General Questions About My French Books

Where is the Lot and how do you get there?
Les Arques and the Lot River valley, both of which I have written about in my France books, are in the southwest about an hour and a half north of Toulouse and almost two hours due east of Bordeaux. The best way to get there is to fly into Toulouse Blagnac airport (code: TLS) and then rent a car for the drive north. Highway driving directions may be obtained at www.viamichelin.com. The Michelin Green guide you want is Perigord/Dordogne. We only fly Air France, one of the last national carriers with any idea of customer service and an airline which, besides, is very nice to our dog when she is with us. We rent our cars from Europcar for the same reason, particularly because they can often find us a diesel, and regular gas is now at nearly $5 a gallon for traveling Americans.
Did your book have an effect on the village of Les Arques, on the restaurant, La Récréation, and its owners, Jacques and Noelle, or the region? Was there an invasion of tourists?
Jacques and Noelle have told me that they do have more visitors, with the greatest change being that their clients now come from farther away and not just in the packed summer months. I still enjoy the same warm relations with the villagers, and Jacques and Noelle have become good friends. Americans are still thin on the ground in the region. Though it is flattering to think that my work has brought more visitors - and more life-to the area, I have to say that the English and Dutch, especially, had well and truly discovered (and colonized) the place before I wrote about it. My American book sales seem to reflect this more sober view.
What is the best time to visit the Lot?
Late spring and early fall are both seasons of beautiful weather a few tourists, with the added benefit that anything you might want to do is still open before the mid-winter hiatus.
What is there to do in this region aside from tasting wine and eating in good restaurants?
As soon as you arrive, buy the local newspaper, La Dépêche du Midi, which lists in the regional section, village by village, everything that is going on. This is not Disneyland, and the attractions are more bucolic and linked the rural nature of the country. Walking, biking, kayaking/canoeing, visiting local museums and markets, and the villages of the region are the kinds of things people do. There are festivals celebrating everything from melon to cheese, wine to antiques throughout the summer, which is also the season when every village has its three-day fête, its own party. There are group meals, pétanque tournaments, live music, dancing, and fireworks. Summer and fall are also the time of itinerant entertainers - circuses, rodeos, bands, and dance groups. There is a celebrated jazz festival at Marciac, a blues festival in Cahors, an international film series in tiny Gindou, three wine festivals around the region. Go the local Office du Tourisme and ask!
What do the people of the region think of your books? Have you been back to visit the places you write about?
My books have not been translated into French, but a few locals who read English well seem to have passed on their impressions to those who don't. (The tobacconist went so far as to have the paragraphs about him in From Here translated by a local translator!) They are happy to see more people come to the region, book in hand. They are happy to help them discover the Lot's riches and its hidden charms. And they are happy, too, to rent you rooms and houses, feed you meals, and to sell you the bounty of their land in the markets. I approached this place and its people with the utmost respect. That is reflected in my writing, and that is what the villagers seem to pick up on, to genuinely appreciate, that I wrote about them and their lives in an authentic way.
I return to that part of France every three months, and always with my family in the summer. It has truly become our other life, with a whole different set of friends, activities, a once-foreign landscape with which we are now very familiar.
We are thinking of traveling to France. Should we be prepared for a chilly reception because of the bad feelings over the Iraq war?
This question saddens me every time I hear it -and I hear it a lot. The French will be so happy to see you, to welcome you, to help you however they can should you need it. Whatever effort you make to speak to them in their language will be returned fourfold in appreciation. The people of the country are warm by nature, and curious, too. I always tell Americans to remember that the French naturally view their own politicians as venial and corrupt, and thus are skeptical of whatever line of political bs they are currently spouting. So, go! No one is going to attack you verbally or otherwise for being an American.
What do you bring back from France when you travel there? What are the best bargains or things you just can't get here?
With the euro over $1.20, in truth there are very few bargains. I find the best sea salt (fleur du sel), Spanish saffron, good French soap, and those wonderful Provençal-style printed tablecloths to be just about the only bargains. Otherwise, I bring back cans of olives stuffed with anchovies and almonds, foie gras, vieille prune aged plum brandy, terrines and pâtés of boar, rabbit, venison, pheasant, quail, truffle-infused vinegar, jars of fig and walnut jam, mustard scented with violets or walnut, dried Basque red pepper called espélette, and, if I can afford it, one or two small cans of true black truffles, (it should say only la truffe de Périgord, or la truffe melanosporum on the label).
I thought that the French were very close-mouthed with strangers, particularly foreigners. How do you get people to talk to you, to take you into their lives?
People who are passionate about what they do, regardless of their country, are usually passionate about sharing what they know. My job is not just to find out who among the hordes are doing something interesting, but which of them love to talk. Also, before I even begin to do research on the ground, I have done my homework. That is, I know enough about their subject to, at least, ask intelligent questions. No one likes to feel they're wasting their time with an idiot. I find that they quickly pick up on my genuine enthusiasm and curiosity and can't hold themselves back from sharing. After that, it's the Woody Allen thing: 90% of life is showing up. The more time you spend with them, concentrated hours and a time you chose because there is action happening around a particular event, well, that is when, at noon, it becomes natural to stay to lunch or to dinner to continue the conversation. I never expect this, and it doesn't always, or even often, happen, and that is why the people in my books become so special, all of them, to me at the end of my time with them. Remember, I may spend two years coming and going regularly. They see my commitment, my seriousness, and they respond to it. Many end up becoming friends, some even good friends.
What do you say when people compare your books to those of Peter Mayle?
I wish they wouldn't, as our approaches are very different. The easiest thing to do as a foreigner going into a different culture is to mock it for the home audience. The most difficult thing is to listen carefully, closely, and long enough to understand what the lives and traditions of others are about. First, you must speak very good French. Second, if you are always writing about yourself and your own impressions, well, that's pretty dull, isn't it? Far more interesting to me are the French themselves, which is why we're there in the first place, no? Would my books sell as well as his were my approach different? I don't know. I just do what interests me.

