Posts Tagged ‘The Tuscan Sun Cookbook’

Wise in Winter

February 23rd, 2015

“I’d like to exit this place next February,” I said to Ed, as I flipped the kitchen faucet on and no water flowed.

“It will thaw in a couple of hours.”   Wallace Stevens, he reminded me, said that you must have “a mind of winter.” Then he went on, extolling the joys of dinners by the fire, starting new writing projects, having friends over for hearty suppers, stamping around the bare garden when you see its outlines clearly and can plan for summer, reading that stack of books, watching two movies a night, and on and on.  I had to reconsider. What’s a week in Turks and Caicos compared to all that?

At least we are warm at last. We lived here while the house got a new insulated metal roof, the attic and basement were insulated with state-of-the-art materials, while the many layers of paint were sanded off by many men in hazmat, while crawl space was excavated–seemingly by the tablespoon–and the asbestos and pipes and wires, generations of wires, were stripped from the basement, and geothermal heat was installed in the house. This required five small but 300′ deep wells to be dug across the front yard, which destroyed the garden and irrigation. We had only space heaters for two months. It wasn’t so bad. Space heaters have improved but with the electric bill, we could have bought several round-trip tickets to Italy.

Still, a miracle to be warm in a house this old, here at the end of February!

Time to do all those things Ed rhapsodized about.  Here’s one thing I like serving.

 

I roasted vegetables separately, as always, but instead of simply serving them on a plate, I made stacks: eggplant slice, zucchini, asparagus, another eggplant, a slice of mozzarella, and a thick tomato slice roasted with chopped shallots and thyme on top.  Around this I served big wild-caught shrimp that I flash-sautéed in roasted garlic and olive oil then drizzled with lemon juice. As you see on the pan, I use olive oil liberally.  This is a very tasty and easy first course for a feast or a nice Sunday supper.  A grand treat–two hunks of parmigiano Ed brought home in his suitcase.  Yes, it’s okay to bring in, as long as it’s shrink wrapped.  Ask, in Italy, for sotto vuoto. On the left, parmigiano aged 45 months, on the right, aged 24 months.  Much of what we get in the US is aged 12 months.  Still excellent, but it is revealing to taste the different ages.  The 24 month is a bit harder than the usual, grainier, and with a more pronounced flavor. You need less  when sprinkling it over pasta. At 45 months–amazing!  Very grainy, almost sandy with bursts of flavor from those grains. Dryer, and I want to say sweeter but that’s not exactly right.  Deeper in flavor and so intense.  My photo is not bad! Looks like a little corner of a Vermeer.  That’s the lovely hard light of winter angling into my kitchen.

If you go to Italy, it’s worth the extra weight to bring back a huge piece of the almost four year old parmigiano. Ed also brought a substantial wedge of Fior di Monte, a pecorino we love.  His suitcase was full of tax receipts for the renovations in Italy, all nicely perfumed with the scents of the cheeses.

An unexpected little disaster during the North Carolina renovation was a gas explosion and fire in the kitchen.  And you wondered why I’ve neglected my blog….   Anyway, the up result of this is that we have a new stove. A gorgeous new stove.  (Was it worth it?  Ummmm?)  After hours of research, we selected a six-burner American Range, whose major burners have 25,000 BTUs.  Not that I even have a wok.  The oven is my dream oven.

That’s pasta with sausage and four cheeses coming out.  This is an all-time favorite recipe–essence of a cosy winter night with good friends.  (Recipe in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook.)  What’s even greater are the leftovers.

Now for other winter pleasures–watching and reading.  Gran Hotel!! Okay,  it’s a melodrama.  But anything that draws me to the treadmill at five every afternoon for forty-two episodes running has got to be compelling.  Watching Amaia Salamanca and Jon Gonzáles is compelling.  He’s kind of a Spanish Raoul Bova. Anyone else drawn to this series?  I wonder if another season will come to Netflix.  Try it!  After awhile I didn’t even notice the subtitles.  Here are several books I have read and liked recently:  

The Trace by Forrest Gander. The place itself is the main character in this novel. The place is the Mexican desert and a harsh and scary place it is.  The prose here is lapidary and visual.

 Transatlantic by Colum McCann. Uncanny the way he grasps the immediacy of a character. Here, he strangely weaves stories of eminent men with those of decidedly peripheral and unrealized women. Deftly done but somehow there seems to be a missing core to the book.

The Stories of Jane Gardam. Well, I’m a fan.  She’s telling the story but telling it slant. A refreshing, off-beat style. I like where she goes for her stories and her sometimes shocking humor, also from unexpected places.  Wry and smart writing.

Good Behavior, Loving and Giving, Time after Time by Molly Keane. I discovered Molly Keane when I read an interview with Hilary Mantel where she said Good Behavior was her favorite novel.  Keane’s territory is the crumbling aristocracy of pre-war Ireland. She’s satiric, and her jabbing humor is even more wicked than Gardam’s, but the characters are vivid and memorable.  I ordered all her books from England. I’m finding that I need to read other things in between–a steady stream is overwhelming.

So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan. The subtitle says it all.  As a big Gatsby reader over the years, I loved her insights, minute attention, and her passion for this book.

10:04 by Ben Lerner. The writer is hell-bent on pushing the borders of what a novel is.  This reads like memoir then parlays the same material into a fiction, but perhaps it’s all fiction. Lerner’s love of language is the pleasure here. The dramatic narrative “hooks” set up at the opening never really resolve, but the imaginative arc of the novel is exciting.

