April 4, 2014

Congrats to 5 Winners

The drawing took place this morning at Random House. Here are the five who will be getting a copy of Under Magnolia:

Joseph Teague

Wendy Pitout

Marisa Bergamasco

Nancy Stone Hough

Penn Clark

So hope you enjoy it!!!!!!

March 21, 2014

UNDER MAGNOLIA: A SOUTHERN MEMOIR

Dear Friends,

On April Fool’s Day, my coming-of-age memoir will be published by Crown. What a marvelous team helped bring this book to reality! The physical book is beautiful. I love the spray of images and the bold lettering that gives heft to the background blue.  I’m there, at eighteen, looking blindingly innocent, with my gorgeous parents, my maternal grandparents’ house that burned, and a pure white magnolia, the flower I loved most as a child.

I grew up in Fitzgerald, Georgia after World War II and on the cusp of the civil rights movement. We were the last isolated generation–before widespread TV–and a small town deep in South Georgia seemed a world unto itself. For me, a marvelous world. I loved the land, the flat horizon, the fragrant nights, the rain that “walked” across the fields, the sun that could melt gold. Like many southern families, mine had it’s share of wild, eccentric characters.  They were full of love but flailed about in preposterous ways, unable to figure out how to live. I grew up. And thrived. And that green, green world still exists whole in memory, that vast terrarium.

It’s not a casual undertaking to write a memoir about growing up in a difficult, loving, often funny family. For one thing, the act of writing pulls up more and more memories from the primordial layers of the past. Another caution is that you involve other people who may not want to be involved. But beyond that, there’s a wonderful alchemy that occurs in the process of arranging memories into narratives. Your life begins to make more sense as a continuum. And those sharp memories that have barked at you all those years tend to lie down and sleep. Also, you experience your life all over again. Those long gone rise up whole with all their demands, passions, and gusto. The places you lived in and visited flash forward vividly, allowing you to smell the narcotizing scents of ginger lily and to see the four-paned square of light that hit the wall every morning of your childhood. The writing is a lively pleasure, with painful revelations at times, and over all, the writing process makes you appreciate the startling gifts of everyday life.

I hope you will like taking this journey with me back into the deep South. If you’ve read my (mostly) sunny, happy books about Tuscany, you might be surprised by my early life. Oddly enough, I was always confident of my happiness. I never doubted it! The best thing writing a memoir might do for the writer is to reveal that you were always exactly yourself, inevitable as a planted seed, regardless of circumstance. I see that I started out writing my life.

In April, I’ll be on a book tour and I’d love to meet you. The blog comments are such a thrill for me. I feel that I know many of you who’ve written in. So check the TOUR heading soon and if you’re near where I’m traveling, please come. And please do let me know what you think of the book!

My publisher, Crown, will randomly choose five people from those who respond with comments here, and mail them a signed book. So just write in, even just to say CIAO!

If you are nowhere near where I’ll be traveling and would like a personalized book, please order one from Purple Crow Books in Hillsborough, NC, my home town, and tell Sharon how you would like it personalized. Her email: purplecrowbooks@gmail.com  She will mail it right out to you.

Here’s the opening:

At a few times in my life, I’ve not been aware that I’ve just stepped onto a large X.

Change might not be on my mind. Why change? I’ve always admired lives that flourish in place. The taproot reaches all the way to the aquifer, the leaves bud, flourish, fall, and grow again. I like generations following one another the same house, where lamplight falls throughout the windows in squares of light on the snow, and somebody’s height chart still marks the kitchen doorway. But there I stand on the X, not knowing it’s time to leap, when, really, I’d only meant to pause. In Oxford, Mississippi, one chance weekend, the last thing I expected was a life-changing epiphany.

March 12, 2014

My Stony Life!

When I look back over my years at Bramasole, the first thing that comes to mind is stone. We are always moving piles of them, looking for them, hoping they don’t fall, building things from them. We’ve been lucky to find good sources, and never luckier than now. Sergio, our builder, has scoured the countryside for hefty, smooth old stones because our projects keep multiplying.

 

These were lifted by the little crane on the truck and are quickly becoming a stone terrace with our best view.

 

As everyone who’s ever restored knows, one thing leads to another. Our old limonaia will become a summer dining room / kitchen. Right now it’s a muddy, rubble-filled shell. Now that the sun is out and all the fruit trees in Tuscany are turning into pink or white clouds, work is moving along at a great pace. Everyday, progress.

The fountain is almost done.

Beginning to think about restructuring the garden, we visited Vadi, outside Cortona, where they fire their own terra-cotta pots.  There are differences between the handmade and the industrial.  The colors are so chalky and subtle. And they don’t crack in winter like normal pots. We found two to surround our big jasmines plants. Our workers cut off the bottom and back so they could attach the pots against a stone wall. How skilled they are. I held my breath, fearing that the pots would shatter. I may go back for this one:

At night, plenty of time to dine. We’ve been to two new places nearby. Lodolo, outside Foiano, is a small and charming place with an appealing menu–lots of things usually not found on traditional menus–puntarelle, a type of chicory salad, a savory ricotta “gelato,” meat loaf stuffed with black olives, a very tasty maltagliata pasta with cauliflower and sharp pecorino. A good wine list and a cheery, quirky atmosphere, good friends Debbie Travis and Hans Rosenstein, and there’s a perfect evening.

The next night, La Toraia near Sinalunga with Fulvio and Aurora Di Rosa, who have a talent for finding interesting places to eat and travel. The bull barn!  A grand red brick structure that shows just how valuable the Chianina bulls are! Their names are still over the stalls, and now tables are placed over the former manger. The specialty, you know already, is Val di Chiana beef. I had my first hamburger ever in Italy! The famous bistecca Fiorentina reigns here and is a masterpiece! Fulvio is reaching for the knife. He and Ed shared this huge, sizzling, and tender cut. I had a bite. They have a shop, too, where they sell their beef and also an excellent artisan beer.  If you’re near Cortona, Pienza, Montepulciano, both of these places are excellent diversions.

Last night we visited one of our long time favs, Trattoria Dardano, whose owner Paolo we’ve known since he was a child, and who is now one of my partners in Tuscan Sun Wines. He makes the very quaffable Tondo Tondo (Just right). There we ordered, as usual, fried porcini mushrooms, and, what, more beef? A filetto di vitello, from just up the mountain in Teverina, and with more porcini on top. Porcini are not in season here, but Paolo has them flown from North Africa.

These two major beef experiences will hold us for awhile!  Excellent, excellent. Tonight we dine with our neighbors, who are grilling a guinea hen and sausages.  How amazing the food is in these parts. We’re forever enthralled!

Next week I will be writing a big Ta-Da!!! for my new book. It’s a memoir about growing up in the South and I hope you’ll indulge me while I swing away from Tuscany and toward my original home.

We’re thrilled to see spring. It’s breaking out everywhere–even out of stone!

February 18, 2014

Discreet Charms of Winter

We’re taking two winter trips to Cortona this year. Restoration at Bramasole keeps raging on, and I admit that I keep adding projects, such as a half-moon fountain against a tall stone wall. I bought a stone lion face years ago, and now he’ll reign over the new fountain with a little copper tube from his mouth spilling water. I dwell on this point of possible beauty because the rest of the place is a muddy zone with so many trenches that it looks like ancient warfare.

At least the crane is gone. Progress!  On our January trip, this is how we spent many days:

Valter, the architect (in the middle), is a hands-on, droll, and resourceful person who keeps us calm. He’s there several times a week, paying attention to the minute details.  Sergio, second from right, is the builder. We huddled many mornings in the rain to review the work. What IS Ed laughing about? That ganglia of tubes  mystifies me.  What they’re standing on is the new marciapiedi, made from old stones Sergio found in a crumbling barn. This walkway seals the bottom of the house and will prevent moisture from seeping up the walls. The facade is all restored except for the bottom part. They are waiting on that until the marciapiedi was laid and everything has a chance to dry. With the rain we had while we were there, when might that might happen?  

Mud is a pretty good word, but the Italian word fango sounds more like what you see above.  This looks like a BEFORE picture, but actually, it’s AFTER. As you may recall from previous posts, this is what the front garden looked like before:

In spring, we’ll put down new grass, pull the lemons trees out of the limonaia, plant big pots with spilling geraniums, and hope that it returns to its former beauty.

