Rupert Wright lives in France and is the author of Notes from the Languedoc, an introduction to the region’s winemakers, oyster farmers, canal people and celebrated inhabitants, living and dead.
“As a nation, the British are in thrall to the French, even if we sneer at their contemptible habits – stuffing food down geese, mistreating their dogs, being able to run and catch a rugby ball at the same time … In just about every way they seem superior to us: they have intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, while we have to put up with Melvyn Bragg; they had Brigitte Bardot while all we had to feast our eyes on was Barbara Windsor; their main striker is Thierry Henry, we have Wayne Rooney. By way of correcting this imbalance, many of our best writers have decided that the only way to deal with the beautiful place across the Channel is to write about it. Here, then, are my 10 favourite books written in English about France.”
1. Between Meals by AJ Liebling
A heroic account of gluttonous eating in Paris in the 1920s when you could get 26 francs to the dollars. Liebling did not meet the avant garde, such as Picasso, Stravinsky and Gertrude Stein. Instead, he met lunch.
2. French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David
Want to know how to cook those favourites, such as tripes à la mode de Caen or galantine de porc à la Bourguignonne? David, in her precise but patrician way, is the perfect guide.
3. The Wines of the South of France by Rosemary George
You’ll need some wine to go with lunch, and although wine from the south was not fashionable in either Liebling’s or David’s day, this is the best guide to the new world-style wines of the region. George’s book is scrupulously fair, knowledgeable and often entertaining, although how she managed to read her notes after a day’s tasting is beyond me.
4. The French Cheese Book by Patrick Rance
A slice of cheese to go with the Banyuls? Rance is the best guide to the country’s more than 800 cheeses. Shame it’s out of print.
5. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
After all this eating and drinking, somebody’s going to have to deal with the washing up. Read how one Old Etonian coped with all the crockery in the seamy Paris of the 1930s.
6. Marianne in Chains: In Search of the German Occupation 1940-1945 by Robert Gildea
Instead of a nap after lunch, how about a little history? This is the classic study of the German occupation of France. Gildea destroys both the myth of heroic resistance but also the notion that France was a nation of craven collaborators.
7. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes
Holmes’s brilliant biographical sleuthing follows in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson’s donkey and Gerard de Nerval’s lobster.
8. Hip Hotels: France by Herbert Ypma
I’ve stayed in a number of his recommendations, but none better than the bizarrely-named Nord Pinus in Arles, where if you’re lucky they will give you room 10, usually reserved for the matadors, its louche decor complete with nude photo of Charlotte Rampling.
9. Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds
A rare British bande dessinée that equals its Flaubert inspiration for sharp social observation, taking as her subject the English in France, complete with Volvos, second homes and love affairs.
10. More French Please We’re British by Helena Frith Powell
If all this French focus makes you want to live there, this book tells you everything from where to go, why not to get involved in the gite business, and the importance of pelvic re-education after childbirth. Also, the author’s my wife and said that she would give me pelvic re-education if I didn’t include her.