Interview: Vanessa Barrot and Noël Balen

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Noël Balen is a journalist and writer, well-known in France for his Winemaker Detective series which has become very popular on French TV as well. He co-writes the books with Jean-Pierre Alaux, and we’ve reviewed several editions in the past – most recently Requiem in Yquem. Now, publisher Le French Book is bringing out the English translation of a new venture by Balen. Minced, Marinated and Murdered is the first in the Gourmet Crime series which Balen has written with his wife, lawyer and inveterate foodie Vanessa Barrot. We wanted to ask the authors some questions to set the scene for the new series, which continues in Balen’s tradition of good food, good wine and a good mystery!

What are crime fiction lovers going to love about Minced, Marinated and Murdered?
The book offers crime fiction lovers a series of murders in a provincial town, prime territory for deductive sleuthing. Readers experience the emotion and reactions among inhabitants in and outside the restaurant profession. The police take the crime very seriously. The story’s heroine, a food writer, doesn’t have access to the case file, and she has to use her connections to find out more. In the end, it is her specialised knowledge and amateur investigatory skills that solve the crime. It is not her vocation to be a detective, and yet her natural curiosity and particular worldview come into play in each of the mystery novels in the series.

You are married and you also collaborate with other authors. Is it more difficult, or at the very least different, to work together as husband and wife?
Working together on a book is a real moment of complicity, almost a game. We always do the plot outline in the family kitchen. That’s our personal laboratory, the perfect place to plate up the intrigue, discuss the characters in depth, and let the whole story simmer for a while. Then we divide up the chapters according to our personal preferences for either the events or the characters described within. That’s when we part company and isolate ourselves, each one in our solitary writing world in our study. When each one of us has done their bit, then we exchange manuscripts and taste the offerings concocted by the other. Finally, we add our own secret sauce to create the novel we envisaged.

How did you decide to write a culinary series?
Noël created the Winemaker series and thought it would be a good idea to move from the cellar to the kitchen. These are two very different worlds: the Gourmet Crime series has at its heart a Parisian woman journalist. The settings are more urban, the style more dynamic. While we always maintain that atmosphere of pleasure, gourmet eating and tasting in our novels, the time pressures of the world of journalism create a different rhythm to the more stately wine-making enterprise.

Neither of us are culinary experts, but like most French people we have a guilt-free passion for gastronomic delights. The family kitchen is the centre of the household, where all the essential events take place. Our family history also predisposed us to get to know that world. Vanessa has relatives in the restaurant business in Paris and a mother who is an outstanding cook, while Noel has often helped out at his uncle’s restaurant in Paris specialising in cuisine from the south-west of France.

You start the series in Lyon. What does the city mean to you and are you going to keep a foothold in it in other novels, or are you going to travel throughout France?
 At the beginning of the 20th century, a great food critic called Lyon ‘the food capital of the world’. The city and the region surrounding it is a melting pot of local produce and a place where French culinary history was written. The city where Paul Bocuse and other talented chefs made their mark, men as well as women. So Lyon is a place where we like to return ourselves, and we might well bring our two main protagonists back there.
In our other novels – we are currently writing our sixth one in the series – our main characters go to Normandy, Brittany, Périgord, Lubéron and of course Paris, the city with the most Michelin stars in France and with the biggest wholesale food market in the world at Rungis. France has so many regions with great cultural and culinary heritage, that we are really not short of settings for Laure Grenadier and her photographer Paco.
Crimes or local dishes – what do you enjoy cooking up more?
What we enjoy describing most – and is the easiest for us – is the food. Our writing is very much focussed on recreating the look, colour, smells, taste and texture of a dish. We enjoy making the readers’ mouths water, make them want to eat or recreate the dishes we describe. As for the crimes, we try to keep it low-key and not sicken our readers. We prefer delving in the psychology of the characters, their strengths and weaknesses. We are clearly more in the tradition of authors like Georges Simenon or the atmosphere of Agatha Christie. Nothing too gory, violent or distressing from us… merely the simple pleasures of life contrasted with the call of death, which is never all that far away.
We also asked translator and publisher Anne Trager what attracted her to this new series, and here is her answer:
I think we all can use some escape reading from time to time, and the combination of food, France, and a murder mystery do just the trick. So, when I heard from Noël Balen that in addition to the Winemaker Detective series, he had teamed up with Vanessa Barrot to write a culinary series, I felt like destiny had brought us together again. My connection to France is closely linked to food. When I initially came to France in 1985, I trained as a chef and worked as a private chef for a few years. So the Gourmet Crimes series was irresistible for me as a translator and publisher.
I love the thrillers we also translate and promote, but I also think there is a lot of room these days for lighter, escapist reading. This book is for people who love armchair travel and fun mysteries. It’s for people who love food and culture. It’s less about the action and more about the experience.
Minced, Marinated and Murdered comes out 20 February. Watch for our review.

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