Friday, 28 October 2011

Martin Walker at home in The Perigord

Our guest blogger is Martin Walker who is the author of the Bruno Chief of Police series which are set in St Denis. He splits his time between Washington DC and the Perigord. He has written several acclaimed works of non-fiction, including The Cold War: A History and is a prize-wining journalist. The latest book in the series is The Crowded Grave which is the fourth book in the Bruno series. His blog is devoted to the Bruno novels and you can also find information about the books but also recipes.

I was in the White House and about to go in to see President Clinton, an old acquaintance from our time at Oxford University, when my cell phone rang and my wife’s voice said “I don’t care what you’re doing but drop everything and get the next plane to France. I’ve found us our house.”

I didn’t duck the appointment with the President so it was a couple of days later that I met Julia in Paris and we drove down to see the house which has become our family home for over a dozen years. It was love at first sight and although it was still partly ruined, we bought it on the spot. A lot of effort has gone into restoring the 17th century farmhouse and its outlying barns and pigeon tower and the minstrels’ gallery overlooking the vast stone fireplace, installing a swimming pool and building herb and vegetable gardens.

And now I write my Bruno novels in my pigeon tower, entertain our friends and neighbours on the vine-covered terrace and play boules and hold dances in our gravel courtyard under the shade of a venerable ash tree. And each morning, we are woken by our cockerel, Sarko, and breakfast on the eggs from our own hens in the chicken coop we built behind the pool. It’s just along the line of poplar trees from the spot where I park my 40-year old Citröen deux-chevaux.

Most of our friends are French, and most of them have found their way into my novels. The Bruno series began with Pierrot, my local village policeman who is also my tennis partner and my guide to hunting and cooking. He persuaded me to join him in helping coach the village schoolchildren in rugby, and now they have elected me Parrain, a sort of honorary president, of our youth teams (boys and girls) who have just won the regional championship.

Other characters like the baron and the Mayor, the retired spy who used to smuggle East European scientists across the Iron Curtain, Montsouris the Communist councilor, Fabiola the doctor and Alphonse the old hippy who makes goat’s cheese in his commune in the hills, all have their inspiration in local friends and neighbours. Indeed, it was the old spy who found Sarko, my splendid cockerel.

All this has launched a tradition, which will survive the publication starting next year of the Bruno novels in French, that with the publication of each new Bruno novel, we throw a dinner party for all the local friends and I describe the plot. The latest one was a special event, since we also had to celebrate my appointment by the French tourist board as an Ambassador of Périgord, after the surge of German and Scandinavian Bruno fans coming to visit, some of them coming on special ‘Bruno’ tours. I asked the tourist board whether this gave me diplomatic immunity from French speeding and parking fines; sadly, the answer was No.
We are in the valley of the river Vézère, home of the famous prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux and the heart of the Périgord region. There is a traditional German saying that the sum of all happiness is “to live like God in France.” But when God wants to give himself a treat and take a particularly delightful vacation, I’m convinced he comes to Périgord.

He would not be alone. Human beings have long known the charms of this region of South-western France. The 40,000 year record of human settlement, which includes the marvelous art of the caves, makes this region unique. Nowhere else on earth can point to the archaeological evidence and claim continuous human settlement for so long.

The Romans were here. Périgueux, the capital of Périgord, was a Roman town and the remains of its amphitheatre and a luxurious Roman villa called the ‘Domus of Vesunna’ can be seen to this day. Its Tower of Vesunna, an old pagan temple, is one of most remarkable remains of ancient Gaul. After the Romans came the Vandals and Goths in the fifth century and the Arab invasion of the eight century before their great defeat at the hands of Charles Martel at the battle of Poitiers in 732 AD, battle that saved Europe for Christendom. Then came the Vikings in the ninth century, who sailed up the river to loot and burn Périgueux.

There are over 1200 abbeys and churches in Peérigord and some of them, like the tall, austere church of Trémolat, date from before Charlemagne. And there are over a thousand medieval castles (in various states of repair) and fortified hilltop towns called bastides where the French and English battled off and on for three centuries, even though they called it the Hundred Years War. The great castles of Castelnaud and Beynac still glower at one another across the river Dordogne, and remain in such splendid shape that the latest Joan of Arc movie was filmed at Beynac. History seems very close, which may explain why so much of it creeps into the Bruno books.
Our ancestors knew what they were doing. The Périgord has a fine temperate climate, never too hot in summer nor too cold in winter. It is well watered by the rivers of the Dordogne and Vezere and the land is rich and fertile. Its woods abound with mushrooms, game birds, deer and sanglier, the wild boar that we still roast every year at the tennis and rugby club banquets in my village. To the west are the vineyards of Bordeaux and to the south the less well-known but better-value vineyards of the Bergerac and the glorious sweet and golden wines of Monbazillac that a kindly providence gave us to drink with foie gras.

The Perigord is the living heart of French cuisine, the home of foie gras and truffles, where the doctors were long baffled by the remarkably low level of heart disease until they found that the combination of cooking with duck fat and drinking red wine turns out to be good for the health. In summer, it produces the sweetest strawberries in France, with varieties like Alba, Matis, Gariguette and the highly perfumed Marée de Bois that are hard to find elsewhere.

In winter, at the weekly market in Sainte Alvère, truffles are on sale, the “black diamond of the Périgord,’ where buyers for the grand hotels and restaurants of Paris pay thousands of euros and more for the rich black gastronomic delights from the men who seek out these underground treasures with their well-trained dogs and pigs. Luckily, we don’t have to buy in the market. I go deep into the woods with Pierrot the policeman with his hunting dog and my own basset hound, Benson, and we bring back our own black diamonds that turn a humble omelette into a masterpiece. Even Bill Clinton does not live so well.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Wow, sounds like an amazing place, and a nice temperature for writing. I believe there Pigeon farms there? What's your take on the bird? Thanks, Mike