Twenty one years ago, Frances and Edward (Ed) Mayes embarked on a delicious adventure, with the purchase of Bramasole, an abandoned villa in the Tuscan countryside. Over this time, they have shared their experiences of life in Italy through a series of beautifully written and photographed (best-selling) memoirs, including Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany, Every Day in Tuscany, In Tuscany, and Bringing Tuscany Home.
Food, cooking and eating have featured frequently on the pages of these books, whetting appetites and sparking pangs of envy in at least one reader (yes, that would be me) and, no doubt, millions of others worldwide, many of whom would jump at the opportunity to live the Tuscan dream.
Now, Frances and Ed welcome readers into their home and kitchen through their first cookbook, The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. Chapters are divided into introductions to Tuscan food and cooking: La Cucina and Keys to the Pantry; and then Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, Contorni, Dolci and Aperitivi e Digestivi. Some favourite recipes from Winter and Summer Kitchen Notes in Under the Tuscan Sun feature, with glorious photographs by Stephen Rotheld. There's Winter Pears in Vino Nobile (p. 188); Fried Zucchini Flowers (p. 48); Honey Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Fennel (p. 124); and best of all, Lemon Hazelnut Gelato (p. 182). I have lemons galore, hazelnuts, free range eggs and fresh cream ready to make the gelato this weekend!
As you would expect, the writing is generous, rich and inviting, the first section opening with: 'If you came to visit me in Tuscany, we would cook the food described in this book ... [which] collects our favourite recipes from hundreds of dinners here at our home Bramasole, from the tables of our generous friends, and from chefs whose kitchens are as familiar to us as our own. Along with the food, Tuscans add to the table the spirit of friendship and their legendary sense of exuberance. We have feasted for over two decades in this profoundly hospitable country.'
I am honestly delighted to have connected with Frances Mayes recently through Twitter and we have been able to 'chat' about the cookbook across the miles. When I complimented Frances on the collection of lovely recipes in the book, she responded: 'This is the food we eat every day in Italy, Liz'.
Have you always been a passionate cook?, I asked. 'When I was young, I sat on the kitchen counter watching, and although I had no interest in cooking, I found later that I already knew how. As I became responsible for my own meals, I grew to like it, then to study various cuisines,' Frances explained.
What was your inspiration and what inspires you now?, I asked. 'The food of the American South initially inspired me and it still does, Liz. Of the American regional food styles, the southern is to my mind the best. It's fresh, various, and southern cooks never have been timid about seasonings. With the long growing season they're simply blessed with a fantastic abundance. Of course, my grown-up life has been spent in California and Tuscany, so those places have had their enormous influences. The California food revolution of the '80s was greatly exciting and eventually changed American food. Then... Tuscany! I fell deeply in love with the simple ingredients and philosophy of Tuscan food. Cucina povera, the poor kitchen, proved to be a great impetus to improvisation. You open the cupboard and make do with what's there. Tuscan cooks still astonish me with their ability to combine ingredients imaginatively. Cabbage and truffle fettucine? Oh, yes!.'
I had wondered whether one's tastebuds change as you become accustomed to the food and ingredients when living in a different country. Are there any old favourite 'American' dishes that have remained on your repertoire and that you cook from time to time?, I asked. 'Oh, lord! Plenty! Lemon pound cake, brownies, tarragon green beans, fried chicken, pot roast, peach ice cream, squash casserole, corn chowder, shrimp salad, brown sugar muffins. . . on and on.'
Lemons are among my favourite ingredients and I love that The Tuscan Sun Cookbook has many recipes that use lemons. What is your most favourite ingredient, if you have one?, I enquired (already knowing the answer!). Indeed, Frances loves lemons too. 'I love to use lemons in all kinds of recipes. At Bramasole, we have 15 enormous potted lemon trees that we winter-over in a special glass-fronted room called a limonaia. Here, we're always in good supply with lemons.' On this, I am envious!
And finally I ask, do you spend all of your time in Italy, other than travel promoting your books? 'We live about seven months a year in North Carolina, the rest in Tuscany. We travel a lot. We're just back from Vienna and Budapest,' Frances said.
The Tuscan Sun Cookbook - Recipes from our Italian Kitchen by Frances Mayes and Edward Mayes ($34.99) will add a splash of sunshine and luscious, down-to-earth Italian dishes to your repertoire.
Sincere thanks to Frances and Edward Mayes and the team at Harper Collins for giving me the opportunity to review this title. In closing, dear Frances, please kindly set two more places at your table. For Peter and I are coming to visit... hopefully some day.
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