As always, I’d love to hear from you about books you’ve liked this winter.  Now I’m about to travel to Italy and I’m loading several books onto my iPad for the long flights.  When I return, the daffodils and tulips all will be in bloom in North Carolina.  Winter will be over.  Despite all the cosy fun and the one beautiful day of snow, I never hate to see winter end.  And, in spite of Ed’s praise of winter pleasures, I can’t help but think back to last year’s escape.

 

An aqua sea, two yellow umbrellas, powdered sugar sand. I’ll take it!

From Italy, I’ll post the photos of the almost-finished restoration of Bramasole.  Two projects at once has been madness–but we’ve preserved both wonderful houses for their next hundred or so years.  A good feeling.  Here’s the renovated attic at Chatwood. It used to have an old chimney from a defunct boiler rising through it, and it was a dark, cut up space.

 We added the dormer in the first photo to match the one on the right side of the room. We left the floor as it was, just repaired the hole where the chimney was, then finished it with tung oil. What would you do with this space? It has views of the garden on three sides. Isn’t it too pristine for old boxes and suitcases?

The rewards of renovation are solid and lasting–a thought to hold onto when your house is draped in hazmat sheeting and fifteen workers are plying their trades and the power is off and the house is shaking.

I am totally excited to finish this work and to get back to writing.  More from Italy.  Keep in touch!

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August So Soon!

August 4th, 2014

Could you–I could–live in a place that was eternally summer? This summer is especially delicious–today I am picking up at Walker farm fifty pounds of Romas to make pomarola for the coming months when the weather is not so fine. Later in the week, I will roast another fifty pounds of mixed tomatoes, pack them tightly in jars and cover with olive oil. They are so great to have on hand during any season. (See The Tuscan Sun Cookbook for both methods.) My own tomatoes are coming in too, but it seems that some creature takes a bite out of each one one day before it’s ripe. I have made every kind of yellow squash I can think of. Just sautéed with onion then a little cream and parmigiano stirred in seems best, especially if topped with seasoned coarse bread crumbs. No creature seems interested in squash. Something already has eaten the corn, all of it. I set out the catch-and-release trap twice–expecting to catch a raccoon and release him miles from here–and caught first a possum, then a skunk, the latter being quite a shock. Ed was in Italy so I called on the handy, handy man who helps us, and he approached the trap slowly, holding up a sheet of plastic and a stick with a hook.  He deftly lifted the trap door and the skunk just looked up at him and didn’t move. We didn’t want to rattle his cage!  Finally he ambled out, waving his glorious tail but refraining from spraying into the soft summer twilight.  The raccoon remains at large.

North Carolina can be blistering but this summer has been lovely.  At night I walk out on the porch a couple of times just to hear the loud, teeming, rhythmic night chorus and to inhale the moist, fragrant scents. Right now, the ginger lilies are perfuming the air. The front porch is a good perch for reading, a glass of iced tea, and for visiting.

If you’ve read Under Magnolia, you know already that the lively air of the South has drawn me back all my life. In summer, I am in paradiso.

Soon, I’ll return to Italy, but two months of southern summer suits me! This is the Eno River that runs by our meadow.  This is taken upstream where there’s a bridge.

Back in Italia, the restoration at Bramasole continues. Is this my life’s work? Here are the new beams, new outside wall for the old limonaia at the back of the house. Soon (?) to be the kitchen. The ceiling will be coved.

Ed has been a commuter, and what a long commute. Praise the travel gods for the nonstop from Charlotte to Rome on US Airways. We loved having our grandson in Italy for all of June. He studied intensive Italian at Polimnia in Cortona. We took the Frecciarosa fast trains on weekends to Venice, Rome, and the Amalfi Coast. The new trains are superb–comfortable, wifi, drink service, dining car, and, oh, so quick. We are thrilled that Willie’s a born traveler–curious and ready and open to any adventure, especially if it involves trains and boats.

A very special event in June was the launching of the Tuscan Sun walk around Cortona. Signs have been placed at historic sites, places I mentioned in my books, and places shown in the movie of Under the Tuscan Sun. Everyone was so pleased that Audrey Wells (on the left), screenwriter and director, came for the opening of the walk.

When I brought him back to his mama, who missed him terribly, Ed stayed on at Bramasole to oversee, to make the innumerable decisions and to deal with the inevitable dismaying discoveries that happen with old houses.  The best news is that the work is impeccable. We have talented stonemasons whose patience I only can admire from afar. How they manage to keep chipping  stones perfectly and hauling them from A to B, I don’t understand. But they do derive enormous satisfaction from creating something like this.

We changed the color of the shutters from brown to dusty green. The cabinets are being made now. I found glass pendant lights at Schiavoni http://www.renoschiavon.it/index.html on the island of Murano. I’ve ordered a big blue stove. Soon we will be stirring ragù and popping open a glass of something very good!

With all the travel, I’ve had time to read, although on one flight I got hooked on Sherlocke Holmes and watched three episodes without stopping.

Some recent and recommended books:

The Essays of E. B. White–I’ve read his essays over the years but found it inspiring to stay with the whole collection. Wish I’d known him!

Bobcat by Rebecca Lee–Subtle short stories that move in surprising directions and come to a real conclusion. I don’t like short stories that drop off into an abyss and you’re left wanting to turn the page.