When we were not knee-deep in mud, we were, of course, eating. Most restaurants are closed during January but the ones that remain open seem especially cosy and jolly. And, ah, the winter food! Polenta with mushrooms and sausage–as in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook, and what we loved at the tiny trattoria Fettunta–polenta baked with tallegio in the oven. At Bar Tuscher, where we had many lunches, they make lasagne with a twist. The tender layers of pasta and ragù are served on a little pool of béchamel, rather than the béchamel being incorporated into the ragù layers. I loved this idea because the lasagne seemed lighter and the flavors more nuanced.  At home, we savored the big pork roasts, pasta with wild boar, and the marvelous thick soup, ribollita.  We managed only one party and for that Gilda made zeppole.

Fried bread, but so light. Usually they’re sweet and sprinkled with powered sugar but for the antipasto course, she served these as savories. Some with cheese stirred in, some with anchovies. Recipe? “There is no recipe, you just make them.” Next time, I’ll try to write down how, exactly, they’re done. I looked for recipes on line and didn’t find anything similar. If anyone reading this has a recipe, let me know!

We have not been in Italy in winter in several years. The streets shine in the rain, shop owners cover the windows with newspaper while they spruce up their walls or rearrange, one lone man leans into a doorway out of the rain. He’s gazing out at the empty piazza and I think he could have been there for a thousand Januarys.

Tourists? There’s one, an American from Michigan, and he’s in Bar Tuscher every day. I think he’s learning Italian very fast because, in this season, everyone wants to talk. Last seen, he was holding court with several policemen and they were enjoying an afternoon prosecco. Such are the charms of winter–an intimacy, a privacy with a place, bright faces in the rain, that second bottle of wine you share with a neighboring table where you’ve just met a couple down for the weekend from Torino. An icy wind whips down from the Alps and smells like snow. Spontaneous waterfalls in the woods surprise you on long tramps in rubber boots.  

 

We spent many evenings by the fire with dinner on trays, and books. I adored Elena Ferrante’s  My Brilliant Friend and the sequel, The Story of a New Name. We roasted chestnuts and opened our neighbor’s nutty vinsanto. I like to step outside late, just to shiver a little and hear the owls calling. What winter has is time. The nights are long and after the rain, the stars are clear and close.

 

 

January 14, 2014

Befana the Witch Has Long Since Gone

Befana did not leave me any lumps of coal so I must have been good in 2013.  I have a rag-doll Befana figure that I just packed away with the Christmas ornaments. The last thing I saw as I closed the box was her snuggle-toothed grin. I like the legend and have come to prefer her over Santa Claus. Maybe I’ve just seen too many scary mall Santas. 2014 and it seems not so long since the big millennium New Year’s Eve party at Edo and Maria’s in Cortona. They had vintage sun glasses for everyone, a vast seafood feast, dancing, and fireworks. I do remember someone up on a table. It’s good when a memorable evening with friends anchors a big event. Here in North Carolina we celebrated more sedately to usher in 2014 but the many tasty dinners and gatherings of the holidays still linger. My grandmother’s silver butter dish was put to a use she, a teetotaler, would not condone:

A highlight of the season was a Dutch friend’s Rijsttafel (rice table), the feast that the Dutch who colonized Indonesia devised to showcase the cuisine of the area.  Rene said he’d cooked only for a week to prepare it.

I’ve always loved Chicken Satay. His were the best.

Best, too is that Rene knows all the history of the dishes prepared for a traditional Ristaffel and all the influences from Maylasia, China, Sumatra, Bali and many other islands.  This feast especially pleases me because I could live on rice. So, you take a big serving of rice and surround it with all these spicy, savory, complex, and tasty morsels. The textures play together: crunchy marinated cabbage, fried tiny bananas,  pickles, meats braised in coconut milk, those crunchy shrimp crisps on the right, tender beef similar to shaking beef, and lots of taste-spikes of chili peppers. I’ve had Rene’s wife Gleda’s cakes before. This night, she found a recipe for an Indonesian spice cake. Perfect last taste for a transporting dinner.

Somehow, it was an ethnic season. A friend threw a sushi buffet. We had an Indian family feast at Cholanad in Chapel Hill.   I ate quite a bit of garlic nan. And then my daughter threw a party for her husband’s birthday. He built a bonfire and we ate oysters out in the woods in front of their house. He and his twin are of Greek descent so the menu included grilled lamb chops, roasted eggplant and potatoes, mint-flavored meat balls, and big Greek salad. I volunteered for the spanakoppitas and, quite unGreek, my mother’s monumental coconut cake. Both are trouble. Worth it? Oh, yes! That is, after you get the right recipe.

I found the spanakoppita recipe on line. It’s been years since I handled phyllo pastry and somehow it seems easier now. I remember cursing or crying over dry and crumbling dough and finding it creepy like human skin.  This time it worked just fine–flaky, delicate pastry, and the spinach filling tangy with an artisan feta, green onion, and a little nutmeg. My mother’s cake, however, did not work just fine. I think I added the thirteen egg whites at the wrong time because the batter had the consistency of hour-old cement. It rose only an inch. I had to toss the whole thing and go with Ina Garten’s recipe. She calls for a seven-minute frosting but I’ve met that Waterloo before so I stuck with my mother’s cream cheese butter frosting. I know my mother’s cake recipe can work because she was famous for that cake in my home town. Now I’m blaming my convection oven. I think it bakes too fast and the cake gets set before it has a chance to rise. Anyone know if this happens? Hours later, I presented the grand cake above and it was stupendous. I don’t usually think this way but I am thinking that what I read is true—834 calories a slice.  So much cooking over the holidays that I’ve stripped down and cleaned the kitchen and declared it open only for simple meals. Ed has gone full steam into his winter soup mode.

I hate to take down the front porch lights but other than that, the day after New Year’s down comes the tree at our house, and out go the greens which are looking a little fire-hazardy by then. Then the house just looks like its plain self again, but somehow renewed and ready to go forward into a new year. As I write, the polar vortex is whirling around causing havoc. It was 3 degrees here, rather exciting for a temperate clime, but no snow. Today the sky is the color of a newborn boy’s blanket and the light seems to spark off the edges of trees. The kittens ventured out then ran back, meowing what the hell is this?  But–how amazing–bulbs are popping up, the quince is budding, and in our lane the little yellow jasmine is scattering its sparks of bloom.

Some winter books, so far: 

The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam, one of those writers that you read and then marvel at how you’ve never heard of her before.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. A brilliant novel on the twists of friendship.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I came to adore Alma and wished this were a true biography!

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley. Hearkens to traditional tales of the demon lover, but so well grounded that you forget that.

Starting Over by Elizabeth Spenser, and a toast to her for continuing to write fine stories as she moves into her nineties. Brava!

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr. When Fisher, Child, Beard, and Olny converged in France and lit the match under American cuisine.

A House in Sicily by Daphne Phelps. This was sent to me by Jeff Minnich. Thank you. What charm and humanity in these glimpses of post-war Sicily.

 

As always, I’d love to hear recommendations from you for the long January nights.

How many days until spring???

December 9, 2013

When Lemon Trees Flew

Just before the first hard frost, all the potted lemons that dazzle our garden must be moved into the limonaia, a glass-fronted room where they spend the winter in sunlight but protected.  Because of the scaffolding around Bramasole, the passage from the  front of the house, where they all reside, to the limonaia was partially blocked–not enough room for the specially-made lemon cart to pass.  Don’t worry about any Italian crisis, they are the most inventive people on earth!  We arrive to find the gardener loading a tree onto a pallet.

 

 

Then we notice that the pallet is attached to the crane, which has been used to haul up roof tiles during the restoration.  NO!  Lift off!

 

Soon, the pot is flying across the garden. Up, Up! “Where’s Fellini now that we need him?” I ask the gardener who has devised this unlikely scene. How surreal on this foggy morning. “Magic realism!” Ed says. A few tourists in the road below are laughing and applauding. Our neighbor stops his motorcycle and shakes his head.  Crazy Americans!  But we didn’t think of it!  Soon the pot is soaring.

Then it comes safely to rest near the limonaia. They repeat this fifteen times.  Not a mishap. I was imagining a lemon tree falling from the sky!

Before they’re muscled into the lemonaia–these pots weigh a lot–I harvest all the ripe lemons, then the pots are crowded in together. Each pot has a mark on it to show that spot faces the sun.  All winter, you can slip in among the pots and find a lemon, smell the tight aromatic blossoms, and feel your hair curl from the humidity generated by so many leaves. Fabio, the man with the red glove is just SO good. What a bold idea!

