Candes Saint-Martin, my favourite spot in La Touraine.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

A pie or a creepy town?

On our return journey from our annual trip to the Loire Valley my friend and I used to stay overnight in the Champagne or Paris region. This year, with my friends B. and J.L., we didn’t make this customary stop and drove straight from Vouvray to Brussels, with a brief pit stop north of Paris. We therefore missed the town of Pithiviers in the French Loiret department.

Saying ‘missed’ is a bit of an overstatement, as I’ve never been particularly fond of this little town. I guess the reason is a purely subjective one, as we’ve never really taken the time to stop and visit Pithiviers. Why then do I have this aversion towards this town?

It can’t be because of its culinary specialty by the same name. A Pithivier (without the 's')  is – and I quote - a round, enclosed pie usually made with puff pastry. The pie is traditionally finished with a distinct shine to the top of the crust, either by egg-washing or by the caramelizing of a thin layer of sugar at the end of the cooking process.

Whilst the filling of the Pithivier is often a sweet frangipane (optionally combined with fruit such as cherry or plum), savoury pies with a meat or cheese filling can also be labelled as Pithivier. It is used on English menus as a pretentious way of saying 'pie'. It is commonly assumed that the dish originates from the town of Pithiviers, France (source: Wikipedia).

No, my aversion has all to do with a book I’ve read many, many years ago for the first time and which has become one of my favourite novels since. It’s by the English born (1899) author Nevil Shute who after WWII moved to Australia, where he died in 1960. In 1942, while the war was at full blast, he wrote ‘Pied Piper’, about an elderly English gentleman holidaying in the French Jura in May 1940. In a desperate attempt to get back to England during those hectic first days of the war, he found himself trapped between the retreating Allied troops and the invading Nazi army.

The paperback I bought in Deal - Kent in the seventies ...
The cover is damaged ...
proof of the many times I've read and enjoyed this novel.

During his epic journey, John Howard, the main character, meets several people who ask him to take their children into safety. He also picks up a little boy who is left an orphan when his parents are killed in an air raid. In a small French town he finds a three year old boy who has been stoned by the local population. Because they don’t understand the little (Dutch) boy, they suspect him from being a Nazi spy. And that awful town is … Pithiviers. In the end John safely makes it back to England with the eight children he has ‘collected’ along the way.

Nevil Shute’s description of the gloomy atmosphere in Pithiviers after it has been raided by the invading soldiers, the hostility of its population towards the little stranger and the whole context in which Howard and his little group of refugees discover Pithiviers leaves very little to the imagination. You can almost see the scenes before your eyes and smell the people’s hatred and the little Dutch boy’s fear.

And that is why thinking of Pithiviers – which in reality is probably just another friendly provincial French town - gives me the creeps. Goes to show that a novel can make or break the reputation of a town or even a person!



Leon and Sue Sims said...

Interesting you should mention Neville Shute (real name Norway) as I wrote about him in my book on Motor Racing in Australia (Rob Roy Hill Climb - a link on my blog).
He raced Jaguars here in Victoria and a scene from the movie "On the Beach (from his novel)" was filmed at Phillip Island.
It was Ava Gardner that said Ïf you were to make a film about the end of the world, Melbourne was the perfect place". Fred Astaire enjoyed his stay though.

Jean said...

The power of fiction is fascinating - that it can colour your perception of a place where you have never been.

I have never read this book - it seems quite a gripping story.

ladybird said...

Leon, I've read 'On the Beach' and seen the movie. It's another thrilling story by Nevil Shute, who's one of my favourite writers. Btw I don't remember Fred Astaire featuring in On the Beach. I thought the lead was played by Gregory Peck. Correct me if I'm wrong. :)

Jean, It's a fanastic book! Another favourite of mine is 'A Town called Alice' also by Nevil Shute (maybe you've seen the film with Peter Finch or the remake with Brian Brown?). I can highly recommend both. As for the Pied Piper there is much more to the story than just the children. If or when you read it, you'll be suprised by the build-up.

Leon and Sue Sims said...

Fred played a Co-Star part.
The boys I interviewed in the book said he was just one of the lads.

Autolycus said...

Interesting how reputations come and go. Nevil Shute was highly successful in his lifetime, and not often mentioned now. There was a film made of Pied Piper in 1942, with (I now discover) Roddy McDowall and Anne Baxter as the children, and Otto Preminger as a nasty German! Another film of his work was, I think, No Highway with Marlene Dietrich.

ladybird said...

Leon, You are right, of course. I should have googled it before writing an answer to your comment :). And now that I've read the Wikepedia article on the original movie I recall seeing Fred Astaire as the eldery scientist who in the end commits suicide in this garage.

Autolycus, Thank you for the information. I never knew that a film had been made of the Pied Piper. It's rather surprising that it was done in 1942, the same year in which the novel was published! Kind of makes you wonder: which came first ... the novel or the script for the film?

Susan said...

The ending of On the Beach is a total downer - wonderfully written, but I wouldn't want to re-read it.

Anonymous said...

Un an plus tard,qui a illustré cette superbe première page du livre de Nevil Shute ?

ladybird said...

Anonymous, Le nom de l'artiste n'est pas repris, ni sur la couverture, ni ailleurs. Je suis désolée de ne pouvoir répondre à votre question.