“Let me ask you something,” Kermit Lynch said.
Ask me anything, I meant to respond. What I actually did instead was just look around at the vines and vegetable garden threatening to envelop the terrace of his lovely house in the high hills above Bandol and giggle. Lynch, who splits his time between Provence and Berkeley, California, is a wine merchant and importer, folk hero of the funky and unfiltered, defender of honestly crafted, family-run vineyards that are sometimes called “natural” but are more importantly just kind of inspiring and delicious. He is also the author of Adventures on the Wine Route, one of the most readable, likable books about wine you will ever find. And at age 69, he sings in a band; his latest CD is named for his cat.
I am fawning—I’m aware.
The wines he curates and the arguments he makes for them amount to a coherent, never pedantic worldview. One that elevates pleasure and mystery in wine over numerical scores and brute power. It’s an outlook to which, like his newsletter, I am a satisfied subscriber.
Lynch’s pressing question now: Did I prefer a fromage de tête or a cold leg of lamb with mustard for our lunch? “Both” seemed the obvious but impolitic answer. I told him about the Bath chaps I’d recently made at home—a British variant of deboned, brined, rolled, poached, and seared pig’s head.
“He’s a pig’s head kind of guy,” Lynch called to his wife, Gail Skoff, who was preparing lunch inside.
“That’s our kind of guy,” she called back. Skoff is an accomplished photographer whose images of French vignerons and their vineyards have illustrated Lynch’s books as well as Lulu’s Provençal Table, by their late friend Richard Olney.
Consider the many garrigue-scented paths leading back to Olney, that native of Marathon, Iowa, who spent more than three decades in Provence, entertaining, cooking for, and mentoring (and often drinking with and bedding) an unceasing stream of visiting American chefs and restaurateurs and food world notables at his tiny home in nearby Solliès-Toucas. He was a pioneer of local and seasonal before those terms became common menu parlance. By his example and friendships and the stern, precise guidance of his books, Olney helped define a certain dominant Berkeley-American idea of Provençal French cooking. Olney introduced Lynch and Alice Waters to his friends Lulu and Lucien Peyraud of Domaine Tempier, and they in turn introduced the rest of us to the great and justifiably famous Tempier rosé and the egregiously underrated Tempier reds.
Skoff set down a salad of ripe tomatoes from the garden. Then eggs, contributed by the family’s chickens, yolks just set and deeply orange, topped with a bit of salty anchovy. Lynch unsealed the jar of fromage de tête and turned out the heady, jellied lump on a plate. The terrine was made by Lynch’s old friend Marcel Lapierre, the great Beaujolais winemaker from Villié Morgon. “He kills the hog and every year we do a little trade,” Lynch said. “I send him a lot of bottles so he’ll stay happy. I love his saucisson, and I can’t go out and buy anything like it.”
Here we came to an unfortunate but unavoidable subject that might be dubbed The Other French Paradox. Which is: the apparent disappearance of good Provençal food from the very place we most associate it with. Restaurants in pretty coastal towns tend to be seasonal. The customers and staff turn over frequently; the owners head north in winter to run cafés in ski towns. Another explanation is cultural: Young worldly French people don’t want to eat the cuisine bourgeoise their grandmothers made; they would prefer, apparently, such insipid novelties as the Thai-spiced steak tartare presented to me in a popular (and utterly depressing) restaurant down by the sea in Bandol.
On his early wine-buying trips, Lynch said, he could count on classic, well-prepared meals in France and was disappointed by the restaurants back in Berkeley. Now the situation had reversed itself. “It’s strange, isn’t it?” he said. “I don’t consider myself picky but everything’s gotten so industrial and tasteless. I used to love radishes. How often do you run into a good radish anymore?”