The lemon may be my favorite ingredient in the kitchen.  For the quickest pasta, I love the crab and lemon spaghetti (page 85) in THE TUSCAN SUN COOKBOOK. It’s light and unusual, as good a choice for a first course at an elaborate dinner as for an instant family meal. For the holidays, I suggest the lemon cake (page 210), a family favorite and I’ve made it a million times.  It’s a lovely gift, as is a jar of seasoned salt (page 24) with a half of a lemon blended into it.

Someone just gave me a jar of their persimmon and five spice marmalade and I will serve it with some aged pecorino.  The homemade gifts are the best.  They just have a lot more heart than those acquired by “proceed to checkout.”  I would love to hear what you’re giving from your house.  I just took a pan of pecans out of the oven.  The easiest gift imaginable: Arrange a pound of this season’s pecans in a single layer on a baking pan. Dot with a stick of butter, and sprinkle with salt.  Roast at 350 for five minutes, watching them every minute, and turning them over twice to coat them with butter.  Nothing is easier to burn than nuts.  Marvelous to serve with drinks, along with some cheese straws.  I think most people have one thing they find irresistible during the holidays. Mine has, since childhood, remained roasted pecans. Maybe it’s because I was made to pick up the nuts in our back yard, and to help shell them. At least there was a big reward.  Let me know what you’re finding irresistible!

November 4, 2013

Roof: Finished — Olives: Picked

What made the roof so difficult?  The house is tall and perched way above the road.  The existing roof had to be removed tile by tile. With the good work of a gigantic crane and sturdy scaffolding, the brave and excellent craftsmen claimed a final victory on Friday. The roof is on. Long live the roof. Since the old one lasted 300 years, we’re expecting this one to last as long. Hard to fathom that someone that long in the future will contemplate the same work. Maybe by then, they wave a digital wand and it’s over. 

Most of the old tiles went right back on. A few damaged ones I will keep and make little votive spots in the garden. Renovating seems easy when you’re not doing any of the work yourself. In the previous renovation, I scrubbed grime from brick floors, Ed swayed on a tall ladder, refinishing beams, and for weeks we had flecks of whitewash in our hair. I miss the direct involvement a bit, but even the sight of the ladders up the scaffolding give me vertigo. Instead, the men are fearless and SO skilled. The architect pronounces the job “exceptional.” 

Now we move to the next chapter, the stabilization of the facade. Sergio’s men are lovingly patching the stucco, and two smart women–renaissance painting restorers–will work their magic on blending the colors on the patches to the rest of the smeary apricots, gold, and rose that time has given the house. If you look carefully, you see cracks on the left and a big patch of missing stucco on the right. Those will be seamlessly repaired, along with a lot of missing stucco hidden behind the lemon trees and in the upper corners. We risked losing the facade if we didn’t intervene.

Because of the additional weight of the new roof, we will have to run iron rods along the top of the interior walls all the way around the house. Not sure how I will blend those with the painted vines in my study and a bedroom.  These rods are attached outside to iron structures called “chiavi,” keys, in Italian, and in English “anchor plates.”   We are having Egisto, master blacksmith, make the eight keys that will attach to the upper eight corners of the house on the outside, tied to the rods inside.  He’s an artist. This was the first design but it proved to be too tall. Tomorrow, he’s coming with another sample. Bramasole will have his artistic keys as part of its permanent look.

One thing leads to another, of course, when you start renovating anything.  So we are meeting each day with carpenters, electricians, plumbers. A lot of things that have just slipped over twenty-four years will be updated, improved, repaired.  One major project is the shutters. They need work and repainting.  When I first saw the house, before I bought it, the shutters were faded green. When I came back the next year and bought the place, the owner had painted them brown.  Brown and park-bench green are THE approved colors of Tuscan shutters.  But I used at the mountain house another green, the color of the doors on San Domenico church, a heathery olive soft green.  Do I dare paint my shutters that color?

We’re most familiar with those greens right now, having just finished the olive harvest. We were so involved with the house project that Ed’s sister and her husband, along with four Italian men, did all the hard work and we just showed up at the mill to taste the first green-green oil, limpid and darker than in years, with the characteristic peppery taste and a tiny hint of sweetness that I don’t recall ever tasting before.  Immediately, we launched into bruschette for every meal, and dinners at which everyone compared their own oil to everyone else’s. From this corner of Tuscany, they’re all good!

 

Not so, in the wide world. Below is a photo behind our pristine mill. That mound of waste from the first pressing will be shipped off, pressed again with terrible solvents, and sold as “pure” olive oil.  The deep fruity fabulous oil is still inside the building!  Beware.  Great olive oil is the best gift for your kitchen.  Look for specific info on the label, and especially a harvest date.  Olive oil is subject to too few restrictions and you easily can pay way too much for a stinky product!  As a grower, I know that if it’s cheap, it’s cheap.  Not good. The cost of a grove and the harvest and the milling just cannot be a bargain.  But, really, great oil is a fabulous buy. You pay $30-40 for a restaurant wine, yes? It’s gone in an hour. That much for marvelous oil repays your feasts and fun a hundred time. If you’re traveling to Italy at this time of year, double-wrap in plastic bags and stash a few liters in your checked luggage.  For more info, check our www.thetuscansun.com

 

After the harvest, we escaped for a four-day r&r pass and drove down to Gargano, the spur of Puglia.  We stayed at Il Porto in Mattinata, where we looked out at a crescent of beach and an infinity pool that you wade into.  http://www.ilporto.travel

Way too chilly now but it sets me dreaming of a late June jaunt. Monte Sant’ Angelo, Vieste, Peschici–so charming these white, sugar-cube towns overlooking the sea, and vast olive groves running down stony hills to the water.  The bread is the best. We kept a loaf in the car and just ate hunks as we drove alone winding, empty coastal roads lined with wild pink cyclamen. Much of the area is a national park, great for hiking. I kept saying, “This is Greece.”  “This is north Africa,”  “This is Spain.” As I’ve written, probably more than once, Italy is endless.  Just five hours away from Cortona, the Gargano is another world. Its beaches invite long walks. The white villages meander and climb and everywhere there are sudden views of the Adriatic. When we go again, I’d like to hire a boat because secret blue coves are everywhere.  In summer, there must be hoards of people, but right now, if you go, you have it to yourself.  We didn’t encounter a handful of tourists. Along the road:

One of the most astonishing sights that I’ve ever seen–the walled olive terraces. The earth is so stony that these walls were made by picking up stones on the ground, building terraces, and carving out land for olive trees. The human labor involved staggers the imagination.

Beautiful steps between olive terraces:

We spent the last night north in the Marche in the seaside town of Grottammare, with a twisty medieval borgo above, and a town below replete with Liberty (Art Nouveau) villas along the seafront.

I love how invigorating a short trip can be. Four days seemed like ten. There are still so many new places to see in Italy, even after twenty-four years.

I’m walking every day. Hard to stay inside when the air is golden and the paths are littered with leaves in all the colors of autumn. People are always asking what the best time in Tuscany is. Ed is prone to saying, “January through December,” because he loves all the seasons. But, really, October is hard to top. The most consistent blissful weather. A few foggy, rainy days, but mostly munificent sun-drenched days and a fresh undercurrent to the balmy air.  I’m loving listening to audio books on my walks, though it can seem surreal to hear Edith Wharton’s HOUSE OF MIRTH as I wend my way through the wild chestnut forest.

Perfect travel weather, cooking weather, new-roof weather.

Last night I made a mountain of Pasta with Sausage and Four Cheeses. Two to take to families with losses, and one for us. On a crisp fall evening, this must be one of the best things one possibly could devour.  It’s in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. I highly recommend it for your fall gatherings. Tomorrow, I’m making the Apples in a Cage–pastry wrapped baked apples–because our two apple trees, after eight years, have seen fit to donate a couple of dozen super-crunchy, gnarled little specimens. We’re taking them to our friends Sheryl and Rob’s house, where we will discuss their desire for a new restoration project. Are they crazy?  Are we?  After a few glasses of Tuscan Sun Wines, I surely the answer becomes clear!

And those fall gatherings at your house–I hope they are plentiful and fun. A marvelous season! Enjoy every leaf that flutters by your window!  Love your comments; keep in touch.

 

 

 

October 1, 2013

Bramasole under Wraps!

