From Russia to the Périgord with love

Rarely has a Brit been so well integrated into French society as Martin Walker, author of the Bruno, Chief of Police series. Jessica Knipe visits him at home in Le Bugue to talk Brexit, basset hounds and truffled brie

“Come for lunch! I’ll just throw some pâté, cheese and wine onto the table…” The invitation could not have been more French, despite the fact it was extended by Martin Walker, a Scot who has lived in Russia, Washington DC and Brussels.

We are in a wing of Walker’s home in the heart of the Périgord, Le Bugue, to be precise. We sit at a long wooden table facing a roaring wood-burning stove, surrounded by hundreds of books, most of which are historical.

An armchair sits near a selection of whiskies, and on the stove a pot of homemade beef broth bubbles away next to a vat of windfall apples, which Walker is mushing up for his chickens. On the wall, portraits of him look down on us, painted by an artist friend from his days at Balliol College, Oxford. Tucked in a corner is a picture of Walker and his wife, Julia Watson, at a White House Christmas party with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Next to that is an image of him handing Raisa Gorbachev a bouquet of flowers on May Day in Moscow’s Red Square. On the table a notebook is open, ready to welcome ideas for the next volume of the Bruno, Chief of Police series that Walker is famous for.

Not that Walker needed Bruno to find readers: not only did he work with The Guardian newspaper for 28 years, he was named “Britain’s Reporter of the Year” in 1987, has published numerous books on topics such as Gorbachev and the Cold War, and is Editor Emeritus of global news agency United Press International. 

It was during Walker’s Moscow days that he first discovered the Périgord. “As a journalist, the story in Moscow was brilliant – Gorbachev, the Perestroïka…the country was pregnant with change,” he said. “But the food was absolutely awful. Being able to come here for a couple of weeks each year was bliss.”

Soon Julia decided that it was time for the family to get their own place in France. By that time the Walkers had moved to Washington DC: “I had to go back for a big Nato summit,” he recalled, “and because I had known Clinton when we were at Oxford, I could pretty much always get an interview when I wanted.

“So I was in the ante room to the oval office when my mobile rang – it was Julia saying ‘I don’t care what you’re doing, drop everything and get on the next plane to Paris: I have found our house’!” Walker finished the interview, filed his copy and jumped on a plane. Two days later, the Walkers owned a house in Le Bugue.

The couple renovated the whole property, adding a second floor to what was once a pig sty, turning the pigeonnier into a summer writing room, and installing a kitchen in the old barn. Antique fireplaces, exposed beams, tomette tiles… It’s everything you would imagine a country home in the Périgord should be.

After buying the house, Walker became fascinated with the region’s Paleolithic cave paintings. He got deeper and deeper into his exploration of the 27 painted or engraved caves (and the 120 others that are on the Unesco list), visiting most of them - even Lascaux which, despite being closed to the public since the early 60s, could still be visited under very special circumstances before 2001.

Walker played the journalist card to get in, but emerged with a very different plan for his findings: instead of writing a non-fiction book, as he usually would have, he decided to write a novel – The caves of the Périgord. By then, he had caught the bug: “I still had the itch to write fiction,” he said, “and I really wanted to write a good mystery about the history of the region, as well as the amazing lifestyle we have here – the food, the wine, the rugby clubs, the petits apéros…”

Meanwhile Walker had already become an integral part of the community in Le Bugue. He joined the Aquitaine rugby club, and every Friday morning he would play with a few of the local Frenchmen before sharing a long lunch together.

One of these men was Pierrot, the village policeman. This peaceful, affable ex-army man who taught kids rugby and tennis gave Walker an idea for a series of crime novels, and so, Bruno, Chief of Police was born.

The series, now on its 10th book, follows Bruno Courrèges, an orphaned ex-UN peacekeeper. After being wounded in Sarajevo, Bruno has hung up his gun and retired his handcuffs to serve as a police officer in a small, peaceful (fictional) town in the Périgord; although he has a knack for uncovering the most intriguing of mysteries as he goes about his daily business. Like Pierrot, Bruno teaches kids to play rugby, and knows everyone in the town by name. He built his own home, he hunts, raises chickens and has very strong views on matters of the kitchen.

At first glance, this is a rose-tinted look at the charms of rural France, but under the tourist-bait lies a complex network of serious themes, rooted in historical fact that either people have forgotten, or did not know in the first place. Like the secret assistance that the Americans gave to the French nuclear programme; or the Force Mobile who were recruited to terrorise French farmers during the Occupation; or the incredible tale of the Neuvic train robbery in 1944... Throw in some lamb navarin and a dollop of aillou cheese on a hunk of baguette, and you have the perfect recipe for an afternoon with Bruno.

