Photo: silhouette Marseille Vintage Caper

A portrait of Marseille adds to the intrigue of The Vintage Caper.

Photograph by Simona Ghizzoni, Contrasto/Redux

By Don George

October 2009

Book of the Month: 
The Vintage Caper,
by Peter Mayle

Ever since I first visited Provence 34 summers ago, it has held a special place in my heart and head: the glorious art of the Musée Matisse in Nice, a robust Pommard under the stars in Villefranche–sur–Mer, a perfectly poached sea bass on the terrace of La Colombe d'Or in St–Paul–de–Vence. For a young impressionistic American, Provence was a portal to heaven.

One man who has passed this portal many times is Peter Mayle, the British writer who has been celebrating the pleasures of Provence in seductive prose since the mega–best–selling A Year in Provence was published two decades ago. This tradition flourishes anew in his latest Provençal picaresque, The Vintage Caper, the tale of a multi–million–dollar heist of French wines from a collector in Hollywood and the efforts of an American corporate lawyer turned wine connoisseur and private investigator to retrieve them.

These efforts lead first to Paris (with delicious stops at the Café Marly and the Cigale Récamier), then to an in–the–field education among the storied vineyards of Bordeaux (where an astute and attractive French female colleague is added to his team) and finally to Provence and especially Marseille. As our protagonists track the precious bottles, the trail leads—naturellement! —through a succession of excellent repasts and leisurely ambles, which Mayle depicts with painterly ease and signature savoir vivre. He even weaves in a recipe—for lightly grilled, fennel–flavored sea bass, of course.

The portrait of Marseille is a special treat. Through loving glimpses of both its grand mansions and boulevards and its tiny alleys and nameless bars, its rough–and–tumble fish markets and terraced temples of cuisine, Mayle offers an edifying re–appreciation of that vibrant and all too often unjustly maligned metropolis.

The wine case has enough twists and turns to propel the plot along, but the star of this caper is the vineyard–veined, lavender–scented, sun–showered, garlic–seasoned setting itself: pure Provence.

New-Book Roundups:
Out of Africa

When it comes to African safaris, Peter Allison has seen it all. From waking up to a leopard in his tent to launching a raft into a river teeming with crocodiles and hippos, he takes readers behind the scenes of his misadventures as a safari guide in Don't Look Behind You: A Safari Guide's Encounters with Ravenous Lions, Stampeding Elephants, and Lovesick Rhinos. Returning to Zimbabwe, the land where he grew up, New York–based writer Douglas Rogers, who has written for Traveler, struggles to make sense of his homeland's extremes of beauty and corruption in The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe.

Ghost Stories

In Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel, Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife, creates a gothic romance in which twin sisters Valentina and Julia inherit the London flat of a deceased aunt they never met, only to learn that she hasn't quite left the building. • A tormented IRA solider, haunted by the spirits of his dead victims, decides to vindicate their undoing by killing the men who ordered their murders, in Ghosts of Belfast, from Stuart Neville's debut.

Reading Matchmaker:
If You Like...

...Indiana Jones, check out Paul Sussman's latest archaeological thriller, The Hidden Oasis. When a former CIA agent living in Egypt is murdered, her estranged sister Freya is determined to find her killer. Freya teams up with her sister's Egyptologist friend, and they soon find themselves amid the likes of spies and assassins and involved in one of the biggest archaeological discoveries of the century.

One Last Thing:
Edible Adventures

Discovering new foods is one of the defining joys of travel for me. I still recall my first succulent slice of toro in Tokyo, my first piney sip of retsina in Athens, my first sweet–smoky morsel of campfire–grilled venison in Tanzania. Savoring native delicacies—and understanding their role in local cultures—is central to the traveler's journey. A new coffee–table book from National Geographic, Food Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 Extraordinary Places to Eat Around the Globe, provides a sumptuous map. This 320–page tome covers food from the field to the table, with chapters on specialties and ingredients, singular markets, seasonal delights, kitchen secrets, street foods, top food towns, gourmet luxuries, and decadent desserts, as well as traditional tipples. Sidebars list top ten food festivals, cooking schools, historic restaurants, literary watering holes and much more. A cornucopia of information and entertainment, Food Journeys is a moveable feast for the global gourmand.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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