It’s the beads of moisture that do it. They lie, fat and lazy, on pitchers of pink wine, drip down metal jugs of iced water kept to dilute the pastis. You can picture them, sparkling on warm days in Provence, on little tables groaning with food under chestnut trees, twinkling on counters of cosy little bars, in villages you can’t help but want to see. I’ve been reading every Provence book by British author Peter Mayle I can get my hands on, because this is some of the most hunger-creating writing I’ve found in ages. And while you can excite me greatly with tales of adventure, glittering cities and fantastic people, I have to confess I spend most of the day thinking about food, so if you want me to travel somewhere, talk about what you’re going to put on my plate, please. I suspect this is true for most people.
Mayle created a sensation with A Year In Provence in the 1980s, almost single-handedly making property prices shoot up all over the Luberon. It’s easy to see why. He draws you into a life that feels absurdly wonderful, and he primarily does it by talking about meals, each of which seems to take several happy, relaxed hours.
Food is the centre of everything. Truffles take up entire chapters—not just the eating, but the hunting and black-marketeering of them, down to clandestine meetings at night and the villainy of Italians who stain inferior white Italian truffles to make them look like black French ones. Finding the right olive oil or bread is not a simple trip down to the shops, but a treasure hunt or the stuff of detective novels. The plumber advises on wine, a really serious gourmet explains why he wears a tracksuit and sneakers whenever he has a meal. Mayle makes you want to be part of that world, makes you look up recipes and emigration formalities for France. This is food writing at its best.
Of course, it’s reasonable to expect good writing about food from a travel writer—it’s more of a surprise when it turns up in fiction. American mystery writer Lawrence Sanders is especially good at this. His detective, Archy McNally, wastes little time on plotlines thinner than the paper they’re written on, and more on gorgeous women, old bebop tunes, and terrific food. He spends a lot of time at the Pelican Club and Café L’Europe in Florida, but as much time at home. And why wouldn’t you, when your housekeeper-chef can make venison with cherry sauce and slivered almonds? Or a Dobos torte, “fifteen thin, alternating layers of milk and dark chocolate, all covered with milk chocolate crème”? Though of course, you might step out for a bottle of Barolo and fried calamari, or a pork loin basted in molé sauce and served with a spicy tomato and black bean tortilla. “Mild?” asks McNally. “You crazy?” asks the waiter with the Pancho Villa moustache. I’ve always liked Florida, but this, again, makes me want to live there. A third example is Terry Pratchett, which is even odder, because he wrote comic fantasy. The Lord of the Rings’s lembas bread is parodied as dwarf bread in his Discworld books, made to an ancient recipe involving actual grit and stones, a food that can also be used as a weapon, and connoisseurs of which go “Hot damn!” when they hear the cat has peed on it. In other places, he talks about British breakfast food—fried slices, soss and egg, chips all round, which the dwarfs again have their own take on, involving rather smaller animals than cattle and pigs and chickens. Not appetising, certainly. But there is one place where even Pratchett gives in: New Orleans. His version of New Orleans is Genua, a somewhat sinister place where fairy tales come to horrible life, and there are no real ingredients to make food from, other than whatever you get in swamps—but, as if to compensate, has the best cooks in the world. “A good Genuan cook could more or less take the squeezings of a handful of mud, a few dead leaves and a pinch or two of some unpronounceable herbs, and produce a meal to make a gourmet burst into tears of gratitude and swear to be a better person for the rest of their entire life if they could just have one more plateful.”
It made me want so, so, badly to go to New Orleans. And I did, and it was every bit as good, but with added Louis Armstrong. The point is, it made me want to eat what was being written about. It’s simple. Food writing should make you hungry.