Every Day in Tuscany by Frances Mayes
A virtual cottage industry has formed in recent years, involving the luscious, pinot grigio-drenched account of an ordinary middle-classer escaping the rat race and finding their self and their life’s true purpose. The wine is important, because the book will be set in a country in which a Romance language is spoken and people enjoy lengthy lunches from which they wobble away by bike.
The travelogue-cum-memoir (or is the other way around?) is now a respectable sub-genre of its own, boasting titles such as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (the eating is done in Italy, natch), and Frances Mayes’ 1996 bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy. (Hey, if it works, it works, and money talks – all three have been adapted for the silver screen, with Julia Roberts appearing as Gilbert in this year’s EPL production.)
On the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Italian adventure that spawned Mayes’ Tuscan tome and the follow-up books Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy (1999) and In Tuscany (2000), comes Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life, in which the author, an American, weaves together a series of anecdotes about food, art and life in her adopted homeland.
That Mayes was a poet (she has penned five collections) before becoming a memoirist is apparent on every page. She has a rich, lyrical style that perfectly lends itself to the food, art and landscape about which she writes. Visiting a lush family vineyard in Montalcino, she describes meeting the winemaker:
“Silvio Ariani . . . looks as though he could be mounting a horse or pulling the crossbow in a Piero della Francesca painting. Silvio shows us how the vines are planted close together. I love it that he pronounces vineyard ‘vine yard.’ ‘If they are close, the plants sense each other,’ he tells us. ‘They go deeper instead of spreading out close to the surface. That’s better – in drought they reach water; in times of rain, they are not soaked.’ As metaphor and philosophy, this sets me reeling.”
In her writing, her musing on the ways of Italians, Mayes seems to have an almost superhuman ability to experience her environment with all five senses.
Taste is perhaps the most dominant, and many chapters end with recipes – plum tart, seafood stew, stuffed eggplant, porcini and ricotta crepes – and she even includes a list of antipasti she likes to serve at outdoor lunches. Sformato di Parmigiano con Crema di Asparagi (parmesan flan with cream of fresh asparagus), Tagliata di Morellini con Mozzarella di Bufala Olive e Pinoli (sliced artichoke with mozzarella, olives and pinenuts) . . . here are the tastes and smells of Mayes’ Italy.
It is uniformly mouth-watering and makes you yearn to spend a day in her company, trailing in her beneficent wake as she points out Renaissance frescoes in a quiet piazza, dodges townsfolk pedalling home with fresh bread for lunch, and ferrets out a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where the owner will serve you spinach ravioli stuffed with quail and, while you savour it, will sit at your table to issue a discourse on why the people of Tuscany have manners and Ligurians do not.
The difficulty of finding things fresh and new to say about one of the most written-about places on Earth cannot be underestimated: that Mayes’ succeeds in making her books essential reading for anyone who loves what she loves is laudable. And if you are planning a trip to the Mediterranean, take a copy. It would make a splendid travelling companion.
This review was previously published on Coast.co.nz.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Published by Penguin