The long-delayed decision to begin another chapter of restoration at Bramasole happened one afternoon this summer when I was writing in my third-floor study. A sudden storm came up the valley with big gusts of rain, and soon a trickle of water streamed upon my head.  That was enough. We’d patched leaks before but with an almost three-hundred-year old roof, surely the guarantee expired a couple of centuries ago. We dreaded the time, expense, and supervision details, and of course we knew that other problems would appear.  How right we were. But, we are in it full steam. Ed is there now, calling every day for two hours of consultation on where to move what electrical box, and whether to rebuild a defunct chimney, and how to vent the heating. On and on!

The crane is big enough to build a skyscraper. Another larger crane had to hoist it onto the Rose Walk terrace, which then had to have cement platforms reinforced with rods going down to bedrock. You can see what it has done to my garden. You can’t see the favorite blue hydrangea bush and hazelnut tree that had to be sacrificed. Or the broken irrigation…. 

I guess the cloth keeps the men from looking down!  The old tiles will be somewhat cleaned and will go right back on the roof. In the end, the house will look like it always looked but I will be able to stay dry in my study, and with insulation, our house will be warmer in winter. Still, it’s kind of like getting a new washing machine vs. getting a new painting or sofa.

Inside, we decided to replace a badly modernized bathroom ceiling that we’d happily ignored for twenty three years. When the pile of rubble is removed, I hope not to see cracked tile.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, I take heart from this photo Ed just sent. The Bramasole rose, my treasured one, peers out from the scaffolding, sending me a message that it will survive.

 

 

 

 

Next week I will be there, right in the fray.

Meanwhile the land is happy. The fig trees are laden and Ed reports that the olive yield this year will exceed the last five years. We love this fall season in Italy. The harvest connects to the very oldest agricultural rituals in the Mediterranean. Nothing compares with that first taste of the freshest oil! And it’s the season of mushroom hunting, big soups, and long tramps on Roman roads. The skies are moody gray or brilliant blue. I’m anticipating pulling on my boots and spreading the nets under the trees, big panini at mid-day, and the satisfaction of counting those crates at the end of the day. More from there!

 

September 3, 2013

End of Summer

Already 3 September! A memorable summer, but too fast. Seems a moment ago that we boarded the Charlotte to London flight with our grandson.  Now the days are shortening and I already can sense the late autumn evenings when darkness falls so early.  Sometimes I think I’d like to explore some endless summer agenda, traveling with the sun all year so that winter never becomes an issue.  But, no. I do love crisp January mornings, with the sky a Carolina blue.  February, though. Forget February. I’m heading somewhere else, if possible. Turks & Caicos???? Tulum?

Summer! So heavenly. This one, especially. In late June, we had the grand pleasure of introducing Tuscan Sun Wines–two white, four reds, and a prosecco to come–in Italy. It was like a grand wedding, only with no bride or groom.

 

 

Each label has as scene painted from one of my books. They are wines to drink every day, as well as for great occasions.  Our friend Paolo Castelli, who owns Trattoria Dardano in Cortona, threw a fabulous dinner at his country place for 150 celebrating souls. We have partnered with him for our wine, Tondo Tondo.  In Cortona dialect, that means Just Right. Everything’s tondo tondo.  We had a gala dinner at Il Falconiere, a big pizza party at our house, a festive lunch at Avignonesi Vineyards–one of my all time favorites and a partner of ours in the wines. My wonderful partners in the project are Danny Keefe and all the wonderful people at Curious Cork and Banner Media in Denver.

Enoteca Molesini sponsored a tasting in the piazza.

 It was fun!  We love the wines. They are drink-now wines and are priced at $10-23 a bottle.  So, affordable. Now, we are looking forward to introducing them in the USA, starting in Denver.  Please visit www.tuscansunwines.com for various events and details.  Starting Sept. 10, there are tastings around town, dinner at Pizza Repubblica, a media event at the Denver Museum, and several TV appearances.  Would love to meet any of you readers of this blog there! After that, other states will be added. Each state has its own regulations; a complicated business to go national.

The last part of our Italian idyll this summer consisted of organizing the teams for a new roof at Bramasole. Tell it to your local roofer who gives a five-year guarantee: the roof on Bramasole is 275 years old.  We don’t know what we’ll find when those mossy old tiles come off. We also will restore some of the facade, and have found two young women who restore renaissance paintings to blend the new stucco with the old.  If we don’t repair, water gets behind some of the broken places and more stucco fall off.  We don’t want to change the colors that I once described as looking like “a box of crayons left to melt in the sun.” A crane is already in place, the Italian August shut-down is over, and work begins soon. As soon as we can, we’ll fly back to oversee.  Ah, yet another restoration project! We had time for one starry-night dinner at our mountain house.

On the interior side, I managed to read a stack of books this summer, including Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Praised to the skies, this book delivers, although in the beginning I found her meandering pronouns kept me thumbing back to see who on earth she was referring to.  After a few chapters, you settle into her voice.  I absolutely admired Richard Ford’sCanada. Talk about sense of place.  Just the descriptions of the goose hunt give you an unforgettable feel for the bleak terrain, the weather, and how the place controls those who live there.  I enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, and most admired her guts in naming the novel that, since it lays her wide open to the reader saying, “Well, they are not all that interesting.” And they weren’t, but they were because of her writing style just keeps the reader very close to the page. I was glued to Villa Triste, a novel by  Lucretia Grindle  about the partisans in World War II Florence.  Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson made me want to read her other books. I spent time with poetry by Cesare Pavese, and even tried to translate a few, which only served to point out the huge gaps in my grasp of Italian. Now I’m in the middle of Local Souls by Allan Gurganus, my friend and neighbor here in North Carolina.  We share the fortune in each having had Diane Lane star in something we wrote. Allan’s deeply rewarding The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All was an early work of his, also set in his Falls, North Carolina.  This new book, coming out in September, consists of three novellas, and my early word: a stunning accomplishment! I have a stack on my desk of exciting books, including Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Plan,Cary Holladay’s The Deer in the Mirror, and Hillsborough writer Craig Nova’s All the Dead Yale Men. I would love to hear recommendations from you. I’m always looking for an absorbing, challenging book!

We returned to North Carolina for August. Meet Hawthorn and Melville. We found these two abandoned on our porch.

Too skittish and wild for any of the nice shelters to adopt, they now live here. We didn’t want them or ask for this but who can resist two playful bundles of energy? SOOO, they have a cozy bed in the basement and a feeder that doles out food for weeks. “You’re barn cats,” I tell them. “You are not coming in the house.” Melville has dashed in once and made a mad tour, not looks in the kitchen window while I’m cooking.  To the person dropping off kittens and gunning the car: You are changing lives!  But there is something about the animals that come to you unbidden…

Thanks for reading this and I hope your summer curtain drops softly and rises again to a creative and easy fall.

 

 

 

 

July 16, 2013

A Grand Tour

June 26    We have only two more days in Paris, a city that’s hard to leave. This morning Willie, our eleven-year-old grandson, was absolutely thrilled by the Eiffel Tower–the elevator ride up, and the endless stairs down. If we’d had foresight–long foresight–we could have dined at one of the two restaurants inside the tower, but they were long booked before we realized we should have reserved. But the Eiffel Tower itself was so exciting. Nothing new in posting a photo of it, but Willie took this and I think it is a wonderful look at an icon.

We have taken a million photos. And we have another aide-memoire. At dinner each night, we each write in a trip journal that Willie selected. This already is a treasure, with his comments, drawings, and gusto for sights, food, and oddities, with Ed’s images, off-beat take on the day, and my lists of new words, favorite people observed, and descriptions of food. We tip in museum tickets, subway stubs, brochures, and menus. For anyone travelling with a child, or children, I recommend this as a daily part of the trip. Not only does it  record memories, it is fun to relive the day over dinner, and to laugh again at the missed bus, the weird waiter, the glimpses of real local life.

This jaunt is our  chance to show a curious and adventuresome boy these two primo cities for the first time–a fantastic pleasure.

We began in London, flying out of Charlotte the day after school ended. We stayed at our friends Debbie and Hans’s charming house in Wandsworth, a bit out, but just a hop on a train to Waterloo station, a hub. We loved the feel of Wandsworth, with its high street that looks like a model train village, its neighborhood pubs now serving updated food, and the tidy row houses with miniature front gardens.

Our first activity was a ride on the London Eye, for which we did have foresight to reserve.

I never got on the ferris wheel as a child, so this was one of those the-things-you-do-for-love moments. The view is grand; the ride not as scary as I feared.

