How should we live, we who are lucky enough to choose? The question arose during a week-long fast: deliberate, undeniably beneficial for my overtaxed stomach and liver, and boring beyond belief. One advantage to clearing the acres of mental space usually occupied by what to eat and which wine to drink with it was having room to consider who, in my opinion, lived well and how they accomplished it.
The two people who leapt to mind met in Provence, in a time before supermarkets had shrunk the gastronomic imagination to the size of a perfectly round, uniformly red and utterly flavourless tomato. The American cookery writer Richard Olney moved to Solliès-Toucas in 1961, aged 34, and died there, many wonderful and well-watered meals later, in 1999. He was befriended by Lulu Peyraud, who with her husband, Lucien, founded Domaine Tempier. There they revived the lost glory of the Mourvèdre grape.
Wines from the Bandol region once adorned the table of Louis XV, and only phylloxera’s depredations in the 1860s and locals’ insistence on replanting with more productive, less interesting grape varieties spoiled their flavour and reputation.
It was Lucien Peyraud who led the fight for the recognition of the Bandol vineyards, which rise on limestone hills behind the village that curls around a wisp of the Mediterranean. Today, there’s an appellation contrôlée and wines must contain a minimum of 50 per cent Mourvèdre. Provence is famous for rosé, and Domaine Tempier’s, made with Mourvèdre, plus Grenache, Cinsault and a splash of Carignan (the same grapes as its classic red), is superb.
However, it’s the reds that last, in the bottle and the memory. Tannic when young, they are fragrant with thyme, rosemary and berries; when mature, they are as replete as a well-fed guest.
Lulu was the cook of the century. She went to Bandol before dawn to buy from the fishermen; her olive oil came from Domaine Tempier’s own olives, her vegetables from the garden and, as Olney’s book Lulu’s Provençal Table makes clear, she knew just what to do with all of it. The wine, sometimes venerable, sometimes fresh out of the barrel, went straight from the cellar to a table set with a white tablecloth to accentuate its ruby glow, and the company was the centrepiece of every feast.
Lulu is nearing 100, which convinces me further that deprivation, rather than lengthening my lifespan, may just lengthen the weary days during which I deprive myself. Physically frail, she no longer cooks but is still great fun, refusing a request to remove her jaunty fuchsia jacket for a photograph (“I’m naked underneath!”). When the rosé is served, she obeys the ghostly exhortation of Tempier’s much-missed host: “Lampons!” – literally, “Let’s gulp!”
She says she doesn’t know why she has lived so long, but except during the Second World War, when there was nothing to eat but Jerusalem artichokes (“Ugh!”), the closest she has come to fasting is eating aïgo boulido, or garlic soup – a simple broth of water, garlic, sage and stale bread. Even then, she would add bay leaves, egg yolks and a whole head of garlic.
Her cooking, like her husband’s winemaking, was always judicious; but at their white-robed table generosity trumped moderation and nobody seems to have been the worse for it. Living well, they say, is the best revenge – but it’s also the best recipe.
This article appears in the 06 Sep 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move