Questions About The French And Their Wine

Where can I find the wines you write about in Families of the Vine? Are they expensive?
I wrote mostly about Clos la Coutale, Clos Triguedina, and Clos de Gamot, all wines from the appellation of Cahors. Clos la Coutale is the most widely distributed of the three in America, Canada, and Europe. Kermit Lynch is the importer, and he distributes it in almost every state. The wines of Jean-Luc Baldès, Clos Triguedina, are now available in seven Midwestern states, with more to come shortly. Clos de Gamot and Château de Cayrou, the wines of the Jouffreau-Hermann family, are available narrowly in the New York/Southern New England states. Château de Cèdre is probably the second most widely distributed Cahors in America.
All of these wines and many other Cahors are widely available in England, Holland, Belgium, and some in Germany. In Canada, the Québec and Ontario provincial liquor and wine shops stock a good selection of Triguedina and of Philippe Bernède's Coutale.
Most bottles cost +/- $15 US, with a few of Triguedina's and Gamot's older vintages (some 10+ years in age) going up to $30. The prices are significantly lower for other Cahors in Europe.
What kinds of food go well with these French malbec wines?
There is a natural affinity between the regional foods of the southwest and its regional wines. This means drinking this hearty red with confit de canard, cassoulet, grilled duck breast (magret de canard), leg of lamb, and highly-flavored game. The stronger tastes of boar, venison, and rabbit, all of which can turn up in that peasant stew called civet are tamed by a good Cahors, which can also stand up to dishes using salted or smoked meat (anything with ham or bacon), and even spicier.
The cheese of the region is the small, barely-aged, disk of goat cheese called the cabécou, and a fine older Cahors drunk with it is a match made in heaven.
Because these wines are moderate in their alcohol content (never more than 13%, with 12.5% the usual), well-balanced, and with good tannin, they are made to be drunk with food, complementing what is on the plate rather than overwhelming it. In summer, a young Cahors may even be served a bit chilled, accompanying a cool gazpacho or even a ripe melon with jambon de pays. It is not a wine for salmon, sole, tuna or other delicate fish and seafood, except perhaps along with a big bowl of mussels steamed in garlic, herbs, and wine or a paella made with spicy sausage, chicken, and shrimp.
How do I serve a vin de Cahors?
The most common mistake wineshop owners make is selling customers a Cahors that is not ready to drink and, in the case of a younger wine particularly, neglecting to tell them to open it as much as two hours before the meal. The customer gets it home, opens and pours it, and finds that it is closed, tannic, not at all graceful, and so grabs another bottle. An hour later, when the meal is over and he's cleaning up, he takes a sip of the first wine, which has since evolved on contact with the air, and says, "Ah, this is completely different!" So, open the wine a few hours before the meal, pour it into a carafe, and let it sit, lightly covered with a dishcloth. Serve it in a Bordeaux glass, something big enough and with enough of a bell to aerate the wine.
Is Cahors wine aged in new oak barrels? Should it be?
Most Cahors is unoaked, one reason why it needs some age. There are more and more top-end oaked Cahors - Clos la Coutale and many of Triguedina's wines, for example. Oak, used within reason, can bring out a more elegant side of the malbec grape. None of Gamot's wines are oaked. A very few vineyards, Le Cèdre and Lagrézette among them, are now making wine in a more international style, wines which I often find bring to mind the overripe, overoaked excesses of a bad, hot climate Cabernet Sauvignon from this side of the ocean.
What is the best time of year to visit the vineyards and taste wine?
In the spring, the winemakers are likely to have had a winter vacation and so be more relaxed and ready to receive you. In fall, the worst time, they are either worried about the harvest, harvesting, or making the wine and will have little time for you. Do make a reservation.
Can you buy wine and have it shipped home?
While this is technically possible and legal given the proper paperwork, the handling, storing, and shipping is so expensive as to be prohibitive unless a large quantity is involved. I bring 6-8 bottles, always the older vintages and some in 1.5 liter magnum sizes, in my carry-on luggage and am content with that.