Someone with whom I only had a nodding acquaintance, had some years ago, casually referred to Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun.”
I’d not been strictly recommended the book, but somehow, the title had stuck in my mind, perhaps for no other reason other than that it exuded a strong whiff of the dolce vita.
Now and then, on my outings to bookstores, I’d invariably find myself inserting an offhand query about it, even without really intending to.
But it’d so turn out that on most occasions, the sellers had sold out their stock.
And just when I was pleased to learn that a few copies may, after all, be available, the sales clerk quickly let me down by informing me that the store’s lone-standing paperback was apparently lost in the towers of shelves.
It required a search party to retrieve it—a customer service action, which I gathered, couldn’t immediately be followed through, given the busy traffic at the cash registers.
So, I walked away.
After a string of disappointments and failed attempts to purchase the book, I threw in the towel, believing that it was a cosmological conspiracy not to let me have it—that is, until the day, I got it as a present.
For someone who’d longed for a copy—nearly with the fervor of one pining for a phantom lover—the mere tactile sensation of holding it in my palm gave me great joy.
As a matter of habit, I tend to thumb through a book, skimming through a paragraph here, and a sentence there, before I formally begin reading it.
As I riffled through it, I couldn’t help notice that the book was sprinkled with a generous doze of Italian words, all in italics. Excited, I dived into them.
The travelogue began delightfully, with Mayes’ sensuous portrayal of the property she buys in the ancient town of Cortona, in the Sun-drenched province of Tuscany, in northern Italy, and how she restores it—a three-storied stone house that sits atop “a terraced slab of hillside,” covered with “one hundred and seventeen olive trees, twenty plums, and still uncounted apricot, almond, apple and pear trees,” with an “Etruscan wall looming at the top of the hillside.”
While renovation remains the book’s focal point, Mayes lavishes substantial attention on her day-to-day life in Tuscany.
She does a fabulous job of weaving a florid tapestry of traditional Tuscan fare by offering a detailed narrative that touches upon everything from the garden-fresh herbs she plucks from her soil to the harvesting of olive trees on her compound to producing bottles of delicious thick green oil to shopping for porcini mushrooms at the local grocery store.
The text is replete with food descriptions, told appetizingly.
We sit outside talking late about the restoration, savoring the gorgonzola with a pear pulled off the tree and the wine from Lake Trasimeno, just a valley away.
Tuscan feast, beginning with a selection of antipasti: crostini, little rounds of bread, topped with olives, peppers, mushrooms, or chicken liver; prosciutto e melone, fried olives, stuffed with pancetta and spicy bread crumbs, and the local finocchiona, a salami, stuffed with fennel seeds.
We go for days without meat and don’t even miss it, then a roasted faraona (guinea hen) with rosemary, or sage-stuffed pork loin, remind us of how fabulous the plainest meats can be.
100-odd pages or so, later, Mayes’ account of the articles in her pantry and her elaborate menus get a little repetitive and tiresome. After a point, accompanying Mayes on her culinary journey becomes a bit like trudging up a steep hill with a backpack, full of stones.
Rather than engaging the epicurean through interesting nuggets on the sociological, historical, or anecdotal (if any) aspects of the cuisine, she prattles on about useless minutiae.
As the prose progresses, her thoughts becomes solipsistic, the writing loosely strung, and the flow labored.
There are several sections in the book that are stodgy and made for unentertaining reading. I will admit, though, that I benefited immensely from Mayes’ listing of the delicacies of the Tuscan gastronomic repertoire. Interestingly, most begin with the letter “p”—prosecco, porchetta, pancetta, panettone, prosciutto etc.
But again, I encountered a slight difficulty. Since an Italian-to-English dictionary wasn’t handy, I had to take the trouble of looking up the meanings of the foreign words on the Internet, every so often. Mayes would’ve done well to include footnotes with their English translations.
In the final analysis, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to buy this book. Reading a borrowed copy, will satisfactorily kill a few idle hours. Its recipes may be worth a try.