French Lessons

French Lessons

by Peter Mayle

This tale of gustatory delight begins when a young man from England, in France on business, has the pleasure of losing his “gastronomic virginity” at a restaurant in Paris.   The young man is the author, Peter Mayle, and the meal in question consists of crusty bread with butter, a French take on fish and chips (sea bass with fennel accompanied by pommes frites), several kinds of cheese, and an apple tart.  After being raised in what Mayle describes as the “gastronomic wilderness of postwar England, ” this first French meal is a revelation, and it spurs Mayle’s lifelong quest for tantalizing treats.

What follows is a culinary romp, captured in French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew as an older and more sophisticated Mr. Mayle travels to destinations around France, mainly to attend festivals and celebrations devoted to particular foodstuffs.  He stops first at the “messe des truffes” or “truffle mass” in the walled village of Richerenches, where he witnesses an epic disagreement over the correct way to prepare an omelet.  He moves on to the town of Vittel to participate in some thigh tasting — the succulent thighs in question belong to the frogs that live (or used to live before they were harvested) on the banks of the Vosges.

The next few chapters sweep us through Bresse, where we learn about the world’s most delicious chickens; Livarot, which throws a fête for its eponymous, very pungent cheese; and Martigny-les-Bains, a town where the slow-moving and hermaphroditic snail holds sway.  We later learn about a town on the Riviera in which perfectly bronzed women dine almost in the nude, and a marathon that offers wine as a refreshment for runners, who, interestingly enough, sally forth to race dressed in exotic and colorful costumes.

The chapters continue thus; each one with an affectionate description of Mayle’s arrival in a new and interesting town, the colorful people with whom he ate, drank, and talked, and the specialties in which they indulged.  This pattern sweeps us along until the final chapter, which breaks form:  In the last few pages of his book, Mayle chooses to give us the history of the famed Guide Michelin which has steered visitors around France for more than one hundred years.  In 1920, the guide added restaurant ratings to its repertoire, and has since come to be considered what Mayle refers to as “the definitive bible of the belly.”

In an interview with the official representative of “The Guide,” Mayle learns that the contributing critics are anonymous, and that information about them — and their methods — is a closely guarded secret.  What Mayle conveys in this chapter is that the quietly restrained dining of a Michelin critic is not for him — he would rather take a freewheeling and joyeux approach to his meals: lustily sucking the meat off frog’s legs and splattering butter and garlic on his shirt as he flicks escargot out of their shells, entertaining his voracious and captivated readers all the while.

Review by Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne is a freelance food writer from Burlington, Vermont.  Her favorite activities include cooking with local meat, cheese, and produce, and snapping up all of the exciting culinary texts from local used-book stores before anybody else can get their hands on them.