘s third book set in Haute Provence (perhaps more aptly known as the Luberon), Encore Provence (1999), and I can see how Mayle comes by the charming essay. Take, for instance, our quest for Poulet Roti. We first encountered the oven-roasted chickens when in Annecy in September. I had read about these birds on David Lebovitz‘s wonderful blog (he’s formerly of Chez Panisse but now an expat living in Paris). His description of roasted chicken in Paris set salivary glands drooling.
The poulet roti graced every market in the Haute Alpes region where Annecy is located—spits laden with chicken slow roasting–and then I noticed that our village charcuterie in Doussard (where our gite was situated) offered poulet roti. Even our local Spar market had the portable enclosed rotisseries outside on the sidewalk showcasing the poulet roti with a sign “Poulet Roti Tous jours.” Naturally, a decision on obtaining a bird took some time for us, never known as spur of the moment decision-makers. Thus, it was on the following Monday that we determined to have poulet roti for dinner. But, the charcuterie was ferme on Monday. I then went to the second-choice Spar “super” market (this is the place where I finally discovered toilet paper, along with other housewares, in a back room) and inquired after the poulet roti. “Non.” So much for “toujours” advertising. I had to get regular chicken and cook it myself. Not quite the slow-cooked morsels we had anticipated.
We departed France for a month to hike in the Dolomites and along the Cinque Terre. Italy, of course, is a wasteland in terms of poulet roti. Instead, “Musee du jambon.” So all kinds of charcuterie—salami, prosciutto—to be had. We returned to France for a stay in Cassis, the charming seacoast town that I had visited first in 1989 with four women friends, a place where I wanted to return with David. Its calanques—fjordlike inlets along the sea with high white cliffs—are a marvel.
Thus, on Sunday, when I walked to the Presse down the street to get the newspaper, I was heartened to see that our local butcher had the rotisserie out and literally three dozen birds turning on the spit. David and I became quite excited, and he ventured in to ask when the shop closed so he could be there in time for the big buy. As it shut at 1 pm, he was there at noon to secure the bird. When the lady in front of him asked for a bird, she was questioned, “Had she reserved?” Mais, non? All of the poultry had been reserved in advance. Je suis desolee. (This particular phrase became a favorite of ours when we were in the French Pyrenees some years ago, having a picnic near a rushing stream when a young couple with a very large dog came up, and the latter knocked over our bottle of wine. Her response: Je suis desolee. I countered that we had another bottle in the car, but we have loved that phrase ever since.)
David returned to our apartment with a hangdog look, and there ensued a rather lengthy conversation on the trials of trying to obtain the poulet roti. I reassured him that we would try again this week, but when we went to our Internet shop (which is lined up with the boulangerie, the butcher, the Tabac, the deli/epicerie), we noticed that the butcher—the purveyor of what looked to be stunning poulet roti—would be closed for two weeks: vacances. Perhaps the Wednesday market?
It was, then, with some fanfare that we noted today as we went to get the International Herald Tribune that the deli/epicerie—Fourchette et Potager–had its rotisserie out with four birds on the spit! We had planned on dining out, but decided we needed to move quickly. We went in and asked if these birds were “reserved.” One was not. Thus, we’ll be picking up the long-awaited bird at 6:30 this evening for our dinner. The Holy Grail could not have been more anticipated.
That is the kind of event that Mayle can adopt as a theme for a chapter very easily. He’s a master observer and has a keen sense of humor. Encore Provence doesn’t have the thematic unity of A Year in Provence, a very fine read, but when one is actually visiting the region, it’s a helpful memoir, even if it’s rather dated at this point. (BTW, the second in the series is Toujours Provence.) In Encore, he’s no longer renovating the house located in Menerbes, France, but considering putting in an olive orchard or investigating truffles or visiting Marseilles. In one chapter he takes on a New York Times food editor who has written discouragingly about a “Provence that has never existed.” To show that she is mistaken, he offers lists of places to find great cheese, olive oil, honey, bread, and wine. As we are staying in Oppede le Vieux, one of the “perched” towns in the Luberon for a few days, I took careful note of his recommendation for fromage from Genevieve Molinas, located in Oppede.
He has a charming chapter on searching for the perfect corkscrew, and he begins by doing historical research at the Musee du Tire Bouchon, an institution devoted to the corkscrew, located conveniently in Menerbes. Such a place can exist with an expectation of clients due to Mayle’s putting the area on the map. According to the Michelin Guide to Provence, busloads of Asian tourists stop to snap photos of the scenes made famous in A Year in Provence. I take the corkscrew museum seriously though, and we will definitely pay a visit. I got over any snobbery about such focused collections when we lived in Jonkoping, Sweden one fall and visited its Matchstick Museum. It was an absolute delight, explaining the origins of the matchstick and how it literally changed the world.
Mayle introduces several wonderfully funny bits in Encore Provence, including the phrase le pipi rustique. As a matter of fact, we had taken “le pipi rustique” when we hiked to Cassis’ three accessible calanques—5 miles of walking—as there were no toilets along the route. I won’t spoil the pleasure of reading the French sub-titles for a Western film that translates “Give me a shot of red-eye,” but I will say that that there are many fine moments for laughter in this read, and if one were to take a siesta in a hammock on a warm afternoon in Provence while reading it, Mayle would understand entirely.