December 16, 2017

Tuscany tastes better, a food tour with Frances Mayes, Inspirato, Summer 2017

I first interviewed Frances Mayes at her  home in Tuscany in 2003 for my book of interviews with travel writers, A Sense of Place. It was a pleasure to speak with Mayes again in autumn 2016 for a story about the cuisine of this region of Italy, where food appreciation rivals devotion to the saints.

To read the story click this PDF: INSP-Frances Mayes.sm

Or find it on Inspirato’s site by clicking here and going to page 86 of this online magazine reader.

Here’s an excerpt:

It’s summer in Tuscany and Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, is shopping at a fruit stand in her adopted home of Cortona. “Are these peaches local?” she asks the elderly woman at her cart as the sweet scent of the fruit perfumes the air. “Oh no, signora,” the vendor apologizes. “They’re from Castiglion Fiorentino.” Which is just five miles away.

That exchange reveals Tuscans’ preference for hyper-local food, one of the essential ingredients that makes it so heavenly. Italians in general and Tuscans in particular revere simple dishes made from ingredients found near (or at) their homes, but their appreciation for food goes deeper than taste.

In Tuscany, food isn’t just something to eat – it’s something to do with family and friends: harvesting wild mushrooms, picking olives, canning tomatoes, sharing big bowls of pasta, and gathering for dinners where everyone helps cook and conversations flow deep into the night. “There is an intense passion for local food, and it’s particularly focused on what you can find yourself,” Mayes told me last fall. (2016) “And that’s what I see that is so different from living” in the United States.

“In Tuscany right this minute (early October) everybody is out looking for the mazza di tamburo, the mushroom of the moment. That means drumstick – it’s shaped like a drumstick with a long stem and a big flathead. You find them on your own land and saute them with garlic,” Mayes said. Italians “don’t even want them on pasta – they just want them on little crostini because they so want to taste this wild mushroom. And in the spring it’s strange things like the green almonds. Everybody loves those crunchy green almonds before they really turn into a nut. To me that’s very much an acquired taste, but local people really like them.”

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