‘The richness of this French life is always in my books’
International journalist Martin Walker speaks about how life in rural France is as interesting as times spent in capital cities with world leaders
'When I was a boy, my mum would always say to me, ‘Martin, life is short. The world is very big. Go out and see everything you can’ Pic: Courtesy of Martin Walker
Author of the Bruno detective novels, Martin Walker says the time he spent in Washington, Moscow and London when he dined with world leaders Bill Clinton, Gorbachev, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher still cannot beat life in rural France.
His fourteenth Bruno novel, based on a municipal policeman he met in Le Bugue, Dordogne, The Coldest Case, has recently hit the bookshops and he is looking forward to the publication of the Bruno Cookbook next year, based on the French food he loves to cook with his wife.
What has been the best thing about life in France?
One of the things I find about the food in the Périgord is the quality of the produce, whether you are buying vegetables, meat, fish or game.
I only ever eat eggs that I have collected myself. My first cockerel was called Sarko and this one is Macron. I can’t eat my own chickens because that would be like cannibalism so I eat my friend Francette’s chickens and she eats mine. It is important to me that our garden is entirely organic. The only fertiliser we use is manure from one of the local farms and our own cleanings from the chicken coop.
We’ve got asparagus, courgettes, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers and strawberries and our potager feeds us all summer.
You say food and wine is one of the best things about France, but isn’t that a cliché nowadays. Is it still true?
First of all, quite often in France these days, the food is not good. There are more McDonald’s in France than in any other country in Europe.
But in this part of the world in the Périgord, there is still a very powerful tradition of home cooking. A lot of people still stop work at midi and go home for a decent lunch.
For many people French restaurant cooking is the highlight. My view is that the real pleasure is home cooking and that is what I like to write about and what I have learnt a bit to do in my very clumsy way. Julia, my wife, is the cook. I prepare food. She cooks. You can hardly exaggerate the amount of pleasure we get out of dining and lunching with friends and sharing food and wine with them here in a place like this.
It is a real crucial part of the French sense of self that they feel they are defined in many ways, and I think rightly, by a sensual approach to food and wine and to love. The French still take these subjects seriously and so do a lot of us who have the pleasure of getting to know France more and more.
What type of food do you eat while you are in Le Bugue?
I eat French food, though very occasionally I will do an English breakfast for friends with bacon and eggs and so on.
We do a bit of adaptation now and again. I do my mum’s Scottish fish pie which is one of the recipes in the Bruno cookbook, but my best adaptation was a Boeuf Bourguignon.
I thought why do we have to use burgundy? Let’s do it with Bergerac wine, and then I had the genius idea of adding vin de noix, a local aperitif I made every year with the Baron. That little touch of sweetness makes it so good. Boeuf Périgordin. It went down very well.
We have also had great fun blending our own Bruno wine by buying in grapes from people we know.
What is the theme of your latest book?
It is based on a real story from my great friend Raymond who is a neighbour of mine and a retired captain of the Gendarmes and he was one of Chirac’s bodyguards for a while.
He is full of great stories, and I could never have made this up myself.
He has this photograph of a skull which he calls Oscar which comes from a case he could never solve, when he was a young detective, about 30 years ago.
The body was very badly decomposed and to help him try and identify who this guy was, he had the idea to sever the head and boil it to reveal the skull, to see if he could find the cause of death. I always thought this was a great story and I had to find a way of telling it.
I start with Bruno visiting an exhibition which really happened at the National Prehistory Museum at Les Eyzies, of reconstructed heads from Neanderthal skulls by actual paleo artist Elisabeth Daynès. This gives him the idea of reconstructing Oscar.
You take a great deal of inspiration from the immediate world around you, stories people tell you, people you know, historical events, and you mention actual people in your book, why is that?
I use as much real stuff as I can – because it is real, it is what is around me, because it is a very rich life here, in food terms, in cultural terms, in historic terms.
I just like to bring what I know into the plot of my stories.
The Baron is based on a real friend, and J-J the detective is based on Raymond. The rugby club and the tennis club and the cafés are all true.
I invent some things of course but everything about the wine is real, all the vineyards are real, and I always try and bring in some kind of local history and events that took place.