Mona Lisa by Diane Hales–Only a smattering of information remains about La Giocanda but this book puts her life in the context of her time, giving a rich portrait of women’s lives in that era and the larger context of history, economics, and art.

The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund–Another deft book of short stories, these set in far-flung places, focusing on relationships that just-miss. Often funny, satirical, and touching.

The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla–A charming, compelling journal kept by this Spanish writer starting in 1918 when the influenza epidemic sent him home from Barcelona, where he studied, to coastal Spain. Love his voice, his acute observations, and the evocation of an era.

As always, I would love to hear your summer recommendations.

I hope everyone reading this is enjoying luscious summer meals of tomato tarts, fried okra, peach pies, watermelon and tomato salad–and squash casseroles! May summer linger long.

 

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Discreet Charms of Winter

February 18th, 2014

We’re taking two winter trips to Cortona this year. Restoration at Bramasole keeps raging on, and I admit that I keep adding projects, such as a half-moon fountain against a tall stone wall. I bought a stone lion face years ago, and now he’ll reign over the new fountain with a little copper tube from his mouth spilling water. I dwell on this point of possible beauty because the rest of the place is a muddy zone with so many trenches that it looks like ancient warfare.

At least the crane is gone. Progress!  On our January trip, this is how we spent many days:

Valter, the architect (in the middle), is a hands-on, droll, and resourceful person who keeps us calm. He’s there several times a week, paying attention to the minute details.  Sergio, second from right, is the builder. We huddled many mornings in the rain to review the work. What IS Ed laughing about? That ganglia of tubes  mystifies me.  What they’re standing on is the new marciapiedi, made from old stones Sergio found in a crumbling barn. This walkway seals the bottom of the house and will prevent moisture from seeping up the walls. The facade is all restored except for the bottom part. They are waiting on that until the marciapiedi was laid and everything has a chance to dry. With the rain we had while we were there, when might that might happen?  

Mud is a pretty good word, but the Italian word fango sounds more like what you see above.  This looks like a BEFORE picture, but actually, it’s AFTER. As you may recall from previous posts, this is what the front garden looked like before:

In spring, we’ll put down new grass, pull the lemons trees out of the limonaia, plant big pots with spilling geraniums, and hope that it returns to its former beauty.

When we were not knee-deep in mud, we were, of course, eating. Most restaurants are closed during January but the ones that remain open seem especially cosy and jolly. And, ah, the winter food! Polenta with mushrooms and sausage–as in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook, and what we loved at the tiny trattoria Fettunta–polenta baked with tallegio in the oven. At Bar Tuscher, where we had many lunches, they make lasagne with a twist. The tender layers of pasta and ragù are served on a little pool of béchamel, rather than the béchamel being incorporated into the ragù layers. I loved this idea because the lasagne seemed lighter and the flavors more nuanced.  At home, we savored the big pork roasts, pasta with wild boar, and the marvelous thick soup, ribollita.  We managed only one party and for that Gilda made zeppole.

Fried bread, but so light. Usually they’re sweet and sprinkled with powered sugar but for the antipasto course, she served these as savories. Some with cheese stirred in, some with anchovies. Recipe? “There is no recipe, you just make them.” Next time, I’ll try to write down how, exactly, they’re done. I looked for recipes on line and didn’t find anything similar. If anyone reading this has a recipe, let me know!

We have not been in Italy in winter in several years. The streets shine in the rain, shop owners cover the windows with newspaper while they spruce up their walls or rearrange, one lone man leans into a doorway out of the rain. He’s gazing out at the empty piazza and I think he could have been there for a thousand Januarys.

Tourists? There’s one, an American from Michigan, and he’s in Bar Tuscher every day. I think he’s learning Italian very fast because, in this season, everyone wants to talk. Last seen, he was holding court with several policemen and they were enjoying an afternoon prosecco. Such are the charms of winter–an intimacy, a privacy with a place, bright faces in the rain, that second bottle of wine you share with a neighboring table where you’ve just met a couple down for the weekend from Torino. An icy wind whips down from the Alps and smells like snow. Spontaneous waterfalls in the woods surprise you on long tramps in rubber boots.  

 

We spent many evenings by the fire with dinner on trays, and books. I adored Elena Ferrante’s  My Brilliant Friend and the sequel, The Story of a New Name. We roasted chestnuts and opened our neighbor’s nutty vinsanto. I like to step outside late, just to shiver a little and hear the owls calling. What winter has is time. The nights are long and after the rain, the stars are clear and close.

 

 

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When Lemon Trees Flew

December 9th, 2013

Just before the first hard frost, all the potted lemons that dazzle our garden must be moved into the limonaia, a glass-fronted room where they spend the winter in sunlight but protected.  Because of the scaffolding around Bramasole, the passage from the  front of the house, where they all reside, to the limonaia was partially blocked–not enough room for the specially-made lemon cart to pass.  Don’t worry about any Italian crisis, they are the most inventive people on earth!  We arrive to find the gardener loading a tree onto a pallet.

 

 

Then we notice that the pallet is attached to the crane, which has been used to haul up roof tiles during the restoration.  NO!  Lift off!

 

Soon, the pot is flying across the garden. Up, Up! “Where’s Fellini now that we need him?” I ask the gardener who has devised this unlikely scene. How surreal on this foggy morning. “Magic realism!” Ed says. A few tourists in the road below are laughing and applauding. Our neighbor stops his motorcycle and shakes his head.  Crazy Americans!  But we didn’t think of it!  Soon the pot is soaring.