Travel with a child has a restorative quality for the grown-ups. You get to experience again some of the wonders of travel that have, over the years, become invisible. Just how exciting it is to zip all over the city underground. Up and down stairs and escalators, connecting and tunneling and emerging into a whole different part of the city. The vast Underground network, then the Metro, became great puzzles to figure out. Soon we were being led by Willie from one line to another, and told the number of stops before we got off. Every gelato and pastry shop becomes an object of interest, the menu becomes a fun discussion on local food, and little scratchings on the wall in the Tower of London tell the intimate story of a prisoner long forgotten. On our own, we never would have gone to Warner Bros. exhibits of the Harry Potter sets. We were all three enchanted. We got to buy a wand! We got to see exactly how they filmed those broom rides and to see the incredible level of detail in the movies.

About a forty-minute train ride from where we were in London, the sets were definitely worth the journey. You must reserve, and, fortunately, the crowds are let in only in batches.  Unlike the horror of visiting the British Museum, which made rush-hour subway seem peaceful.  What hoards. This was the first time I had seen the Norman Foster architectural intervention in the courtyard. Not sure why they did that. I loved the old reading room and now there’s this big THING looming and overshadowing the venerable old museum. Maybe it was fusty, but now–to me–it’s just confusing aesthetically.  We elbowed our way to within fifteen feet of the Rosetta Stone, then left, too daunted by the mobs. Mass tourism isn’t pretty. What helps: reserve whenever possible.  Get up early. The earlier the better.  Long walks before nine give you the city. After eleven, the streets near major sites are thronged, so you must seek out the hidden spots, the smaller museums–often as interesting as the majors–neighborhoods, and boat trips.  We took one Thames journey to Greenwich, where we got to stand on the meridian, to explore the grounded ship Cutty Sark, and to explore the maritime museum, blessedly uncrowded. They have a marvelous collection of ship figureheads.

In Greenwich, we took a break from leek pies, and fish and chips, and had lunch at Jamie Oliver’s new restaurant. Greenwich is an easy day trip and a gracious village. We activated the app Moves, and found that we walked about 8.5 miles a day. That’s my favorite way to explore–on foot.

We all love trains and were excited to take the Eurostar under the channel to France. Willie and I made our way to the dining car and felt exhilarated to eat our sandwiches while swaying along at a tremendous speed.

In Paris, we rented an apartment near the church of San Germain des Pres, heart of food paradise. www.rentparisnow.com We were torn each night over whether to eat at a charming bistro or to pick up delectable things from the artistic and appealing take-away places. After a long day, it was lovely to go “home,” and heat little tomato tarts, make a salad from the Sunday organic market, and then to dive into the scrumptious filled macarons, chocolate and lemon tarts, and puffy éclairs.

Willie quickly adopted the habit of munching on the baguette as we carried our purchases home.  He was quite taken with the real onion soup but ventured to order seafood a few times. Besides constant eating, in Paris we most enjoyed the boat trip up the Seine, San Chapelle’s wondrous jewel-colored stain glass, the Pompidou, and the less-visited rooms of the Louvre. The Mona Lisa may be sublime and enigmatic, but, really, does she deserve ALL the veneration?  Her room was bedlam, whereas the other wonderful renaissance treasures merited  only a glance from most of the visitors.  Willie liked the Vermeers and was interested to see an artist with his easel and paints, making a copy. It was a relief to wander among the empty rooms of ancient Roman glass, winged Etruscan angel figures (centuries before Christianity), and Greek urns.

 Paris invites wandering. So many intriguing streets to turns down. Several lifetimes of exploration there! Our days of living like Parisians came to an end. We were ready for the next chapter of summer to begin. Italy! And for laying plans for Madrid, Amsterdam, Greece, India, Turkey, all in the future. Waiting at Orly for our flight to Rome, Willie pointed to a sign:

Good question!

16 July now and I’m writing from my third floor study at Bramasole.  As always, many thanks for the comments you have left. I so enjoy them! Hope you all are having fun summers, with watermelon and Aperol spritzers and good books and friends around the table.


June 9, 2013

Cortona Spring

Because rain fell every single day of winter, this spring has the most wildflowers I’ve even seen. We’ve always had wild irises but this year we seem to have many more than usual.

The hillsides are alight with that incandescent green, and wild lilac perfumes the air.  The most startling joy in the garden is the pink peony bush with face-sized blossoms. Lucky bees that get to roll around inside!

April and May are tricky months in Tuscany. We’ve had our share of rainy rain days interspersed with brilliant and warm days with lunch outside and long walks on Roman roads. (I found the App called Moves and now know how far I go in a day.)  Ed has been on his road bike rain or shine, and is loving bicycling here where the hills are formidable. Worth the effort, he says, because of the splendidviews, no traffic, and no charging dogs.  Although my whole family has taken to cycling, I’m not there yet, so will stick to listening to Jane Austen and clambering along wild boar paths and backroads into town. I’m a late convert to audio books, but now that I’m on a three-mile-a-day regime, I am loving them. Formerly, I read while walking, but I got kind of seasick sometimes, and looking down kept me from enjoying the walk. May I recommend Nicole Kidman reading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf?  Her voice is subtle–I hate it when the reader is overly dramatic–and causes you to pick up nuances that you might even miss reading the book. This has been a fabulous experience, and has sent me back to the book. Next, I’m listening to Mrs. Dalloway.

On my walks into town, I’ve concentrated on seeing what I’ve never seen before in Cortona. You’d think after so many years here I would have seen every stone. Not so. A town this old has so many layers and secrets nooks and twisty streets that I’m always discovering something new. Suddenly I notice a coat of arms or just a good door.Down a steep little vicolo (tiny street) I looked up and saw remnants of fresco on the vaulted covering.

When I complained to Steven Rothfeld, our photographer friend about the swarms in Florence, he gave me good advice. “Look up!” And it’s true–so much to see above the crowds. This morning in Cortona, I saw this figure, which looks Roman.

There he stood, and in twenty-three years, we never met!

Another highlights: Friends from North Carolina came and we took them down to visit the Salvadore family where we made pecorino together. Lapo and Ed couldn’t be prouder if they’d delivered a bambino!

The Salvadores have an agriturismo within walking distance of Cortona–a great place to stay because they are SO hospitable.

Check out their website:  http://www.casaledellatorre.com

Here’s a glance into their pantry. You can see that they live close to the seasons. Those green jars on the end are fennel flowers, so bright on a pork roast or baked fennel. 

Another authentic agriturismo near our mountain house, is Il Poggio del Sole, owned by the Italiani family, who are featured in Our The Tuscan Sun Cookbook.  Staying in your private cottage or apartment, but being able to get to know a terrific family is just a sublime way to travel. Both of these places know well the art of hospitality.

The Poggio del Sole, The Hill of the Sun, website is: http://www.ilpoggiodelsoletuscany.com

Great cooks, all. But then there’s no reason not be to in Italy. The shot below is just a portion of the pasta selection in a grocery store. And, there’s a fresh pasta shop in town, where one treat of spring is ravioli filled with young spring nettles. 

The lemon pots are out of the limonaia, the summer flowers are planted, and we are ready for that grand old Tuscan sun! As always, the great pleasure is simply being at home at Bramasole. 

Hope all of you are enjoying the trip closer to the sun, too, and have planted your tomatoes and sweet peas! Will post again soon. I’ve been revising a manuscript and feel that I’ve had on blinders for several months. Onward to summer!!!

March 20, 2013

La Primavera! First Day of Spring!

We’re planning a bonfire this weekend, with a burning of Old Man Winter. This cold has gone on too long but, at last, there’s a bit of balm in the air. The garden is brightening every day and bunches of daffodils grace every room in my house. Tromboni they’re called in Italian, and so I listen to their loud yellow music. Right now my North Carolina vegetable garden looks bare but in a few weeks, we will be planting. Soon, I’m starting the tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse. Those are scuppernong grapes in the back, along with Percy Gourd, our scarecrow. The second photo is our vegetable garden in Tuscany last summer. Those are raspberries–both red and yellow–along the fence, and they’re the best thing we plant, other than tomatoes.

Yesterday I started giant sunflower seeds in those little plantable pots, and hacked off a lot of rosemary to root. With a garden this large, you have to plant seeds and propagate plants or face bankruptcy. My neighbor gave me a Duchesse de Brabant rose cutting, and a few of her wild cyclamen. Those gifts of plants I somehow cherish over others and try to baby them into flourishing.

