Arguably—well I would argue it—the best guide to dining in the south of France is Le Guide Gantié, the eponymous bible to good tables and where to find a decent room in the six départements of Provence–Côte D’Azur (not to mention some of the better regional goodies to take home) of Jacques Gantié. He writes much of it himself, with three team members who respectively cover the Bouches-du-Rhône, the Vaucluse, and the Italian regions known as Liguria and the Piedmont, immediately contiguous. His day job is as an editor of the chief daily paper of this part of France, called “Matin” as in Nice-Matin, and Var-Matin (it’s the latter I take in, with news ranging from the current standing of the stages of the Tour, to what’s going on in Paris and the rest of the world… not to mention important local news, like the status of the Tai Kwan Do classes for the six-year olds of Lorgues).
It’s probably this latter responsibility that gives him a perspective that few, if any, other food editors and writers possess (and he’s no slouch, being a winner of the prestigious national prize for gastronomic criticism, named for a legendary, if not imaginary, critic of astonishing talent and who mysteriously disappeared in 1972, “Francis Amunateguy”). Sort of the anti-Ruth Reichl, and well and good, I say, for she has become a phenomenon unto herself who should be stomped out—professionally speaking entirely, of course.
I thought it enlightening and refreshing to read the preface to the latest edition of The Gantié Guide, that is, the 2009 edition. I sensed something was afoot when I got here in May, only to discover eventually that the latest version had not been released, and lo and behold, indeed, the Var-Matin about mid-June announces the release of the newest book. And yet even at the beginning of July, the largest book shop in Draguignan, itself one of the largest towns within less than an hour’s drive of the village, still did not stock it. For perspective, understand that like the ubiquitous, and discredited, Michelin Guide the Gantié has a usual publication and distribution date in early March of the year to which the latest reviews and findings and rankings apply. That is, just in time for the approaching tourist season.
The tone, and the substance, of Gantié’s own remarks in his preface are an indicator of what went awry, if anything did.
Unlike the Michelin, which as far as I can determine was published on schedule, Gantié is sensitive to the zeitgeist.
My apologies, especially to my friend Charlie, for the roughness of the translation (which is entirely mine—Gantié publishes an English-language version of the Guide, but 22 euros for one book is enough to spend (as opposed to twice that for two, and the English translation somehow omits the trenchant and honest qualities of the writing style of the original; and Gantié only includes places worth visiting, but he covers them, warts and all, and the gossip sometimes is as delicious as the food, if not more so, because sometimes the choices are not exactly uniform in their appreciation of true excellence). But I was interested in you getting the gist, or at least the drift, and this is only the first graf or so…
Partout dans le monde, la correction est sévère. De Nice à Saint-Pétersbourg, de Luberon en Catalogne, à Cannes, à Londres, à Monaco, en Camargue, à New York, à Tokyo ou Saint-Tropez… couteaux et fourchettes en berne, le planète qui se met à table se serre la ceinture.
Et alors? Tous au bistrot? Plus de gastronomie, rien qu’un boule de soupe à la grimace et quelques sushi pour pleurer? Il y avait de cela en début d’année, au pied du mur des lamentations et vu du sud, ce n’était guère différent qu’en autres terroirs et capitales: on piquait du nez dans l’assiette!
And now for my very poor translation.
“Throughout the world, the downturn is harsh. From Nice to Saint Petersburg, from the Luberon [in the Vaucluse, a part of Provence] to Catalonia, in Cannes, in London, in Monaco, in the Camargue [another region of Provence, at the mouth of the Rhône River], in New York, in Tokyo or St.-Tropez… Knives and forks at half-mast, all who sit down to eat are cinching their belts.
“What’s it mean? Everyone to a bistro? Gastronomy is to be nothing more than a bowl of soup served with a frown and a few bits of raw fish to mourn? So it was at the beginning of the year, we were at the base of the wailing wall from the point of view of the South, with hardly any difference in other lands and capitals: one’s head dropped into one’s plate.”
He does go on, at greater length, to see a sunnier side to the response of the food and hospitality industry of the South of France, which depends so mightily for the health of its economy on the habits (and magnitude) of tourists and tourism. What is happening, to be possibly a skosh reductive, is a revolutionary gastronomic down-sizing; a change in perspective that Gantié is calling the track (or “way,” actually) of “bistro-gastro,” that is, the gastronomic sensibility applied more modestly: smaller dishes, less elaborate, lower costs. He speaks in hindsight of course (and hindsight is shorter here, where the season was already in full swing, and which lasts only from May to September, if that, when he went to press), so he is not to be faulted for a phenomenon we were already aware of in the United States, where the economy is more year-round.