Then it comes safely to rest near the limonaia. They repeat this fifteen times.  Not a mishap. I was imagining a lemon tree falling from the sky!

Before they’re muscled into the lemonaia–these pots weigh a lot–I harvest all the ripe lemons, then the pots are crowded in together. Each pot has a mark on it to show that spot faces the sun.  All winter, you can slip in among the pots and find a lemon, smell the tight aromatic blossoms, and feel your hair curl from the humidity generated by so many leaves. Fabio, the man with the red glove is just SO good. What a bold idea!

The lemon may be my favorite ingredient in the kitchen.  For the quickest pasta, I love the crab and lemon spaghetti (page 85) in THE TUSCAN SUN COOKBOOK. It’s light and unusual, as good a choice for a first course at an elaborate dinner as for an instant family meal. For the holidays, I suggest the lemon cake (page 210), a family favorite and I’ve made it a million times.  It’s a lovely gift, as is a jar of seasoned salt (page 24) with a half of a lemon blended into it.

Someone just gave me a jar of their persimmon and five spice marmalade and I will serve it with some aged pecorino.  The homemade gifts are the best.  They just have a lot more heart than those acquired by “proceed to checkout.”  I would love to hear what you’re giving from your house.  I just took a pan of pecans out of the oven.  The easiest gift imaginable: Arrange a pound of this season’s pecans in a single layer on a baking pan. Dot with a stick of butter, and sprinkle with salt.  Roast at 350 for five minutes, watching them every minute, and turning them over twice to coat them with butter.  Nothing is easier to burn than nuts.  Marvelous to serve with drinks, along with some cheese straws.  I think most people have one thing they find irresistible during the holidays. Mine has, since childhood, remained roasted pecans. Maybe it’s because I was made to pick up the nuts in our back yard, and to help shell them. At least there was a big reward.  Let me know what you’re finding irresistible!

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Roof: Finished — Olives: Picked

November 4th, 2013

What made the roof so difficult?  The house is tall and perched way above the road.  The existing roof had to be removed tile by tile. With the good work of a gigantic crane and sturdy scaffolding, the brave and excellent craftsmen claimed a final victory on Friday. The roof is on. Long live the roof. Since the old one lasted 300 years, we’re expecting this one to last as long. Hard to fathom that someone that long in the future will contemplate the same work. Maybe by then, they wave a digital wand and it’s over. 

Most of the old tiles went right back on. A few damaged ones I will keep and make little votive spots in the garden. Renovating seems easy when you’re not doing any of the work yourself. In the previous renovation, I scrubbed grime from brick floors, Ed swayed on a tall ladder, refinishing beams, and for weeks we had flecks of whitewash in our hair. I miss the direct involvement a bit, but even the sight of the ladders up the scaffolding give me vertigo. Instead, the men are fearless and SO skilled. The architect pronounces the job “exceptional.” 

Now we move to the next chapter, the stabilization of the facade. Sergio’s men are lovingly patching the stucco, and two smart women–renaissance painting restorers–will work their magic on blending the colors on the patches to the rest of the smeary apricots, gold, and rose that time has given the house. If you look carefully, you see cracks on the left and a big patch of missing stucco on the right. Those will be seamlessly repaired, along with a lot of missing stucco hidden behind the lemon trees and in the upper corners. We risked losing the facade if we didn’t intervene.

Because of the additional weight of the new roof, we will have to run iron rods along the top of the interior walls all the way around the house. Not sure how I will blend those with the painted vines in my study and a bedroom.  These rods are attached outside to iron structures called “chiavi,” keys, in Italian, and in English “anchor plates.”   We are having Egisto, master blacksmith, make the eight keys that will attach to the upper eight corners of the house on the outside, tied to the rods inside.  He’s an artist. This was the first design but it proved to be too tall. Tomorrow, he’s coming with another sample. Bramasole will have his artistic keys as part of its permanent look.

One thing leads to another, of course, when you start renovating anything.  So we are meeting each day with carpenters, electricians, plumbers. A lot of things that have just slipped over twenty-four years will be updated, improved, repaired.  One major project is the shutters. They need work and repainting.  When I first saw the house, before I bought it, the shutters were faded green. When I came back the next year and bought the place, the owner had painted them brown.  Brown and park-bench green are THE approved colors of Tuscan shutters.  But I used at the mountain house another green, the color of the doors on San Domenico church, a heathery olive soft green.  Do I dare paint my shutters that color?

We’re most familiar with those greens right now, having just finished the olive harvest. We were so involved with the house project that Ed’s sister and her husband, along with four Italian men, did all the hard work and we just showed up at the mill to taste the first green-green oil, limpid and darker than in years, with the characteristic peppery taste and a tiny hint of sweetness that I don’t recall ever tasting before.  Immediately, we launched into bruschette for every meal, and dinners at which everyone compared their own oil to everyone else’s. From this corner of Tuscany, they’re all good!