During the chilly nights, we’ve served dinner on trays by the fire, then we read and research our summer travel plans. I have especially enjoyed The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore and plan to find her other books. I’ve read many WWII-era novels but never one from the perspective of cultured, non-Nazi Germans. First we’re in their pre-war world, and then witness their drastic experiences and the end of life as they knew it. The story is told by a young Irish woman who was employed to make lace in their household, and ended up living through the war and the hard Russian occupation with them. The writing is compelling.  Horse People: Stories by Cary Holladay is my other current favorite. She links the stories and they seem to fall through time, catching events and landing them elsewhere, catching characters and letting them fall into later stories. That’s vague, I know, but the stories are hard to describe. I found the loose sense of time and the reoccurances very moving. A fine writer!  If you liked Olive Kittridge by Elizabeth Strout, you’ll enjoy this. I read A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell, a memoir of Texas and leaving Texas, or trying to leave Texas. Her perspective is the long view, and many, many literary references are mentioned in order to explain emotion. Some might find this distancing but I was carried along by her energetic prose. The first two-thirds of the book bounces around–it’s neither chronological or thematic–but you just go with the flow. The last third focuses on her father and stays on point. Both Ed and I have been thrilled to read Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle, a collection of lectures on poetry and the world-at-large. They’re humorous, erudite, thoughtful. I’m still dipping into Alice Munro’s new stories, Dear Life. She’s marvelous. I love how she seems to write like one might draw, without lifting the pen, just letting it loop and join, and somehow the picture works.

If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear what you thought.

We’re loving our fireside trip research. This summer, en route to Italy, we are taking our eleven-year-old grandson to London and Paris. Then we’ll take a fast train to Zurich, rent a car and drive around in Alps, and over to home, Cortona. He is excited. We are excited. What a treat to introduce him to fabulous places. I can’t tell you how many apartment sites we’ve scoured. All the Paris ones I like are on the top floors of old buildings with no elevators. I think we’re about to reserve one of them. The coffee table is stacked with books and journals and maps, and our iPads are loaded with apps. I’m already anticipating 1000 things, not least among them the moment we pull into the driveway at Bramasole. Any city recommendations are so welcome!

La bella primavera! Wishing you long days in the light.

February 18, 2013

How I Love Florida

I always have loved Florida. Not THAT Florida, but the inner , exotic one I’ve discovered over many years. Now, we are back home in North Carolina, where this morning it is an astonishing 14 degrees. Ugly!! But I’ve escape dfor twelve days of blissful sun, turquoise water, palms, and fascinating places–all without a drop of rain.  Actually, we made two trips, one to Miami just for two days, and then a long drive south to Fernandina Beach, Tallahassee, Lakeland, Tampa, then a six-day stay on Sanibel Island. Our last night was spent on Jekyll Island, Georgia, right near where I spent many summer vacations as a child on St. Simon’s and Sea Island. One thing I’m loving about living on the East Coast is the possibility of interesting short trips. And we seem to have rediscovered road trips–great music via the iPhone connection, a wonderful little picnic, or the use of Yelp to discover an interesting spot to eat not far off the freeway. My only regret is that the car does not have built-in desk and bookshelf. Ed likes to drive so I’m in the other seat, usually with a project to work on. I do have a very large clipboard and I arrange various folders and books in the middle of the back seat so I can reach them. Ever listened to 92 Beatles songs in a row? I’m also the navigator and often want to throw the iPad map, with its insect-view of the terrain, out the window. Where is that folded, torn, REAL map of Florida!

I adore Miami. We just popped down for a quick trip because we had to use or lose two airline tickets. We stayed at deco, reasonable Park Central, where I’ve stayed before. Long walk on the beach–and this is a fantastic people-watching beach–and a stroll around South Beach, which is by turns elegant and funky in the extreme. The first night we had  just-okay Cuban food in the neighborhood, then the next night we searched out Sardinia, a short taxi ride away. Ah! Many Italians visit Miami and most of them seemed to have discovered this restaurant. Great wine list, really good vibe, and we got to speak Italian!  A find! Another find: TAJ. Just possibly the most beautiful, luxurious romantic clothes I’ve ever seen. The style is Italian-silk-meets-Morocco-meets-Greece and the beaded, jeweled handwork is simply exquisite. 760 Ocean Dr. #4.  The Wolfsonian Museum was the best find of all. www.wolfsonian.org There is an exhibit of the postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte era that stunned us with its artistic depth and playfulness. One forgets that side of the Germanic cultures. We’d seen a huge exhibit of Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna last summer and had our eyes opened to the scope of those artists, and to the concept: gesamtkunstwerk, which the world-wide springing up of the arts and crafts movements emphasized. I love this everything-can-be-art concept and had not been aware, prior to Vienna, that it was what spread around the world from these artists all at once.  When I get some time (?), I want to read a ton about this. Fascinating what a huge part postcards played in that WW artistic circle. Klimt sent 3-4 a day. Email, I guess. I loved the book selection in the Wolfsonian, and their café with the French 19th century iron mezzanine. Came out with, among others, André Gide’s autobiography, which is just stunning. Very Nabokovian, Proustian… Even a short trip can send you off in new directions, set you dreaming, and leave you hungry for more.

After a week back home, we packed the car like Hannibal-over-the-Alps and headed South.

Seven hours of driving is one hour beyond my tolerance point, but we arrived at The Elizabeth Pointe Inn, smack on the beach in Fernandina. It’s a wonderful shingle hotel, like something out of a novel set on Nantucket. Bookcase near the fireplace, wonderful breakfast, friendly staff–this is a great choice. It’s rated one of the tip-top American inns in every poll known. Although it was lovely, the exalted ratings surprised me because the rooms and baths–or at least the one we had, were somewhat dated. (There’s a small new wing that I did not see.) Porches with rockers had nice blankets clipped to the back and it was warm enough to sit in the sun, and to take a long walk on the splendid beach. We had dinner at Le Clos. Our third time there and it is a must in Fernandina–French bistro in a cracker cottage. Fresh and local menu and friendly, friendly. I must have been to Fernandina two hundred times when I was growing up. It’s changed, of course, but the town is so nostalgic and the Victorian residential area seems like Key West without the self-consciousness.

 Many of the large, graceful old homes are now appealing B & Bs. The town is on the harbor side, not the ocean. I bought orange espadrilles, and at a cool coffee shop we picked up  sandwiches to take on the road to Tallahassee.

Tallahassee must be one of the world’s most hospitable spots. I was guest speaker for The Goodwood Museum, an ante-bellum plantation house lovingly restored and open to the public. It’s surrounded by massive, moss-draped oaks. After a tour, the doors opened and the house was filled with guests and prosecco, and then we proceeded to an attractive modern barn-like hall for a fantastic dinner prepared from, yes–The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. It’s always interesting to taste others’ versions of the recipes. I spoke briefly, met lots of great people, and signed books. Through the evening, Rose Rodriguez took care that all went smoothly. We repaired to the up-to-the-minute Duval Hotel where the roof terrace was hopping. The main talk was the next morning and to my surprise, I found several people from Fitzgerald, Georgia, my home town! Also a Randolph-Macon Woman’s College classmate, who had not changed one iota. After I spoke, Louise Divine (@LouiseDevine on Twitter) and I had a farm-to-table discussion with the audience. She’s a farmer and I could have chatted all day. At lunch with the museum board, I sat next to Diane Roberts. She’s like Molly Ivins reincarnated but is a knowledgable Floridian with a raucous sense of humor. Her wonderful book, Dream State, kept us entertained on the road. I read to Ed as he drove through the orange groves and beautiful landscapes of central Florida. If you have any interest in or love for Florida, this is truly a must read. Rose sent us off with The Legacy of a Red Hills Hunting Plantation, a book from Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy, where she works, and with two roses from the Goodwood collection. I chose Clytemnestra, partly for the name, and Fédéric Mistral. Both are large growers and very fragrant. They became backseat drivers for the rest of the trip, only spilling over once.                                   An article by Audrey Post appeared in Tallahasseemagazine.com

Next brief stop to visit my sister and nephews in beautiful Lakeland, city of not just one, but many lakes. It’s a great walking town! Circling the lakes you see tropical birds everywhere. Progressive, small Florida Southern College was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s worth a detour to see this amazing group of buildings on Lake Hollingsworth. If you are familiar with his architecture, the campus will surprise you with it’s Mediterranean, moorish touches, covered walkways, secret niches. A jewel. And the tradition continues: noted architect Robert A.M. Stern recently designed dorms on the campus. Nearby, for University of South Florida Poly, Santiago Calatrava is working on a project. Lakeland is special in several ways. Also, a noted southern architect (whose name I will add) designed the Lakeland Terrace Hotel on Lake Mirror in 1924–definitely the place to stay and dine.

