The Food, Wine and Life Of Bruno, Chief Of Police Saint Denis, France
Nick Passmore , CONTRIBUTOR I write about wine and spirits. JUL 15, 2017
“ ‘Here’s another new one for you to try,’ said Jack, handing Bruno a glass of white wine. ‘Domaine de l’Ancienne Cure at Colombier.’ Bruno grinned at Jack. Now retired, Jack spent one afternoon each week visiting a different vineyard in Bergerac, and with some nine hundred winegrowers, he claimed it was a useful incentive to live another twenty years.”
Liberty Plaza, 'Saint-Sacerdos de Sarlat', Dordogne, France.
Credit: Penguin Random House
The Templars' Last Secret
Benoit Courrèges, universally known simply as Bruno, is Chief of Police of the small, sort of fictitious, impossibly picturesque, medieval town of Saint Denis located on the very real Vézère River, a tributary of the Dordogne.
One of his most important policing rolls is the patrol of the town market, greeting the stall holders with a friendly handshake, or a kiss on the cheek, chatting, and sampling the plethora of food.
The ubiquitous atmosphere of the books is of undisguised affection for the towns, villages, their people, their wine and their food of the Dordogne. The tone is short on Marlow-esque noir, but unashamedly lavished with warmth without tipping over into sentimentality.
Credit: Nick Passmore
Food, its procurement, preparation and joyful consumption, is never more than a few pages away. In “The Templars’ Last Secret” Bruno prepares a Blanquette de Veau for guests.
“Then he began to make his roux using the saucepan in which the veal had cooked. Slowly, making sure the flour was fully absorbed, he began to pour in the juice from the veal. He turned up the heat and bought it to a simmer, still stirring till it began to thicken. Then he added the veal, the shallots, the mushrooms, and the pot of cream, stirring steadily until it returned to the boil.”
Ummmm, my tummy is rumbling in anticipation even without the accompanying smell. Descriptions of congenial meals prepared and shared like this will warm the heart of any foodie, whether it’s the hunters’ club feast with huge wild boar slow roasted over open fires in "The Patriarch", or the pre-fix lunch Bruno shares with his colleague, J-J, at Ivan’s local bistro in “The Resistance Man”. It starts with a vegetable soup and baguette, followed by pork chops in a celery sauce, cheese and a green salad.
“ ‘What’s for dessert today?’ asks J-J.
"J-J looked up to the heavens. ‘Thank you God.’
"He looked back at Bruno. ‘Plus a quarter liter of this very drinkable red, all for ten euros fifty? I don’t know how he does it.’ ”
Credit: Nick Passmore
Ruth Reichl, former Editor in Chief of Gourmet magazine, once observed: "The French really think of food as their patrimony, as very important to their culture. It's the birthright of every French person to eat well.”
I would add “to drink well too", and the most affectionate depiction of this patrimony I’ve ever encountered is in the Bruno books.
Unlike America, unlike anywhere else in the world for that matter, fine cuisine is at the heart of French culture. Forget Escoffier, and I’m not talking about Michelin awards and that “Green sauce here, Monsieur and red sauce here, Monsieur” nonsense – that’s just la crème de la prétention. No, in contrast, this is something inexorably part of country people’s everyday life, an essential component of rural culture, of La France Profound.
What Walker does, with deceptive ease, is to portray the charming world of Périgord’s wine and cheese, its wild boar, duck in multiple forms, the 52 different kinds of strawberries and, of course, the Périgord black truffle, the focus of the plot of an earlier novel, Black Diamond, that delves into the skulduggery involved in the local truffle trade.
Credit: Random House
Walker is a Brit, and until retirement was a foreign correspondent who took refuge in the Dordogne from less congenial assignments, at first temporarily and later as a permanent home. “When we were stationed in Moscow where the story was great but the food terrible, it was a delight to get back to the Périgord to stay for two months of great eating each year. The resultant glow lasted well into the Moscow winter.”
Credit: Nick Passmore
Walker's Perigord Bistros In Paris
It seems that if the plot, or Bruno’s work, ever conflicts with the preparation of simple meals or grand feasts, it’s the plots that suffer, while the descriptions of food, wine and the occasional single malt Scotch, get full attention. That’s fine with me.
I don’t read the Bruno books for the plots. They twist and turn, winding around themselves, jumping from here to there, often leaving me feeling I’ve skipped a whole chapter, till the book comes to a frequently violent climax, and the whole narrative thing is over. Then I’m left scratching my head, and secretly feeling alternatively guilty or deficient.
Photo: Nick Passmore
I was thus extremely relieved to be let off the hook when, over lunch, Walker confessed "I'm not very interested in the plots, to be frank. What I'm really interested in is the region, and the way the people live. The most important character in the books is the Périgord itself. I feel I'm not a natural fiction writer, and I'm not that interested in the crime. Crime you can find anywhere, but foie gras, truffles, the good wine is special in Périgord.”
"I'm a story teller. It's the people, and the setting of the people. The Périgord is the real star."
Nick Passmore , CONTRIBUTOR