 

Not so, in the wide world. Below is a photo behind our pristine mill. That mound of waste from the first pressing will be shipped off, pressed again with terrible solvents, and sold as “pure” olive oil.  The deep fruity fabulous oil is still inside the building!  Beware.  Great olive oil is the best gift for your kitchen.  Look for specific info on the label, and especially a harvest date.  Olive oil is subject to too few restrictions and you easily can pay way too much for a stinky product!  As a grower, I know that if it’s cheap, it’s cheap.  Not good. The cost of a grove and the harvest and the milling just cannot be a bargain.  But, really, great oil is a fabulous buy. You pay $30-40 for a restaurant wine, yes? It’s gone in an hour. That much for marvelous oil repays your feasts and fun a hundred time. If you’re traveling to Italy at this time of year, double-wrap in plastic bags and stash a few liters in your checked luggage.  For more info, check our www.thetuscansun.com

 

After the harvest, we escaped for a four-day r&r pass and drove down to Gargano, the spur of Puglia.  We stayed at Il Porto in Mattinata, where we looked out at a crescent of beach and an infinity pool that you wade into.  http://www.ilporto.travel

Way too chilly now but it sets me dreaming of a late June jaunt. Monte Sant’ Angelo, Vieste, Peschici–so charming these white, sugar-cube towns overlooking the sea, and vast olive groves running down stony hills to the water.  The bread is the best. We kept a loaf in the car and just ate hunks as we drove alone winding, empty coastal roads lined with wild pink cyclamen. Much of the area is a national park, great for hiking. I kept saying, “This is Greece.”  “This is north Africa,”  “This is Spain.” As I’ve written, probably more than once, Italy is endless.  Just five hours away from Cortona, the Gargano is another world. Its beaches invite long walks. The white villages meander and climb and everywhere there are sudden views of the Adriatic. When we go again, I’d like to hire a boat because secret blue coves are everywhere.  In summer, there must be hoards of people, but right now, if you go, you have it to yourself.  We didn’t encounter a handful of tourists. Along the road:

One of the most astonishing sights that I’ve ever seen–the walled olive terraces. The earth is so stony that these walls were made by picking up stones on the ground, building terraces, and carving out land for olive trees. The human labor involved staggers the imagination.

Beautiful steps between olive terraces:

We spent the last night north in the Marche in the seaside town of Grottammare, with a twisty medieval borgo above, and a town below replete with Liberty (Art Nouveau) villas along the seafront.

I love how invigorating a short trip can be. Four days seemed like ten. There are still so many new places to see in Italy, even after twenty-four years.

I’m walking every day. Hard to stay inside when the air is golden and the paths are littered with leaves in all the colors of autumn. People are always asking what the best time in Tuscany is. Ed is prone to saying, “January through December,” because he loves all the seasons. But, really, October is hard to top. The most consistent blissful weather. A few foggy, rainy days, but mostly munificent sun-drenched days and a fresh undercurrent to the balmy air.  I’m loving listening to audio books on my walks, though it can seem surreal to hear Edith Wharton’s HOUSE OF MIRTH as I wend my way through the wild chestnut forest.

Perfect travel weather, cooking weather, new-roof weather.

Last night I made a mountain of Pasta with Sausage and Four Cheeses. Two to take to families with losses, and one for us. On a crisp fall evening, this must be one of the best things one possibly could devour.  It’s in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. I highly recommend it for your fall gatherings. Tomorrow, I’m making the Apples in a Cage–pastry wrapped baked apples–because our two apple trees, after eight years, have seen fit to donate a couple of dozen super-crunchy, gnarled little specimens. We’re taking them to our friends Sheryl and Rob’s house, where we will discuss their desire for a new restoration project. Are they crazy?  Are we?  After a few glasses of Tuscan Sun Wines, I surely the answer becomes clear!

And those fall gatherings at your house–I hope they are plentiful and fun. A marvelous season! Enjoy every leaf that flutters by your window!  Love your comments; keep in touch.

 

 

 

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Cortona Spring

June 9th, 2013

Because rain fell every single day of winter, this spring has the most wildflowers I’ve even seen. We’ve always had wild irises but this year we seem to have many more than usual.

The hillsides are alight with that incandescent green, and wild lilac perfumes the air.  The most startling joy in the garden is the pink peony bush with face-sized blossoms. Lucky bees that get to roll around inside!

April and May are tricky months in Tuscany. We’ve had our share of rainy rain days interspersed with brilliant and warm days with lunch outside and long walks on Roman roads. (I found the App called Moves and now know how far I go in a day.)  Ed has been on his road bike rain or shine, and is loving bicycling here where the hills are formidable. Worth the effort, he says, because of the splendidviews, no traffic, and no charging dogs.  Although my whole family has taken to cycling, I’m not there yet, so will stick to listening to Jane Austen and clambering along wild boar paths and backroads into town. I’m a late convert to audio books, but now that I’m on a three-mile-a-day regime, I am loving them. Formerly, I read while walking, but I got kind of seasick sometimes, and looking down kept me from enjoying the walk. May I recommend Nicole Kidman reading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf?  Her voice is subtle–I hate it when the reader is overly dramatic–and causes you to pick up nuances that you might even miss reading the book. This has been a fabulous experience, and has sent me back to the book. Next, I’m listening to Mrs. Dalloway.

On my walks into town, I’ve concentrated on seeing what I’ve never seen before in Cortona. You’d think after so many years here I would have seen every stone. Not so. A town this old has so many layers and secrets nooks and twisty streets that I’m always discovering something new. Suddenly I notice a coat of arms or just a good door.Down a steep little vicolo (tiny street) I looked up and saw remnants of fresco on the vaulted covering.