Our great friend, architect Alberto Alfonso from Tampa, took us to see the stupendous resort he designed near Lakeland. www.streamsongresort.com   We got to don hard hats and tour the construction site. The two golf courses and the clubhouse (with twelve rooms) already are open, and the resort is scheduled to open this fall. Sited on an abandoned phosphate mine, it’s a grand example of land reclamation. Armadillos, deer, and all kinds of exotic birds regard you as an intruder on their space. All the pits are now waterways and the mounds, now planted with grasses, seem like ancient dunes.

The quality of the work is simply extraordinary; see how beautifully this rain-chain is made.

An alligator that appeared to be smiling rested by the water and paid us no mind. What a peaceful place, and sure to draw golfers from around the world. Alberto’s work here embodies the concept gesamtkunstwerk I mentioned above–he designed the interiors as well as the buildings, down to the knobs and bed pillows. His artwork is on the walls. Later, when it opens, I’ll write more about the concepts he used in design. The use of stone, marble, and wood textures seems just unique to me in resort architecture. I can’t wait to check in. We always have a great time in Tampa with the Alfonso clan. A lot of the fun takes place around his work table. We drink espresso, plan grand schemes, and catch up on projects we’re all involved in. Much centers around Ed and Alberto’s poem/painting projects, but we also look at art books, share sources, and dream of Italy! That Alberto brings his passion for all the arts to his work is part of what makes him a great architect.

If in the Tampa area, try to see the space he designed for Dale Chihuly in St. Pete, and the New Covenant Church in Tampa, a structure that exemplifies simplicity is liberating. One place we gathered for lunch was The Oxford Exchange. The bookstore is an aesthetic experience, the café inventive and appealing. In the gift shop, there’s not a trite item. Someone with soul and incredible taste designed this space.

Legend is that Ponce de Leon breathed his last on Sanibel Island, having given up on that fountain of youth thing. Or maybe he decided this was as far as he needed to go on his quest. A barrier island washed by the Gulf, Sanibel feels tropical and freeing. Hop on a bike and pedal out to the lighthouse, take long, long beach walks and pick up shells, millions of shells, and cook crab, pompano, snapper, flounder, shrimp. That’s what we did for six glorious days. We rented a condo with this view outside our windows.

 

We met close friends, Rena and Steve, there for a reunion. Steve just finished a manuscript on the pleasures of reading Wallace Stevens. Rena (my college roommate) is a fine, fine watercolor painter. (See www.renawilliams@blogspot.com) Ed is midway in a poetry/painting project. And I’m completing a memoir. So there was much to discuss while we cooked or lounged about. We rented an apartment via VRBO and spent some time talking about how it could be decorated but wasn’t. The location made up for the bad kitchen (almost). We drove over to Captiva, which looked even more enchanting than Sanibel. The late sun draws everyone on the island out to the beach. Most are holding a glass of wine. Their faces are burnished with the rosy gold light of the sun slipping under the horizon. Pelicans roost in the palms, birds on stalky legs pick their ways along the shoreline. A crow perched in a tree above my beach chair kept saying, I swear, “Howard. Howard.” The days passed too quickly. Rena patiently taught me some principles of watercolor.  She is such a committed and superbly talented artist. I have many of her watercolors at my house and could happily fill the walls with them. This one below is not perfectly typical of her work but is one I love, with its mysterious “writing.”

She showed me how to mix and make colors and we looked at work by some of her favorite painters. My first efforts made me so happy. As someone locked into writing, it’s thrilling to visit other media, such as architecture and painting. Please don’t laugh at my primo effort!

We departed by ten, and after seven hours, we reached Jekyll Island–just in time to marvel at the sunset light on the gigantic trees.

This is a big return for me. I spent many vacations on The Golden Isles. For the early part of the century, Jekyll was home to many powerful northern families, who had a hunting and vacation club there, built enormous “cottages,” and sailed down on their yachts. Please Google the information on the history, if you’re interested. But Jekyll was abandoned when I was little, and with my sisters, we used to motor through the marshes and tie up at the decaying, columned wharf.  I would play in the enormous houses with banging shutters. I’ve written about this in my memoir (which comes out next spring). For now, enough to say that it was more than magical. And very stirring to come back after all these years and stay in the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, now an historic hotel and to see nearby the Crane house that enchanted me the most. (It’s now an annex to the hotel and next time I’ll stay there.) The murky, froggy swimming pool surrounded by urns is now a garden. I wonder how many people know that! And the surprise was seeing the architecture–an Italianate grand house with cypresses on either side. I’ll bet they didn’t know they were planting a male and a female (left).

The former pool is off to the right. At age ten, this, for sure, is the first Italianate house I’d ever seen. What hit me, on seeing it now, is the doorway with the balcony above, and the symmetrical windows in the main body of the house. Although Bramasole is not nearly so imposing, there must have been a mysterious imprint.

 

Bramasole used to be flanked by two palms, not cypresses, but one died along the way. Looking at this photo makes me realize what a world away from my childhood  is my Italian life.  And also, how connections keep happening. “The more you see, the more there is to love,” I once wrote. What luck, to travel and revel in the world!

January 30, 2013

Tallahassee Farm to Table Talk

If you live nearby, please come say hello at the Goodwood Museum on 2 February and 10:30. I’m speaking there, and the talk is followed by a discussion on farm-to-table. I’m interested to learn about the whole food scene in that area. If it’s like the rest of the South, there’s a fine revolution in progress!

http://www.goodwoodmuseum.org/index.php

January 14, 2013

A Personal Experience of Italian Health Care

Over twenty years of living in Italy certainly influence my reactions to American discussion–and fear–of health care reform. “Socialist!” one friend insists. “Doesn’t go far enough!” another maintains. “My payments are going up!” (Haven’t they gone up every year of your life?) “I’m paying for illegals and people who don’t work.” On and on. People became so polarized so early that the actual situation seems to be more a matter of opinion rather than fact.

If you’ve lived in other countries, you just have to think “Blinders!” Our system is so antiquated. Click on this boggling chart of health cost and rankings around the world: http://www.businessinsider.com/best-healthcare-systems-in-the-world-2012-6?op=1

I want to share a Christmas letter–last year’s letter, but so far nothing has changed and does not seem likely to– from fellow-expat Cortona friends about what it’s like to live where health care is administered through the government.

I know our reform is not government centered, beyond the requirement that one obtain insurance, so I’m not suggesting that Italy’s system reflects what the USA system is heading toward–or might aspire to.  Ours will remain market-driven. Definitely not “socialist.”  Our friends at the insurance companies are set to profit hugely by the requirement to buy health coverage. Clearly, that when people must obtain insurance, less will be needed by the government to  pay for those who do use the emergency room as their only healthcare.  Rising medical costs are the big fat elephant in the living room. A pity that they get rolled into any discussion of the cost of insurance.

I’m posting this for your interest. Please don’t tell me that Italy is going bankrupt, etc.!! (In my opinion, they are not–so much of the economy there is hidden. But that’s another story, and not one I’m likely to take on, since higher economics is, to me, one of the seven mysteries.)

When I’ve sought medical help in Italy–wasp sting on the face, sciatica, flu–the urgent care has been immediate, extraordinary, and free. Visitors who have had car accidents, broken a pelvis, sustained an eye injury, all had the same experience. There are horror stories everywhere, of course, but I’ve heard far fewer there than in the USA. An Italian friend’s mastectomy fees totaled 25 Euros. My nephew’s recent bout with pneumonia in Atlanta cost $24,000.  Fortunately, he has insurance. If he did not, that cost would ultimately be returned to tax payers.

Back to Italy. Here’s the letter:

 

 

It shocks me that the USA is #50 in life expectancy (World Fact Book, The Central Intelligence Agency). Italians live 3.37 years longer–a span of 81.86 years. I hope we all can keep a creative and realistic outlook on health care.  And keep the olive oil and red wine coming!

