Virtually everyone who has traveled to Italy can describe a moment in which they were transported by food—whether a platter of plump, cheese-filled ravioli bathed in butter and sage; a silky, paper-thin slice of prosciutto draped over a warm puff of fried dough; a glossy cone of hand-dipped gelato.
“I realized in one bite what I’d missed,” Mayes writes in her latest book, The Tuscan Sun Cookbook (Clarkson Potter), co-written with her husband, Edward. The book is filled with such moments of epiphany and appreciation for life at the Tuscan table.
“I grew up in a house where food was really important,” says Mayes, who was raised in Georgia. “But it was all southern food.” In the 1970s, she traveled to the south of France and took cooking classes with Simone Beck, co-author with Julia Child of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. “Going to Europe as a budding cook opened my eyes to food in a different way. When I got to Italy, the first thing I did was put my little basil plants in the ground and watch them turn into big, healthy bushes. Cooking in Italy, watching the whole voluptuousness and richness of the food that comes out of the ground there, was so eye-opening.”
Mayes first wrote about falling in love with Tuscany in her memoir, which recounts her renovation of a centuries-old farmhouse. Under the Tuscan Sun and its sequels, Bella Tuscany and Every Day in Tuscany, made her—and her adopted home town of Cortona—famous the world over.
In a phone interview, Mayes answered questions about her new book, cooking, and life as the author who is both credited with and blamed for turning Tuscany into one of the most desirable vacation spots on the planet.
DM: In the introduction to The Tuscan Sun Cookbook you write that “Although we enjoy the new ideas and trends now cropping up in Italy, this book focuses on traditional fare and on the spontaneity of cooks working within their legacy.” Why did you decide to stick with tradition?
FM: It seems like a lot of cooks are starting to torture their food. They want to bend it and do something new with it. That’s fun, but it is not what I’m interested in. I’m much more interested in primary ingredients. We grow lot of our own food and we go to markets. If you’ve got two or three good things, you don’t need to torture them. Good ingredients shine on their own.
DM: You write about many of the Italian cooks you’ve encountered and share some of their recipes in the book. Can you talk about how they influenced your own cooking style?
FM: What has impressed me the most about the Italians whose tables we’ve sat at is that they are traditional cooks but also outrageously innovative. These people are wild improvisers. I’ve just always admired the way they can turn nothing into something. That whole heritage of ‘la cucina povera’ (poor man’s cuisine) is still in their mentality. They are always inventing. It gave me a lot of courage to do the same thing.
DM: Olive oil has been in the news lately, with revelations that some manufacturers of oil labeled “extra-virgin” have been cutting it with inferior stuff. You refer to olive oil as a ‘holy substance’ and spend a couple of pages talking about its uses and how to choose wisely. Can you share a few tips?
FM: The main thing to look for is the expiration date. Olives are harvested in the fall, so the oil should have the date of harvest on it, and an expiration date two years after that.
Look for the most specific language you can find. If it says ‘product of Italy’ that means nothing. The oil could come from somewhere else and just be mixed and bottled in Italy. It should say not only extra-virgin olive oil, it should also say where it’s from and where it was bottled.
Price is another thing to look for. If the olive oil is not expensive I can guarantee you that it’s not good. In Tuscany, our trees produce about a liter of olive oil per tree. So you have to pay, and if you don’t pay you’re not getting what you think you’re getting. That’s just the sad truth. I find that people are weird about paying for ingredient that would make the biggest difference in kitchen. They would spend $50 on bottle of wine that is gone in one evening. It’s a much better investment to buy good $30 olive oil and use over a period of time.
Keep your oil in a dark bottle in a cupboard, not on the kitchen counter. Light will ruin it in a week. But oil that’s well stored can last for many months.
DM: What has changed the most in the years since you wrote Under the Tuscan Sun? Has there been any downside to the fame and notoriety you’ve brought to the region?
FM: People do come there a lot because of my book. Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany have been translated into 40 languages so it’s not just Americans who are coming. I’ve met people from Estonia, Taiwan, Brazil. It’s kind of amazing that people will travel because of a book. I admire that. It can sometimes be disconcerting. A lot of people stop me in town. I tend to go in early to do my shopping. If I go in at noon it tends to take a long time. But to a person everybody I’ve met has been extremely nice. People who travel with book as a destination are a little different. And, it’s been great for the economy in town. I’m sure there are some who think, ‘Damn that American woman,’ but in general I think it’s been a good thing.
DM: What do you think accounts for the enduring popularity of Italy and Italian cooking?
FM: After every book I’ve written I’ve thought I probably don’t have any more to say, and then I go back next time and it’s like I’ve never been there before. Thank God Italy didn’t get unified until the middle of the 19th Century. They had all those papal states isolated from each other, all these little fiefdoms that developed their own cuisine, their own art, their own songs. And in many of these principalities and settlements people were forbidden to travel. Just think of all the dialects. You can travel 20 miles and people are speaking a new dialect. Because they modernized so late, they still hold on to that individuality. The people came to appreciate what they have and they hold on to those traditions.
DM: Grazie mille, Frances. Many thanks for taking the time to chat about your new book, cooking, and life in bella Tuscany.
Frances Mayes will be signing copies of her cookbook at 6 p.m. today, 3/15/12 at Williams-Sonoma Mazza Gallerie, 5300 Wisconsin Avenue, NW. (202) 237-1602.
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Frances graciously gave me permission to select a recipe to share from The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. I chose one of my favorite Italian preparations ~ a sformato, a savory custard that is baked in a mold or baking dish and then unmolded before serving. Frances’s recipe offers a basic egg custard and several options for vegetable fillings. The beauty of this type of recipe is that it welcomes improvisation. You can try one of the suggested fillings, or create your own with whatever vegetables are in season. You can serve sformati as a side dish to a roast, as part of an antipasto plate, or as the main course for a light meal.
Serves 8 as a side dish
For the custard:
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup soffritto (recipe follows)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 cups prepared and seasoned vegetables, such as:
* thinly sliced artichoke hearts
* shredded or sliced zucchini with 1 tablespoon mint and 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
* red pepper slivers with 5 to 6 torn basil leaves
* mushroom slices with 1 tablespoon minced shallot
* grated carrot with 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
* half a chopped red radicchio and half a minced onion
* copped tomato with 1 tablespoon pesto
Extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bring 5 cups of water to a boil.
In a large mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the cream, milk, soffritto, Parmigiano, and vegetables with their suggested herbs. Stir the mixture well, and spoon it into eight oiled and floured 3 1/2-inch ramekins. Place them in a 10 x 15-inch baking dish as deep as they are. Pour about 5 cups of boiling water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until firm to the touch, about 20 minutes, depending on the vegetable. When slightly cooled, run a thin knife around the edges of the sformati and unmold.
This mixture of sauteed minced carrots, celery, onion, and flat-leaf parsley is the flavor base for many sauces, soups, stews, and other dishes in Italian cooking. This recipe makes 1 cup. Use half for the sformati recipe above and reserve the remaining soffritto for another use.
Makes 1 cup
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, minced
1 carrot, minced
1 celery stalk, minced
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Saute the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until they begin to color and turn tender, 5 to 7 minutes.