mardi 1 avril 2008

The Other South of France

Nowadays there are a number of books written by people who have decided to leave all things familiar for the lavender scented land of the South of France. Peter Mayle’s A year in Provence is probably one of the more well known examples. It is remarkable that a number of them concentrate on this particular part of the South of France. What distinguishes Martin Calder’s A Summer in Gascony from all the others is that his sojourn took place on the other side of the more famous one. As he humorously points out, it is the Other South of France.
A Summer in Gascony is a paean to the pleasures of life in Gascony. It is a retelling in the most dulcet of terms a wondrous summer spent working in an isolated farm located in the tiny town of Péguilhan, itself is lost between the mountains and rivers of Southwest France’s Gascogne region. The author arrived there as a young student, looking for a different kind of experience. And so, he immerses himself completely in farm work as well as the inn connected to the farm. In the process, he comes to have a real and lasting appreciation of living closely attuned with nature. It is also during the course of this summer that he meets and falls in love with Anja, a fellow stagiare.
This is a well written and engaging book. The author takes pains to acquaint his readers with the storied history of the region and we come away with a much better understanding of it. Of much more interest than plain history however are the quirks and characteristics of the Gascon, of which Jacques-Henri, the genial owner of the farm is a good example. He likewise reminds us that the most famous son of the region is D’Artagnan, our favorite swashbuckler!
The book is also replete with charming descriptions of village life such as the memorable Market day and nights spent at the convivial atmosphere of the auberge. As this is a book about the South of France, the importance of food cannot be over-emphasized enough. The fact that the family runs an inn with a (now) well regarded local restaurant gives us enough descriptions of hearty Gascony food to make our mouths salivate. The inn’s magret de canard sounds especially enticing! And let’s not forget that for every memorable food served, a memorable wine always accompanies it. The local vintage is almost always served and the ubiquitous Armagnac is ever present. One can almost taste and smell the different aromas as we read. Sweet, gentle and quietly funny, this is a great read for armchair travelers. And if like me, you need a bit of prodding to explore a little more the less famous South of France, this is all the prodding you’ll ever need.

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