January 3, 2013

A note on Gnocchi di Semolina

Not sure why but I hadn’t made gnocchi di semolina in a long, long time. I served it for a primo  on Christmas night. Just for the luxury, I served the golden discs on either side of a ramekin of garlic flan. Semolina is simply hard wheat flour and I prefer a medium-coarse grind, though here in the USA I could find only a fine grind, and it was fine. I’m not sure why it’s even called gnocchi but it is.  Semolina gnocchi was one of the first primi that I fell in love with when I first went to Italy.  A woman named Fernanda made it for the grocery store in Camucia and I was at the counter every time it was expected. I assumed it was difficult because it was so incredible rich, but the truth came out–it is so easy!  Therefore, it’s a good choice for these after-holidays weeks when maybe you’ve seen too much of your kitchen. Bring 6 cups of milk almost to a boil, then steady the heat and slowly incorporate 2 cups of semolina. You just stir it awhile, as you would polenta, maybe for 7-10 minutes.  Remove it from the flame and stir in 3-4 tablespoons of butter, 3 beaten yolks, and then 1/2 cup of parmigiano. Mix well, season with salt, pepper, and grind or two of nutmeg, and pour it on a slab, or the counter, and flatten it out. With a glass, cut out circles and arrange them in a large buttered baking dish, sprinkle with more parmigiano–maybe 1/4 to 1/3 cup– and 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Bake at 350 degrees until golden and crispy. About 20 minutes. With a salad and a big glass of Friulian white wine, such as one from Venica & Venica, this makes a cosy supper by the fire. I love the leftovers, reheated the next day.  Easy, simple, rich.

The recipe makes about 33 circles. There’s a finished photo on page 92 of The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. I forgot, in my rush to the table, to take one when I served this last week. The garlic flan I mentioned , also easy, is on page 158. Do not fear the garlic; blanching it tames the fierceness. The flan makes a magnificent first course for a dinner involving roasted meats. When I made it recently, guests started spreading it on the bruschette I made with our new olive oil. That was a treat for the gods.  All good wishes for 2013. It looks like a grand year coming up.

December 22, 2012

Without Martha Washington Jetties??? Christmas Would Be Impossible

These chocolate dipped fondants just spell Christmas to me. My mother made them on the cold back porch every Christmas of my life, and I do the same, as does my daughter.  They are so rich you only want one. Or maybe two. The cold back porch because you dip chilled fondant balls in a chocolate bath and you want the chocolate to set quickly so you can use all the chocolate before it cools.  If it does thicken and cool, just warm it briefly again. These are simply lovely gifts. My mother kept them in a depression glass covered compote and I bring it out once a year for my jetties. Rich! Oh, my, my. People tend to shriek when they first taste one.

First, make small fondant balls.

The fondant: In a mixer, or by hand, beat 1/2 cup of  softened sweet butter and gradually incorporate 1 pound of  confectioners sugar and 4 tablespoons of heavy cream and 1 teaspoon of vanilla.  When dense but fully mixed, stir in 1 cup of  chopped pecans. You can taste now! Form about 4 dozen small balls on waxed paper and chill them.

 

Once they are cold, make the chocolate dip. Simple melt –slowly–8 ounces of  semi-sweet chocolate (or whatever level of sweetness you want), 4 tablespoons of butter, and 5-6 drops of vanilla. If the chocolate seems very thick, thin it with 3-4 tablespoons of heavy cream.

Raise the heat until chocolate is simmering and remove to the counter. Lift each ball with a toothpick and submerge the ball into the chocolate. Place it on the waxed paper, then allow to cool. If there’s a white spot where the toothpick emerged, dot it with a bit of chocolate. When all are finished, chill the jetties in the fridge until set, then peel them off the waxed paper and place in gift tins. Keep them cool.

Here they are, in their glory, in the old depression glass compote that my mother must have inherited from hers.

I love how often the deeply nostalgic foods of memory are associated with a particular blue plate, or a time of day, or a saying. The context of a loved delicacy often says as much about it as the actual taste. When I move, I hand carry this pressed glass candy dish. Of small actual value, it’s precious to me. Each time I make Jetties, it seems that we’re gathered, my sisters and I, with Mother on the porch in the cold, waiting for the first stray drop of chocolate we can confiscate, then we’re waiting for the chocolate to harden so that we’re allowed the first Jettie of Christmas.  I wonder if Martha Washington invented these. If so, hail to her! And happy holidays to all of you friends reading this before you head to the kitchen. Might as well double the recipe because you’ll want to fill charming little boxes and drop them off for your friends.

December 9, 2012

Two Savory Holiday Gifts

Something takes over around now, and it’s like going into labor–once it starts there’s no getting off! I feel overcome with the compelling urge  to make things–food, of course, but also wreathes out of grape vines, arrangements of magnolia and holly and berries on the mantle, centerpieces for the table. Inspired by a photo posted on pin interest by Twitter friend @katiesheadesigns, I took out an old bottle rack and made a decoration of candles and greens. If I’d had one of my larger ones in Italy, I could have made something more spectacular. As it was, everyone at dinner thought it looked sweet, until it caught on fire! That’s sand in the jars. The original used terracotta pots but my rack was too small.

 The next one I made ended up in the back hall because it looked a bit like something you’d buy for a patient at the hospital gift shop. The jack-in-the-box is a toy I had when I was three.

No other time of year, except perhaps tomato season, draws me so magnetically to the kitchen. It’s the time for huge pots of ragù simmering, and for slow-roasted quail with juniper berries, herbs, and pancetta. Both recipes are in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook.

At this time of year, I like to have things ON HAND.  And, always, I find–probably as many of you do–that I turn to what I loved when I was growing up.  Despite my enjoyment of Italian pannetone, biscotti, and Monte Bianco–the rich chestnut cream mountain that Tuscan love, at home in the USA I am making what my mother made–roasted pecans, cheese biscuits, and her famous Martha Washington Jetties.  Roasted pecans–the key is fall crop pecans, big, fresh, and whole. You simply empty a pound bag onto a parchment lined baking pan–single layer–and dot with a stick of butter–4 ounces.  Sprinkle with salt and roast in a 350 degree oven for about eight minutes. Half way, take a spatula and scoot the pecans around to make sure they’re all coated with butter.  Allow to cool and then place in a nice tin lined in waxed paper. Anytime someone comes around and a bottle of wine is opened, a little bowl of these nuts will be devoured with exclamations of joy. They’re also easy and welcome gifts.

The other MUST on myChristmas list : Cheese biscuits.  Grate 8 ounces of sharp cheddar. Mix with 4 ounces–one stick–of softened butter. With a mixer, work in 1  cup of flour, some salt, cayenne, and pepper. I like to add, though my mother did not, some thyme leaves and chopped rosemary  Form the mixture into logs and chlll for a couple of hours.

Slice thinly onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for about eight minutes or until the edges start to brown and crisp. Or, you can just form the dough into little mounds like small cookies and bake the m the way my mother made did.  Before baking, she placed on top of each biscuit  a pecan half. When they cooled, she sprinkled on a little powdered sugar.  I don’t do that–mine are more like wafers–but it is tasty that way. I just figure the cheese and butter is enough with out the sugar hit. These are universally scoffed up, so much so that dinner can be ruined.  They are lethal to have left over because you find yourself just drawn to that cookie tin with each coffee or glass of wine or nothing at all. As a true southerner, I thought that Coca-cola was the perfect pairing. Just irresistible. If lots of entertainng is on your calendar, double the recipe, then just pull a log out of the fridge and bake as your guests ring the bell, so that a warm plate of cheese wafers is at the ready.

As soon as my daughter and I make them this year, I’ll post the recipe for  Martha Washington Jetties. Every Christmas of my life I have indulged in the making of these candies. Whether the real Martha actually made them, I don’t know. But I do know that my mother made them once a year, as do I, and as does my daughter. It simply would not be Christmas without the depression glass candy jar filled with these delectable chocolate-covered pecan fondant dreams.

I would love to hear what you are compelled to concoct as the solstice nears!

[Photo to come]

November 14, 2012

Personalized Books

Buon giorno! Often, I mail books back to people who’ve mailed them to me for a personalized greeting. Now my local bookseller, Sharon Wheeler, has offered to save everyone trips to the post office. If you’d like a book signed for yourself or a gift, please order from her, I’ll stop by and sign, and she’ll send it to you for the cost of the book plus $4.00 for her trip to the post office.  Win-win–and good support for Purple Crow, a new independent bookstore owned by a real reader! She has all my books, as well as the yearly agenda.

Let her know the name of the person the book is for and  if it’s for a holiday or birthday or other special occasion.

You also can order books by my fellow writers in town: Michael Malone, Lee Smith, Allen Gurganus, Jill McCorkle, Hal Crowther, Randall Keenan, Craig Nova, David Payne.

Sharon’s address, phone and email:

Purple Crow Books

109 West King Street

Hillsborough NC 27278

Telephone: 919 732 1711

Email: purplecrowbooks@gmail.com

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