It has certainly captured imaginations, in Europe and beyond. “Nobody had ever really written about the Périgord in modern fiction, I think,” Walker said. “And the thing about crime fiction is that it’s a foundation within which you can go into all sorts of other things: the region, the food, all sorts of social and political and historical elements… Then you can make it as bloody a thriller or as cosy a Miss Marple story as you like!”

To say Walker is integrated in his local community is an understatement. The mantlepiece above his wood-burner tells the story best: one certificate celebrates the day he was dubbed “Chevalier of the Pâté du Périgord” (with a ceremonial tap of a duck on each shoulder); another awards him honorary citizenship of St Alvère, in thanks for his inclusion of truffles in Black Diamond, the third Bruno book.

There is a Médaille d’or for tourism, naming him an honorary ambassador in recognition of all of the tourists Bruno has attracted to the Périgord. One certificate appoints him as Grand Consul du Vin de Bergerac (“and I have the robes to prove it!” beams Walker), and yet another shows that the cookbook derived from the Bruno books recently won “World’s Best Book on French Cuisine” at the Gourmand International awards.

At the moment, the cookbook has only been published in Germany (where Bruno is a runaway bestseller, with more than two-million copies sold and each title always making it into the top ten), but Walker is hoping to have it translated soon. The recipes, organised by trade (the butcher, the baker, the cheesemaker...), were all created by Julia. “But the boeuf à la périgordine is mine” says Walker proudly. “I like boeuf bourguignon,” he explained, “ so I thought why not create a version with my own vin de noix?” Because yes, of course, Walker makes his own walnut wine… He picks about 40 nuts when there are still unripe, before the 20th of June. They are then chopped into quarters and thrown into a large pot with eight litres of “as rough a red or white wine as you like.” Walker adds a litre of eau de vie, (“not the stuff you buy in a shop, but the country homemade stuff, the real gnôle”) and then sugar: “The French put in one whole kilo of sugar, but I only add 500g, I don’t like it to be too sickly.” The wine is then left for a minimum of six weeks in a dark corner, before he filters and bottles it.

In France, the fourth Bruno novel is just being translated. The success has not been as great here as it has in other countries, but an upcoming TV show produced by Franco-German channel arte should help that along. The show will start filming in the new year, and although Walker doesn’t have any final decision on casting the actor who will play Bruno, he does have what is known as a Hitchcock clause: “I have a microsecond in the background of each episode – I’ll be the guy reading a paper in the café, or the guy walking across the square…”

“Anyway, let’s eat!” declares Walker. The meal is a whirlwind of conversational gambits, with topics covering the US election (“Trump is the first guy who realised that politics is a sub-branch of the entertainment industry...”), the year Walker spent with his wife backpacking around the world (“we were in the last civilian convoy to get out of Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass... it was the most glorious year, I had no idea how close you could become to someone...”) and Brexit (“I haven’t decided whether to include it in the next Bruno or not...”).

Lunch is a bowl of the stove-top soup served next to a plateau of pâté, jambon blanc, an old comté, and a delicious brie stuffed with truffles. “The brie is made by a cheesemaker friend of mine,” Walker enthuses. “It’s actually Stéphane, the cheesemaker from Bruno!”

In fact, Bruno is full of real-life characters and details from Walker’s daily life in France. Le Bugue’s river, la Vezère, features heavily, as does Walker’s 2CV. Bruno’s dog is a basset hound, just like Walker’s, and his name is Balzac, one of Walker’s favourite writers. There is also a real baron, and a real Hercule...

As for Pierrot, he is delighted to be the inspiration for Bruno. In the summer, on market days, tourists from around the world seek him out, book in hand. Pierrot obliges and stands for a photograph, or signs a book. “He’s become a tourist icon!” beamed Walker.

It does not look like Walker will be slowing down on the fiction front. Last year, at the end of a think tank in which he took part, Walker decided to use all the findings to construct to a sci-fi novel about the future of infrastructure called Deutschland 2064. And not only did the novel get into the top 10 in Germany, it was the first time a novel was ever short-listed for Germany’s leading financial newspaper Handelsblatt’s Business Book of the Year award.

Walker also continues to get involved in Le Bugue’s daily life. This year the town is commemorating 400 years since the death of Shakespeare, and they have asked Walker to give a lecture, in French – of course, he is fluent.

He is completely entrenched in the French lifestyle (“I always have my breakfast listening to Patrick Cohen on France Inter,” he says with a proud twinkle), and Le Bugue returns the love: every year the tobacconist fills a wall of his shop with a multi-layered nativity scene that represents all of the local tradesmen. There’s the butcher, the cheesemaker, the baker and now, Martin Walker the writer. “I’ve been adopted!” he exclaims. Of all of the trophies and accolades, the glint in his eye when he says this seems to suggest that this might be his proudest achievement yet.

Read our interview with Merde author Stephen Clarke here.

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