Give credit to Frances Mayes for igniting Americans’ long-held love affair with Tuscany.
In 1996, she wrote a memoir about how she famously took charge of her future, abandoning her life as a Bay Area writer and San Francisco State University professor, and moved to Italy to renovate an aging house and, in the process, find herself. “Under the Tuscan Sun” spent more than two years on the New York Times’ bestseller list, increased travel to the region and spurred others to trade their lives for an Italian fixer-upper. And would we have quite so many Tuscan-style housing developments and color palettes in Northern California without her story? Likely not.
She followed that up with a dozen books — travel memoirs, home decor, poetry, a novel and so much more.
Now, 20 years after Diane Lane portrayed Mayes in the film version of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” Mayes, 83, has published “Pasta Veloce,” a cookbook brimming with what she calls “irresistibly fast” recipes. We took the opportunity to talk with her about her life and her beloved home, Bramasole, and what’s changed in the Tuscan countryside. And, of course, about how to get dinner on the table quickly.
Q What was the appeal of Tuscany?
A Originally, the appeal was art — the highest concentration of art in the Western world, and maybe the whole world. After living here awhile, I became just as enchanted with the bucolic landscape and the ancient walled towns, some with Etruscan foundations, and with, of course, the food and wine.
Q Does Tuscany hold the same appeal it did when you first arrived?
A I’m still gobsmacked by the extraordinary beauty. If anything, the love for this place has deepened. I’ve absorbed the great luck of living in such beauty as a part of daily life. When you live in a place you love to wake up and see every morning — what an inspiration. Tuscany has given me, what, 11 books! In my recent “A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home,” I explored many aspects of why my home here in Tuscany has acquired layers and layers of meaning in my life.
Q How has the Italian experience changed over the decades you’ve been there?
A Three decades! The internet happened. Covid. More cars. Tough economy. More women work. Tourism increased. Oh, so many worldwide changes. But in rural Tuscany, we continue to go to the piazza and join in starting the day with our neighbors who are buying vegetables, having a coffee, joking with friends. What has lasted is a comfortable sense of community. The weekly outdoor markets endure and are as lively as ever. (I was afraid that ancient tradition would disappear.) Dinner is still at 8. The quality of produce still excels. So, basically daily life seems the same.
Cortona, where I live, changed quite a bit due to my books and the film of “Under the Tuscan Sun.” From somber and sleepy, we went to lively and magnetic. Most feel that the town awakened, though I am sure there are some who wish things were as they were. Lots of cafe bars and trattorias and restaurants — good ones. I’m pleased with that! We have a shockingly good cultural life of constant concerts, plays, lectures and art exhibits, as well as traditional festivals. That a small town can be this active is fantastic.
Q Do you and your husband, Ed Mayes, divide your time among more than one home?
A We live in Italy about six months a year and spend the rest in Durham, North Carolina.
Q Is there a new generation of travelers coming to the gate of Bramasole, your Cortona home?
A Amazing, after all these years, we still have a steady stream of people coming to our house. This year, we must be on bicycle tour lists. Because my books are in over 50 languages, we have visitors from all over the world, and that’s really fun for us. We have met so many interesting travelers. And they meet each other! Two people who met at our gate got married.
Q What does Bramasole mean?
A Bramasole is a tiny green hillside zone under a massive Etruscan wall, and our house, built sometime in the 1700s, was the villa of the area. Bramare means “to yearn for” and sole, “sun” — to yearn for the sun. I fell in love with the name before I saw the house.
Q Is there a budding Cortona, another town in Tuscany, that could use some TLC from tourists?
A When we travel about, people in other towns jokingly ask me to come write about them. Some may think Tuscany is “overrun” — but travel about a bit. Hundreds of villages are untouched and unknown. Tuscany is wonderful for the traveler who likes to wander.
Q What kind of a trip, an experience, would you recommend for a traveler who has not explored the Tuscan countryside?
A Do spend some time in the country, driving around the gorgeous Val d’Orcia and the Maremma and the Mugello above Florence. But don’t miss Siena, Arezzo, Florence and some of the coast.
Q Are there recipes from the original Tuscan Sun books you still make? Favorites?
A Yes! All of them! That book is a gathering of what we cook in our Tuscan kitchen. Recipes from neighbors and friends, all easy, all delicious.
Q What was the impetus for the quick meals of “Pasta Veloce”?
A For several years, I had in mind a collection of fast and easy pasta recipes. That’s the backbone of the Italian kitchen, because most people eat pasta, pasta, pasta. Sometimes twice a day! It’s the most versatile product and is made for innovation. During Covid, I finally was stuck at home and started noticing the varieties of pasta in a serious way. I asked my friend Susan Wyler, a magnificent cook, to partner with me, and the project sailed us through Covid. What’s so useful is that the recipes can be made in the time it takes the water to boil and the pasta to cook.
Q What are a couple of dishes you’d like to see readers make?
A The Lemon Pistachio Pasta — so good. I love all the pestos we created, especially Citrus Pesto and Arugula and Toasted Pine Nut Pesto. For a party with ease, I opt for the Pasta with Four Cheeses and 10 Minute Tomato Sauce. Sometimes we wake up a traditional pasta, as in a pasta with clams that gets a douse of Chili Crisp.
Q Are there dishes featuring what you consider underappreciated or unusual ingredients?
A Rosemary dust and lime? Our photographer, Steven Rothfeld, invented that, and it was a hit. Kale Pesto might be the best thing that happens to kale. Scamorza, a melting cheese, red hot peppers, copious herbs — but mostly our ingredients are things you’re likely to have on hand. The most important is a true extra virgin olive oil. That transforms your kitchen.
Q Which “Pasta Veloce” recipes would work well chilled for a summer picnic?
A Farfalle with Roasted Asparagus, Lemon Cream and Chives. Or Penne Seafood Salad. Or Penne with Pepperoni, Kale, Chickpeas and Sweet Peppers.
Q What do you miss about the Bay Area and its food and culture?
A I miss everything about the Bay Area and get back there as often as I can.
Q What’s next for the indefatigable Frances Mayes?
A My novel “Women in Sunlight” is in preproduction for film from Water’s End Productions — very exciting. And I am in the middle of writing a new novel — very challenging!!