Virtually everyone who has traveled to Italy can describe a moment in which they were transported by food — whether a platter of pillowy, cheese-filled ravioli bathed in butter and sage, a meltingly tender, paper-thin slice of prosciutto draped over a warm puff of fried dough, a glossy cone of hand-dipped gelato.
For Frances Mayes, author of the best-selling memoir “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Chronicle Books, 1996), such a moment occurred one day as she watched a priest savor an orange that he had doused in olive oil and salt.
“I realized in one bite what I’d missed,” Mayes writes in her latest book, “The Tuscan Sun Cookbook” (Clarkson Potter, 2012), 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 villa. “Under the Tuscan Sun” and its sequels, “Bella Tuscany”(Broadway, 2000) and “Every Day in Tuscany” (Broadway, 2010) 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.
Domenica Marchetti: 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?
Frances Mayes: 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 a 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 ingredients that would make the biggest difference in the kitchen. They would spend $50 on a bottle of wine that is gone in one evening. It’s a much better investment to buy good $30 olive oil and use it 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 to get back home. 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.
Domenica Marchetti is the author of “The Glorious Pasta of Italy” (Chronicle, 2011) as well as “The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy” (Chronicle, 2006) and “Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style” (Chronicle, 2008). She blogs at DomenicaCooks.com.
Frances Mayes will be signing copies of her cookbook at 6 p.m. on Thursday at Williams-Sonoma Mazza Gallerie, 5300 Wisconsin Avenue, NW. (202) 237-1602.