When I complained to Steven Rothfeld, our photographer friend about the swarms in Florence, he gave me good advice. “Look up!” And it’s true–so much to see above the crowds. This morning in Cortona, I saw this figure, which looks Roman.

There he stood, and in twenty-three years, we never met!

Another highlights: Friends from North Carolina came and we took them down to visit the Salvadore family where we made pecorino together. Lapo and Ed couldn’t be prouder if they’d delivered a bambino!

The Salvadores have an agriturismo within walking distance of Cortona–a great place to stay because they are SO hospitable.

Check out their website:  http://www.casaledellatorre.com

Here’s a glance into their pantry. You can see that they live close to the seasons. Those green jars on the end are fennel flowers, so bright on a pork roast or baked fennel. 

Another authentic agriturismo near our mountain house, is Il Poggio del Sole, owned by the Italiani family, who are featured in Our The Tuscan Sun Cookbook.  Staying in your private cottage or apartment, but being able to get to know a terrific family is just a sublime way to travel. Both of these places know well the art of hospitality.

The Poggio del Sole, The Hill of the Sun, website is: http://www.ilpoggiodelsoletuscany.com

Great cooks, all. But then there’s no reason not be to in Italy. The shot below is just a portion of the pasta selection in a grocery store. And, there’s a fresh pasta shop in town, where one treat of spring is ravioli filled with young spring nettles. 

The lemon pots are out of the limonaia, the summer flowers are planted, and we are ready for that grand old Tuscan sun! As always, the great pleasure is simply being at home at Bramasole. 

Hope all of you are enjoying the trip closer to the sun, too, and have planted your tomatoes and sweet peas! Will post again soon. I’ve been revising a manuscript and feel that I’ve had on blinders for several months. Onward to summer!!!

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Two Savory Holiday Gifts

December 9th, 2012

Something takes over around now, and it’s like going into labor–once it starts there’s no getting off! I feel overcome with the compelling urge  to make things–food, of course, but also wreathes out of grape vines, arrangements of magnolia and holly and berries on the mantle, centerpieces for the table. Inspired by a photo posted on pin interest by Twitter friend @katiesheadesigns, I took out an old bottle rack and made a decoration of candles and greens. If I’d had one of my larger ones in Italy, I could have made something more spectacular. As it was, everyone at dinner thought it looked sweet, until it caught on fire! That’s sand in the jars. The original used terracotta pots but my rack was too small.

 The next one I made ended up in the back hall because it looked a bit like something you’d buy for a patient at the hospital gift shop. The jack-in-the-box is a toy I had when I was three.

No other time of year, except perhaps tomato season, draws me so magnetically to the kitchen. It’s the time for huge pots of ragù simmering, and for slow-roasted quail with juniper berries, herbs, and pancetta. Both recipes are in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook.

At this time of year, I like to have things ON HAND.  And, always, I find–probably as many of you do–that I turn to what I loved when I was growing up.  Despite my enjoyment of Italian pannetone, biscotti, and Monte Bianco–the rich chestnut cream mountain that Tuscan love, at home in the USA I am making what my mother made–roasted pecans, cheese biscuits, and her famous Martha Washington Jetties.  Roasted pecans–the key is fall crop pecans, big, fresh, and whole. You simply empty a pound bag onto a parchment lined baking pan–single layer–and dot with a stick of butter–4 ounces.  Sprinkle with salt and roast in a 350 degree oven for about eight minutes. Half way, take a spatula and scoot the pecans around to make sure they’re all coated with butter.  Allow to cool and then place in a nice tin lined in waxed paper. Anytime someone comes around and a bottle of wine is opened, a little bowl of these nuts will be devoured with exclamations of joy. They’re also easy and welcome gifts.

The other MUST on myChristmas list : Cheese biscuits.  Grate 8 ounces of sharp cheddar. Mix with 4 ounces–one stick–of softened butter. With a mixer, work in 1  cup of flour, some salt, cayenne, and pepper. I like to add, though my mother did not, some thyme leaves and chopped rosemary  Form the mixture into logs and chlll for a couple of hours.

Slice thinly onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for about eight minutes or until the edges start to brown and crisp. Or, you can just form the dough into little mounds like small cookies and bake the m the way my mother made did.  Before baking, she placed on top of each biscuit  a pecan half. When they cooled, she sprinkled on a little powdered sugar.  I don’t do that–mine are more like wafers–but it is tasty that way. I just figure the cheese and butter is enough with out the sugar hit. These are universally scoffed up, so much so that dinner can be ruined.  They are lethal to have left over because you find yourself just drawn to that cookie tin with each coffee or glass of wine or nothing at all. As a true southerner, I thought that Coca-cola was the perfect pairing. Just irresistible. If lots of entertainng is on your calendar, double the recipe, then just pull a log out of the fridge and bake as your guests ring the bell, so that a warm plate of cheese wafers is at the ready.

As soon as my daughter and I make them this year, I’ll post the recipe for  Martha Washington Jetties. Every Christmas of my life I have indulged in the making of these candies. Whether the real Martha actually made them, I don’t know. But I do know that my mother made them once a year, as do I, and as does my daughter. It simply would not be Christmas without the depression glass candy jar filled with these delectable chocolate-covered pecan fondant dreams.

I would love to hear what you are compelled to concoct as the solstice nears!

