Peter Mayle: France to the letter

Fields of lavender, fresh figs, golden sunflowers and a folklore character called Fanny. Peter Mayle presents an A-to-Z of memorable moments from his years in Provence


AIL: It has been said that Provence is a region that has been rubbed with garlic. Whether you think of garlic as le divin bulbe or the stinking rose or the poor man's panacea, there's no getting away from it - in soups, in sauces, in salads, with fish, with meat, with pasta, with vegetables, on or in bread.

BISES ET BISOUS: Visitors from the north are frequently surprised by the intensely tactile nature of social intercourse in Provence. Most Parisians or Londoners, for instance, are accustomed to conversations that are purely verbal exchanges conducted at arm's length. In Provence, they find various body parts being hugged and squeezed, tweaked and tapped and prodded and occasionally massaged.

CEZANNE: "When you've been born there, that's it. Nothing else will do." That was Paul Cézanne speaking about Provence, words that might have been a blueprint for his work and for his life. He was born in Aix in 1839 and died there in 1906.

DUMAS ET SES MELONS: The melons of Cavaillon are perhaps the most highly esteemed melons in France. Alexandre Dumas, a writer whose prodigious output was interrupted from time to time by the need to eat, had heard that the Cavaillon library couldn't afford to buy his books, so he made a gift to the town of the 194 volumes that he had so far written. In return, all he asked for was a modest life annuity of a dozen melons every year.

ETE: Fresh figs for breakfast, warm from the sun. Dogs asleep in the shade. Fields of many colours - striped with lavender, gilded with sunflowers, beige with wheat, bottle-green with vine. The scent of burning rosemary on the barbecue. Air like a hot, dry bandage. You sometimes wish the sun would take a day off.

FANNY: Like many mythical heroines, Fanny's origins are a little murky. One version has it that she was a boules groupie in Lyon. Fanny is remembered today in boules terminology: faire Fanny, baiser Fanny, or embrasser Fanny, all of which mean a 13-0 loss. And her derrière has been commemorated at sporting bars throughout Provence in the form of statuettes and wall sculptures, each awaiting the loser's kiss.

G: The letter that adds a Provençal twang to words that misguided purists seem to think should end in n. Thus we find, among many others, bieng and paing, ving and copaing, raising and fing (otherwise known as well, bread, wine, friend, grape and end).

HIVER: The pop of gunshots in the morning and at twilight. Moans and howls and the clanking of bells from the hunters' dogs. Frozen earth crunching underfoot. The cough of a tractor starting up.

INSECTES: It's true that one would have to be a dedicated insectophile to become excited at the prospect of meeting 53 different kinds of ant. But where else nowadays offers you the chance to wander across hills that are home to 2,000 kinds of butterfly?

JARDINS: There are gardens à la française, strict and symmetrical; there are herb gardens and flower gardens; labyrinths and grottoes; parterres, topiary, and endless alleys of plane trees; lakes, cascades, canals, bassins - the variety of ways in which nature has been sculpted, coaxed, or disciplined is quite extraordinary.

KAKI: At a time when much of the countryside is drab and bare, the kaki tree stands out as though it had been artificially lit. It hangs in great blobs of colour - nature's way of cheering up the landscape just in time for Christmas.

LAVANDE ET LAVANDIN: Where would the postcard business be without it? Endless rows of it, vast fields of * * it, with or without a venerable building in the background or a beaming peasant in the foreground - lavender is the Provençal flag.

MISTRAL: And there is le mistral, a wind and a word associated with Provence almost as often as lavender. A cold and mischievous wind, it has little to commend it except for one redeeming virtue: it brings with it blue skies, clean air, and diamond-bright light.

NOSTRADAMUS: One of the world's most famous pessimists, Michel de Nostredame was born in Sait-Rémy-de-Provence in 1503. Nostradamus was also the author of Façon et manière de faire des confitures, a jam-making manual that is undoubtedly his most cheerful literary effort.

ORAGE D'AOUT: The Autoroute du soleil, on that first weekend of August, is a clogged and sweaty nightmare. The trains are stuffed with passengers, each with 17 pieces of luggage. It is hot. In fact, it is unbearably hot...

PASTIS: A most deceptive drink, pastis. With ice cubes, and diluted with the recommended five parts of water until its colour changes from gold to an opaque greenish white, it seems light, refreshing, and innocuous. Not until you stand up are you reminded that pastis, at 45 per cent alcohol, is more powerful than almost any whisky, vodka, or cognac.

QUADRANGLE D'OR: There was a time, not long ago, when the chic part of the Luberon was known as Le Triangle d'Or where those suffering from varying degrees of celebrity - now referred to as les people - could be seen at play. Now the triangle has turned into Le Quadrangle d'Or either because of inflation or because of a sudden increase in the number of celebrities.

RABASSES: The truffle is possibly the most notorious fungus in the world, surrounded by myth and rumour; sought after by pigs, dogs, poachers and epicures.... It is more like an obsession than a mushroom.

SEL DE CAMARGUE: Salt. In most parts of the world it is no more than a commodity; necessary, of course, but without any inherent interest. In France it is a delicacy, elevated to a place of honour on the table, with its connoisseurs, its varieties, and its specialist uses and recipes.

TOURISTES: Seldom can an innocent group of people arouse so much scorn and snobbery as tourists. None of us wants to be mistaken for one. And yet, although we may not care to admit it, we are tourists, all of us.

URGENT: I once had a theory that the slower pace of life in Provence could be simply explained by the landscape and the climate. But I think it goes deeper than that. Nature, not man, dictated the timetable. Over the centuries, I'm sure that this must have had an effect on the Provençal character. "Slowly does it" was the motto, and it became embedded in the genes.

VIN: Whatever happened to the "truly awful wine" of the bad old days? As a general answer, I think it's fair to say that the grape is taken more seriously in Provence than it used to be, possibly in response to the annual influx of thirsty tourists.

WOOD, MATTHEW: Mr Wood once rendered a considerable service to the town of Apt and the crystallised fruit industry that is based there: he started to import crystallised fruits. In a magnificent single-handed effort, he greatly increased the Apt export business. I think they might at least have named a cherry after him.

X: X marks my favourite spot, and I go there with the dogs at least once a week throughout the year, rain or shine. It is always beautiful and never quite the same. Each time I'm there on the hill, it reminds me of why I came to live in Provence.

YEUSE ET YUCCA: Helping to keep Provence green all through the winter, the yeuse is a tree with a number of aliases: chêne vert, Quercus ilex, holm oak, and holly oak. Whatever you call it, during those months of the year when other trees are leafless and much of the vegetation is drab or dormant, the yeuse is a welcome relief from bare crags and brown fields.

ZIEM, FELIX: A contemporary of van Gogh - who thought him "worthy" - Ziem was a painter of landscapes.You can see some of his paintings in the Musée Ziem in Martigues, as well as the work of other artists who spent time in Provence.

©Peter Mayle from Provence A-Z

'Provence A-Z' by Peter Mayle (Profile books, £18) is out now. To order a copy for the special price of £16 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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