Books to inspire hunger and thirst
By Eric Asimov
It’s a tossup over whether my overstuffed apartment holds more wine or more books. The number of bottles tumbled about, particularly over the pandemic year, is rivaled only by the scattered stacks of volumes that sadly will never earn shelf space.
It would be foolish to ask which I love more. But if you insist, I can reluctantly imagine life without wine. Books? Impossible. To put it another way, if I am traveling or even heading crosstown, I panic over whether I have something to read, not whether I’ll have a bottle to uncork.
You cannot drink a book. But you can always read about wine. While I collect books on diverse subjects, nothing gives me more pleasure than those that include scenes with good meals and copious amounts of wine.
For people who are curious about wine, who maybe don’t know a lot about it but would like to understand what the fuss is about, textbooks are the last thing I would recommend. The most important thing is to drink many different kinds of wines. But these inspirational books can offer encouraging nudges.
Kermit Lynch’s seminal work, “Adventures on the Wine Route,” is just that sort of book. First published in 1988, the book chronicles the travels through France of Lynch, an American wine importer, as he visits growers and producers.
It seems as fresh and thought-provoking today as it was when I first read it decades ago. It’s no accident that more than 30 years later, it continues to be a book cited by many in the wine trade as one of the most influential they have read.
Partly, this is because the book succeeds on multiple levels. As a dark warning of the dangers of chemical farming and soulless, technological winemaking, “Adventures” served as a prophecy and blueprint for the next 30 years of wine history. As an introduction to unforgettable characters and idiosyncratic estates, some of which no longer exist, it’s an entertaining window on a bygone era.
But mostly, Lynch writes about wine, food and culture, down-to-earth, intertwined pleasures.
He tells the story of a friend, food-and-wine writer Richard Olney, who bought a barrel of light, vibrant Beaujolais Nouveau, before nouveau became a global phenomenon, and brought it back to his home in Provence, France. Together, they emptied the barrel into bottles, consuming a fair amount as they did the job.
“No, we did not discuss the pH, the oak, the body, the finish,” Lynch wrote. “The tart fruit perfumed the palate and the brain; it seemed thirst-quenching, and yet our thirst was never so quenched that another purplish slurp seemed out of order.
“Wine is, above all, pleasure. Those who would make it ponderous make it dull.”
If you haven’t read “Adventures” before, you will want to read it all the way through. I have multiple times. Nowadays, I like to dip into it for a chapter or even a few pages. Still, I always feel that I learn something.
That method works with a lot of old favorites, like Hugh Johnson’s memoir, “A Life Uncorked,” or Elizabeth David’s “An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.”
David’s not so much for its recipes as its terse food descriptions, like this one of the ideal omelet: “It should not be a busy, important urban dish but something gentle and pastoral, with the clean scent of the dairy, the kitchen garden, the basket of early morning mushrooms or the sharp tang of freshly picked herbs, sorrel, chives and tarragon.”
Her pastoral countryside is a long way from my Manhattan apartment, but I can still make that leap, preferably with some of Lynch’s tart Beaujolais.
A.J. Liebling’s “Between Meals,” a memoir of the longtime New Yorker writer’s student years in Paris in the 1920s, is full of bounteous meals and life lessons. He was especially acute on the importance of learning to dine on a tight budget, which teaches that, say, beef heart and a good Tavel, a once popular dry rosé, are much better bets in a certain range of cheap bistros than a middling steak and mediocre Burgundy.
“A man who is rich in his adolescence is almost doomed to be a dilettante at table,” he wrote. “This is not because all millionaires are stupid but because they are not impelled to experiment.”
The recent Ken Burns documentary did a first-rate job of putting me off Ernest Hemingway, but I still enjoy the food scenes in “A Moveable Feast,” yet another memoir of life in Paris in the 1920s. In one chapter he recounts a talk with an editor he had met for lunch.
“He wanted a good steak, rare, and I ordered two tournedos with sauce Béarnaise. I figured the butter would be good for him.
“‘What about a red wine?’ he asked. The sommelier came and I ordered a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I would walk it off afterwards along the quais. He could sleep it off, or do what he wanted to. I might take mine someplace, I thought.
“It came as we finished the steak and French-fried potatoes and were two-thirds through the Châteauneuf-du-Pape which is not a luncheon wine.”
Hemingway might have been wrong about a lot of things, but he was right about Châteauneuf.
Genre fiction is one of my favorite sources of inspiration. I’ve written about the wonderful “Bruno, Chief of Police” series by Martin Walker, the adventures of a small-town police official — the only police official — in the Périgord region of southwest France. Nothing occurs there without a meal, or at least a few thoughts about the local food and wine, the markets and the conflict between cherished local customs and the increasingly globalized world.
Similarly, Guido Brunetti, the protagonist of Donna Leon’s Venice novels, must interrupt his crime-fighting to break for meals and a few glasses of his local pinot grigio, which somehow always tastes better than most pinot grigios ever do.
Few epicurean sleuths are as extreme as Inspector Montalbano, the hero of Andrea Camilleri’s series of mysteries set in Sicily. Montalbano prefers to eat alone, so he can give full attention to the food. When that isn’t possible, he demands silence.
Then there’s sad Prince Yakimov, a down-on-his-luck descendant of the Russian aristocracy who cadges meals and wine throughout “The Balkan Trilogy,” Olivia Manning’s historical novels set at the outbreak of World War II.
“Feeling a trifle peckish, dear boy” is his tagline. It might as well be mine after reading any of these books.