[Photo to come]

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The Wine Room

October 31st, 2012

We are having our small version of Sandy here in Tuscany today. This awful weather ushers out October, which has been the most sublime month I’ve witnessed in all my years in Tuscany. Almost every day has been clear, aurous, mild and sweet. The funghi porcini hunters swarm our mountain house hillside every day. There was even a little fender-bender near our lane. Some over-zealous mushroom hunter speeding to the next patch encountered another madman invading his territory. Actually, our land–but in Italy everyone has the god-given right to forage anywhere.  The chestnut hunters have arrived in force, and we are awakened to gunshot as poor wild boar get chased across the hill.  It’s all to the good–fall food is the best! I urge you to hurry to the hearty recipes for veal shank, polenta with sausage and wild mushrooms, pasta with four cheeses, big soups–all in, guess what, The Tuscan Sun Cookbook!  We’ve been celebrating the olive oil harvest, as well as Ed’s birthday so our kitchen windows stay steamy, and the oven seems always cranked up for a fig and walnut tart or a chocolate cake.

I found a great round cutting board at the Cortona Third-Sunday antique market and put it to good use for crostini by the fire.

This is the most celebratory season of all in Tuscany. One feast after another, and this fall, we are wine tasting constantly. (What were those Carter’s Little Liver Pills in the medicine cabinet when I was growing up?) With the Baracchi family, who make Ardito and other grand wines, we are working on importing a few wines ourselves. What I’m looking for is excellent drink-now daily wines priced below $16. I’m always stunned when I go home and find little day-to-day wine available, at least that I want to drink. One night we blind-tasted nineteen at the Baracchi’s sybaritic inn, Il Falconiere, and all of us benefitted by the super palate of the owner, Silvia Regi. Here, we’ll all set in their wine library.

Which leads me to our cosy and secluded mountain house, Fonte delle Foglie. The main dining table is at one end of the kitchen, here all set with olive branches and Bramasole’s roses for our olive oil tasting dinner, an annual event. Everyone brings their just-pressed oil and we all compliment each other, while everyone privately is thinking that their own is the best. Uh oh, wine glasses and napkins are not yet on the table!

The small dining room, where Ed and I eat when we are alone, is called the wine room. It serves as a place to gather for prosecco and antipasto when we have guests. The painted door shows animals that live around Fonte. The doors on the other side of the bedroom beyond show animals who formerly lived in the downstairs–cow, rabbit, pig, goose, donkey, etc.

We had the iron racks made by a local blackmith and topped them with old wood. The chestnut-plank ceiling is original to the house, and the painting of Saint Francis and the Wolf, recalls that the house was built by his followers in the 1200’s.

Here’s the sideboard from my Drexel Heritage At Home in Tuscany collection. It’s command central for opening the next bottle. Hard to see because of their blazing 20 watt glory, the wall lights are electrified carriage lights, another antique market find. This room is always romantically lit, usually just with candles.

The corner marble “bar sink” came from a lot full of building salvage. I added the Busatti linen skirt and we store tall bottles underneath. Not visible in these pictures are four sculptural green glass demijohns on the floor. I’ve already admitted to scavenging these from where they’re often abandoned–near garbage bins. Ed always hopes no one sees me hauling a filthy bottle into the car. I spend hours trying to clean out the dried dregs.

I can’t imagine getting rid of a dining room, as is the trend now. But I do like the idea of double use–a dining room as a wine library, or as a regular library. Eating is one of the major activities of life; you might as well lavish attention on where that takes place.

My last blog, Books at Bramasole, engendered marvelous responses. I am so grateful to everyone who shared book ideas and liked our bookcases. Please feel free anytime to recommend a good book. I’m always looking for the next one. Hope some of you rushed to the bookstore or library, as I did. Actually, I had to download, since I’m in Italy. At the end of the blog, I said I was about to read The Hare with Amber Eyes.  Trust me, trust me–it is a magnificent book. I had to cry a little at the end just from the joy of Edmund de Waal’s great writing.

Next post will be from North Carolina!

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On the Cusp of the Season

September 12th, 2012

48 degrees this morning, steam rising from the meadow, and I’m lured early by the rose garden, where yesterday we planted six new beauties. Six, because that’s all I could wedge into the car. Our local Witherspoon Rose Garden is having a sale so it’s a perfect moment to replace some of the puny ones that have hung on in this garden since the 1950’s.  This garden I speak of is not in Tuscany but in North Carolina. We changed our USA base in August and moved to Chatwood, an 1806 house with wonderful gardens that need a big shot of TLC, plus some redesigning. This was taken in spring, when my daughter lived here.  It faces the meadow. The Eno River runs by the back.

 

The photo above is the back of the house. That sunroom is where I plan to read and write all winter. At the end of A Year in the World, I wrote about a fantasy of moving to a yellow house–a traveler’s rest kind of place, where all the mementos of my journeys find a home and all the people I’ve met along the way can come and stay and cook. I imagined evenings of poetry readings and music. Sometimes fantasies swing around into reality–this farmhouse seems just the sort of place I dreamed of. In short, a home. Bachelard in The Poetics of Space says the good house is one that protects the dreamer.  Many dreamers have lived here, since the house was built during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. I hope they all felt protected.