The one I am writing at the moment for next year, called To Kill a Troubadour, begins with a songwriter who has written a song called “A song for Catalonia,” recorded by a local Occitan group in the three languages; Catalan, Occitan and French, and it goes viral, especially when the Madrid government bans it.
I get a lot of ideas from SHAP (Société Historique et Archéologique du Périgord). I am a member and go along to their conferences and meetings.
The stuff about the fire brigade comes from my local pompiers.
All the hunting stuff comes from my friends in the hunting clubs.
The one I am writing for 2023, which I am about a third of the way through, is called The Battle of Sarlat, about a reconstruction of the liberation of Sarlat from the English in 1370.
The man playing the leader of the liberation is killed during the show and it turns out he is the number two at Frenchelon, the name given to the French telecommunications signal intelligence system at nearby Domme, which really exists, and I got the idea after I met a couple of people who worked there.
Did you expect when you came to what you might have thought as a sleepy sort of place, that there would be such a rich history, so much going on?
I knew a bit about the history, but I had no idea just how rich it was.
I knew about some of the castles, but I then got to know a lot more about them. For example, Commarque which I based a whole novel around with the Knight Templars as a theme. The owner, Hubert, is a lovely man and his Dad was a mayor and Resistance leader, killed during the war, and you know, you can’t make these things up.
It is so rich, this place. It is not just the history and the pre-history and Charlemagne and the Romans it is the food, it’s the wine, it’s the Occitan culture, it’s the Cathars, it’s the Protestants, and so on and so on.
You’ve lived in many different parts of the world. Do you think there is that same seam of richness all over the world or do you think that France, and this particular part of France is perhaps richer than others?
This part of France is one of the crossroads of the world. It was part of the heartland of two great heresies that rocked France and the civilised world, the Cathars and the Protestants.
We are increasingly getting to know just how important it was in the Middle Ages as one of the routes of transfer for classical books and knowledge which came to us mainly from the Arabs.
The grandfather of Eleanor, William IX of Aquitaine was at the crusades in Spain and he brought back two prisoners to his castle in Bordeaux.
Eleanor was brought up around these people and the music that was played. All of the medieval instruments that we had in western Europe were Arab. So this has been a nodal point for centuries, a bit like Byzantium was or Rome, or Babylon or Baghdad.
Then, of course, there were three centuries of the whole Anglo-French thing. More recently there has been World War Two and the Resistance.
How did you first get so involved in the local culture?
A lot of it was thanks to the Baron who was my first real, good friend in this particular village.
That began because he found my basset hound out on the street and he brought him back and we began by drinking a bottle of whisky and our friendship went on from there.
He was not a real baron but that was his nickname.
He took me to play tennis and there I met this guy, Pierrot, the municipal policeman who, in his spare time, teaches the kids rugby and tennis and he’s a keen hunter and a great cook and a really nice guy.
Then there was lunch which went on until about 17.00. I found that Pierrot was such a wonderful character I wanted to write about him.
How did you cope with the language?
I had done French A-level and a couple of exchange trips to France and I could get by pretty well.
Now most of my social life is in French and anyway the Baron and Pierrot and others do not speak a word of English. I always listen to French radio in my car when I’m driving, either to France Bleu Périgord or France Inter.
I definitely think that speaking the language has got to be the key to finding all the richness of the country.
I have learnt so much from groups like SHAP, the historical society and from lectures I go to at the National Prehistory Museum at Les Eyzies. We’re living here. We have got to be a part of it and the idea of living here as some sort of colonial exile offends me deeply.
Do you think that a British person living in France can learn a lot about France from reading your books?
I think quite a lot – particularly about this area. I did not write them with that in mind, but people tell me they get a deeper understanding of France.
I just find the French very intriguing. They are so like us and yet so different. And I find that terrific. I really relish the way I’ve been able to, in this third, perhaps fourth career of my life, immerse myself in French culture.
When I was a boy, my mum would always say to me, ‘Martin, life is short. The world is very big. Go out and see everything you can’, and she was right.
And, be honest. After living in the capital cities of the world, do you ever find it just a bit parochial here?
No. Raymond, the Baron, Pierrot, the mayors I know, are all just as smart and interesting as the world leaders I have met and a lot more fun.