OK, I’m getting very excited doing my research for a trip to Italy later this year. Here are the best books about Italy that I’ve read so far…
‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’ by Helena Attlee (Penguin) One very, VERY hot day in Tuscany, my family and I spent the day wandering through the oh-so-stunning collection of potted citrus in the rear garden of a Palladian mansion. Bliss, pure bliss, I tell you. It’s no secret that I love all things citrus (especially blood oranges), but when this book was suggested to me by my friend, Susannah, I had no idea how much I would love reading about the culture, history and health benefits of these gems! The title of this book plays on Goethe’s quote ‘Do you know the land where lemons grow….Do you know it well?’, encapsulating a longing for beauty, warmth and ease of life in the southern Mediterranean area. Attlee won the Food Book of the Year 2015 with this book and it is no surprise; her research and travel is comprehensive. She has a lyrical style of writing that captivates the reader and pleasantly immerses you in the citrus-bound moment. When Hans Christian Anderson visited Italy in 1833 and saw citrus groves for the first time he wrote ‘here is Paradise’. Who knew that the perfume of citrus blossom has its own name (zagara)? That lemon juice reduces scurvy and that citrus are important factors in neroli oil, Chinotto, bergamot oil, eau de cologne and Earl Grey tea? Recipes in this book include an orange and lemon sauce for pasta – doesn’t that sound good?! Lists of gardens to visit, festivals and places to stay add to the joy of this book.
‘Chasing the Rose; An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside’ by Andrea di Robilant (Allen & Unwin) This whimsical book is beautifully produced with illustrations by Nina Fuga throughout. In di Robilant’s earlier biography about his great-great-great-great grandmother, he describes a pink rose with a light peach-and-raspberry scent that grew wild on his family’s former country estate in Italy. This description peaked the interest of leading rose experts who wondered excitedly if this rose could be one of the long-lost China varieties. The ensuing research led to this book, thus ‘chasing the rose’. We travel back to the time of Josephine Bonaparte with her love of roses. Fascinatingly, the Empress had a close friendship with di Robilant’s great-great-great-great grandmother, Lucia, and suggested she take botanical classes. We follow Lucia through her classes, access to seeds and appreciation of roses. I loved reading about cuttings, gifts of roses, the travels and transfers of seeds and plants, the gentleman who retired to a place without gardens so he tended other peoples’ gardens, town squares, public roads and graveyards, the man who gave his wife 30 different rose bushes for their thirtieth wedding anniversary which had now gown to 1,485 different species which they tend to without outside help, the story of roses including the odes to Josephine, ‘Empress Josephine’ and ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ and David Austin ‘Constance Spry’. Recently we have added two scented rose plants, ‘Atomic Blonde’ and ‘Honey Dijon’ to our garden inspired by a visit to our friend Brigid’s inspirational rose garden.
‘Dear Francesca; An Italian Journey of Recipes Recounted with Love’ by Mary Contini (Random House) I just loved this book! Thank you to my dear friend, Toni, who recommended it. I read this book whilst on holiday with one of my daughters and I devoured every page. This personal story of Contini and her relations who moved from Italy to Scotland last century is fascinating and beautifully written. The stories about making a living and all the changes and challenges her relations faced as they set up their new lives was riveting; Contini’s grandparents’ wonderful fish and chip shop in Scotland, the role of the children, the transportation of favourite and treasured food from Italy and the personalities all combine to make this a personal and wonderful story interwoven with family recipes and photographs. This book is full of warmth and love for traditional Italian attitudes, respect for their new country Scotland and it’s produce as well as emphasis on food as a foundation for a nurturing family life. It inspired me to plant a flourishing herb garden straight away when I returned home.
‘Magic Moments in Florence’ by Adriana Silvestri (Mandragora) Florence is a beautiful place. I studied it for many years of art history, design and architecture before arriving there with wide eyes on my honeymoon and then twice since. The home of genius Michelangelo, the Tuscan landscape, terracotta roof tiles, laneways paved with stone, the leather and paper products and Italian food combine to make it a very special place. My husband bought this book on our last trip to Florence from a small English bookshop tucked down a lane. The book is like a scrapbook or sketchbook of many of the wonderful things we love so much about Florence. Silvestri’s clear watercolour and ink drawings and handwritten text illuminate the history, the arches, domes, paving patterns, coins, fountains, colours, artwork, mosaics, fashions, leather goods industry, plazas, typical dishes, transport, landscape and textiles that we swooned over. Enhanced with images of stamps, train tickets and artwork, the images are truly beautiful. Silvestri’s witty artwork muses about what happens at night in the art galleries; angels leaving the paintings and flying about and portraits arguing who is the most important. This is a great collection of elements that make this city so spectacular.
‘Under the Tuscan Sun; At Home In Italy’ by Frances Mayes (Bantam Books; Transworld Publishers) Travelling to Italy with my family in 2012, I searched for books that would immerse me in the culture. I had read this book years earlier, but read it again whilst we travelled through Tuscany and it resonated with the picturesque landscape, delicious regional food and lifestyle we experienced and enjoyed. This book is a biography of Mayes’ experience of buying a holiday home in Tuscany and renovating it, her friendship with local people, discovery of the language, the pace of life and her love of the buildings, food, local specialties and her travels. The Italians seem to have a natural affinity to their landscape and make the most of their produce, landscape and history. Mayes becomes an advocate for Tuscany and her descriptions, way of life, Italian phrases that are spoken throughout the book and the local recipes she includes makes it a really evocative, apt and a wonderful read celebrating Italy. The sequel ‘Bella Tuscany’ by Frances Mayes (Bantam Books; Transworld Publishers) is a wonderful continuation of her experiences and the Italian culture.