Moving proved to be more of a challenge than I remember. I think it’s like labor: you’re supposed to forget the pain so you’re willing to repeat the experience.  Now the tons of books are unpacked, if not yet in alphabetical order, and everything is stowed somewhere.  I think the snakes, possums, and mice have been exorcised from the basement. I think the gutters have been cured of their Niagara falls habits. I have a couple of weeks to play in the garden before we decamp for Italy. The olive harvest beckons! Unpacking and placing books inevitably led to reacquainting myself with my library and to getting lost in a book now and then. And when I couldn’t face another box, I took to my bed with a book. I’ve enjoyed rereading Nabokov, Henry Miller, and Michael Ondaatje.

What I also have taken time to do is revel in the summer vegetables and fruits. The raccoons and squirrels feasted on our garden, leaving us nothing except the jalapeñoes. Fortunately we have a farmer’s market to rely on. My favorite summer dish, hands down, is a multi-vegetable tian made with pesto and parmigiano. Sometimes one recipe comes to represent a moment in time and place, and this is it for the summer we moved. Woven into the preparation is the music I listened to over and over as I cooked: Bach’s concertos for unaccompanied cello, some of the most magnificent music every written. It seems to play on your own heart’s strings. I listened as I roasted eggplants and peppers, sautéed onions, zucchini and yellow squash, sliced wonderful tomatoes, then layered all these in a deep pie dish, adding a layer of fresh pesto and a layer of grated parmigiano. Some thyme, salt, pepper, crunchy breadcrumbs–there you have it. Just a twenty minute bake in a 350 degree oven. Love this, and the leftovers are just blissful on a focaccia sandwich.

 A bit blurry, I see.  From my deep heritage as a southerner, I made several times a version of the yellow squash casserole I loved as a child. I make my own béchamel rather than use the canned mushroom soup my mother’s recipe lists. Frankly, I’m not really sure that mine is any better for all the updates. Here it is; one for us, one for my daughter’s family.

Melted sunshine! Here are my favored crunch breadcrumbs again, some sautéed onions and some sharp cheddar and herbs. I lightly steam the squash, then combine everything with some béchamel  and bake.

This new/old house has electric ovens. I’ve always preferred them, though have put up with gas ovens for years. Ed was thrilled the first time he made a soufflé here. The top practically crashed the top of the oven! He’s made this Julie Child recipe for years–especially on Sunday nights–and knows it by heart. We do 1 1/2 times the recipe and there’s never a crusty morsel left in the dish.

There’s a reason that panna cotta is Tuscany’s ubiquitous dessert. You can make it in five minutes, flavor it with vanilla or orange or lemon, and dress it up with berries or melted chocolate, or citrus. And it’s a bit glamorous. The recipe is in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook.

 Isn’t that pretty? I had a thing for tole trays for awhile and accumulated a dozen or so from eBay. I’m over it now but they are charming!  We are thrilled to have our cookbook on hand in the kitchen. It saves us so much time searching through index cards and folders looking for our favorites.

Not in the cookbook, but included in Bringing Tuscany Home, is Nancy Silverton’s Brown Butter Plum Tart. It is fall-out-of-your-chair good, and right now plums are just luscious. I like cooking with them especially because, unlike most fruits, they don’t need to be peeled. This tart is rich and juicy. The unlikely aspect is the butter. Not only do you melt it, you actually brown it until its nutty and smoking. Grazie, Nancy!  I used a tart pan with a removable bottom. Here she is–ready for the oven.

We served this to friends and fortunately there remained a slender slice for my breakfast!

I would love to hear from you if you’ve cooked from The Tuscan Sun Cookbook! It’s fun to hear readers’ variations on the recipes.

I am happy to be back on my blog. A curse on the jerk who hacked! My next post will be from Italy.

Hope everyone has a smooth transition into a delicious, eventful, gorgeous fall.

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Dinner in Napa Valley at Signorello Vineyards

May 23rd, 2012

On 21 and 22 July, Ed and I  are going to California for a dinner at Signorello Vineyards honoring The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. Chef Michael McMillan has planned a scrumptious winery dinner, beginning with drinks by the infinity pool overlooking the grapes that are on their way to being the wonderful wines we’re drinking. Check the Signorello website: http://www.signorelloestate.com/frances-mayes-dinner.asp

It’s preceded by a concert with Joshua Bell–a not-to-be-missed experience.

At the same time around the country, groups will be organizing their own parties, cooking the same menu and drinking the same wines.  The idea is that everyone links and comments and toasts together through Twitter and Facebook. Virtual dinner party! It’s a new, new concept pioneered by Chef Robin White. See her website for the menu and details on  how to be involved: www.chefrobinwhite.com and follow her on Twitter @canapes45

The afternoon of 21 July, Signorello is throwing a pizza party and booksigning.

All this is associated with the fabulous Festival del Sole.  For tickets see:

https://festivaldelsole.secure.force.com/ticket#sections_a0Fd0000003n453EAA

Of course, the Festival is a grand celebration of musical and culinary events over an eleven day span. Check their website for the full program. http://festivaldelsole.org/calendar-2012/festival-artists-2012/

Besides Joshua Bell, two of my favorite artists from The Tuscan Sun Festival over the years are Danielle de Niese and Helene Grimaud. Just superb! They and many other over-the-moon artists will be in Napa for the 2012 edition of the festival. If you’re considering a vacation in Napa, what better time to go?  Through the festival, you’re privy to very special food and wine events as well. Plus, there’s the wine country!

Speaking of Twitter, follow me @francesmayes and Ed @edwardmayes. It’s fun–if you don’t get addicted!

Meanwhile, we’re in chilly Tuscany. Just had artichoke lasagne for lunch—not so bad!

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