In her new book, part-time Hillsborough resident Frances Mayes takes us through the 20th anniversary of Bramasole, the rundown, neglected farmhouse-villa she and her husband, Ed, bought in 1990 and restored. That story was immortalized in the film version, loosely based on her first memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun.
More than a cookbook, Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life (Broadway Books, 2010) puts Mayes back in the business of offering a top-shelf memoir of the expatriate life in Italy. In the writing of Every Day in Tuscany, Mayes has paid close attention to the structure of her story, and by the end we do see quiet change and acceptance of things that can't be changed. I don't want to give away the plot, so I will say no more about the intrusion that threatened to unmake the writer's life, and what she did and didn't do about it. But I will note, for armchair travelers and food, home and garden aficionados alike, that the new book offers another house-restoration story, of the smaller Fonte delle Foglie (Font of Leaves), up the steep hill from Bramasole. It features more recipes (and they are better laid out than in Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany) that are clearly delineated at the end of each chapter.
Mayes takes you to Tuscany through descriptions so vivid and colorful that you feel you are joining in meals and house projects and excursions to Etruscan ruins or Franciscan chapels. You are there in the moment, with her and Ed, their friends and family. A new element to Mayes' style of travel-cooking-restoration memoir is the detailed side trips she takes with Ed, one to the Adriatic coast and an original one they designed themselves, discussed in the chapter "The Signorelli Trail," in which they follow the work of "internationally undervalued" Luca Signorelli, a Renaissance painter who was born in Cortona and spent his life painting in Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy. The excursion specifics are enough to guide a reader on a weekend trip and include names of a few hotels, restaurants, Blue Banner "green" beaches and a map. More of this information, along with purveyors of gourmet Italian food products here in the U.S.—most notably A Southern Season in Chapel Hill and online—can be found in the source guide at the back of Mayes' Bringing Tuscany Home.
My favorite recipe so far, using all local ingredients, is Zuppa di Cavolo Nero, Cannellini e Salsicce, which I made with local sweet Italian sausage and kale from the farmers market.
Visit www.francesmayesbooks.com to check out her blog updates, recipes and more.
Zuppa di Cavolo Nero, Cannellini e Salsicce
(Kale, White Bean and Sausage Soup)
2 Italian sausages, skins removed and meat crumbled
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 quarts chicken stock, homemade or store-bought
1 cup white wine
6 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
1 large bunch kale (or two medium bunches), washed, stripped of its center rib and coarsely chopped
4 cups cooked cannellini (white kidney beans). See cook's note.
Sauté the crumbled sausage in two tablespoons of oil until browned, and reserve. In a soup pot, sauté onions and garlic in remaining oil until translucent. Add the chicken stock and the wine. Cook over medium-high heat until the alcohol has evaporated, then add thyme and kale. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the cooked sausage and beans and simmer another 15 minutes. Crusty bread and a salad make this a welcome, simple meal after the large feasts and parties of the holiday season.
Cook's note: Serves 12–14, according to Frances Mayes, but she's not feeding my crew. We found it to yield eight generous servings.
Mayes' recipe notes that "soaked and cooked cannellini [are] better than canned," and I have always adhered to this rule of thumb, until I recently discovered some excellent organic canned ones. Both work well.