Frances Mayes has served up many portions of her Tuscan adventure. She’s almost done for that Italian region what Peter Mayle did for Provence. Each summer it’s swarming with tourists. But if you can’t get to Tuscany, here’s a slice to make in your own home. Mayes has produced a cookbook.
I’m not a big fan of her other work. Under the Tuscan Sun was charming, as was the movie of the same name starring Diane Lane, even if it did deviate hugely from the book. However I found Mayes’ sequels banal and slightly precious. Tuscany is rustic, historic, invigorating, delicious and an endless round of large meals around a large table. OK, we get it.
But The Tuscan Sun Cookbook is a lovely feast, emphasizing the simplicity of the region’s fare.
“Tuscan food tastes like itself,” Mayes writes. “Ingredients are left to shine, not combined with a list as long as your arm or tortured into odd combinations.”
When Mayes and her husband Ed first bought their first house, Bramasole, the kitchen comprised only a door on sawhorses, a stove, and hot water hauled from the bathroom… “What the old signoras who previously owned Bramasole did in the lean times was a wonder to me. The cuisine of necessity – how inventive they were with their tomato and bread soups, their tortellini in brodo, their panzanella (bread salad), and their bean dishes,” she says.
Even now, she says, most Tuscan kitchens do not have the plethora of toys and gadgets cluttering up many Western kitchens. She recommends: poultry shears, a food processor, lemon zester and peeler, rotary pizza cutter, springform pans, a hand-cranked pasta machine, mezzaluna and wooden bowl for chopping, mortar and pestle.
Tuscan simplicity also calls for a well-stocked pantry, reflecting the riches of the seasons. From late August, people are harvesting and preserving tomatoes, drying mushrooms in the sun, packing anchovies with salt, bottling cherries and peaches and making plum, fig and apple preserves. In late autumn the quince is made into jam and paste. Roll out a pastry crust, spread it with one of these delicious preserves and hey presto, you have the perfect treat – a crostata.
Her book shares the recipes collected over 21 years of part-time residence in Tuscany. She starts with a pantry list – key ingredients every aspiring Tuscan cook should have on hand: almonds, bay leaves, balsamic vinegar, capers, arborio rice, cheeses, pulses, dried porcini, fennel seeds, honey, olive oil, saffron and so on.
The book is divided into courses: antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, dolci and aperativi e digestivi. I particularly liked the contorni section – the vegetable course – which takes advantage of the long growing season. Shopping at the weekly outdoor produce markets for fruit and veges is an Italian tradition which has endeared many travellers. Mayes includes recipes for green beans with black olives in a peppery marinade, sformati which are like mini vege quiches, and zucchini with lemon pesto which takes only minutes to prepare.
Among the dessert recipes I will try: strawberry semifreddo (no ice cream machine required); peaches with almond cream – both incredibly easy and also requiring a minimum of preparation and equipment.
Here’s her recipe for fritto misto – flash fried seafood and it almost goes without saying to get the freshest fish possible. Vegetables such as carrots, zucchini, and potato sticks can be thrown into the mix.
5 cups peanut or sunflower oil, for frying
1 cup plain flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2kg mixed seafood (squid, scallops, prawns, fish) which have been cleaned and shelled and filleted
Lemon wedges for serving
In a 30cm frying pan heat the oil to 180 deg C. In a large bowl combine the flour with salt and pepper. Dust the seafood, shaking off any excess flour. Fry quickly in batches until crisp and golden, about 30 seconds per side for the prawns and only a few seconds for scallops. Depending on the size of the chunks of fish, they will only take about a minute. Drain on paper towels. Serve immediately with lemon wedges. Nice with a glass of sauvignon blanc.