Thirty Years in Tuscany

Beth Elon's new book highlights trips to hidden corners and restaurants off the regular tourist trail.

Thirty years ago cook and literary agent Beth Elon took a trip to Tuscany with her husband, the writer (and former member of the Haaretz editorial board) Amos Elon, which culminated in the purchase of an old house, when such deals still were inexpensive. This happened about 20 years before Frances Mayes wrote "Under the Tuscan Sun" and a decade before Peter Mayle wrote "A Year in Provence."

In this sense, the Elons preceded the authors of the bestsellers that changed the tourism map in Tuscany and Provence, but Beth Elon is the first to agree that the sense of buying the house was precisely described in both books: a strange, spontaneous and very romantic act.

"We were residents of a large and alienated city who wanted to try country life and everything looked possible, somehow," says Elon, whose stunning book "Tuscana L'Mitkadmim" has been published here, in Hebrew, by Daniella De-Nur Publishers. The book was first published in the U.S. and the U.K., under the title "A Culinary Traveller in Tuscany," and will also be published in Italy.

The Hebrew version is a thick, detailed and stunning coffee-table book, with routes for trips to hidden places that even people who have traveled in Tuscany, whether in the wake of Mayes' book that was published in 1996 or in the wake of the film that came out a few years later, most probably do not know. There are suggestions for day trips, two-day trips and longer trips, articles about small restaurants, eateries and specialized shops and also 101 recipes from Tuscan restaurants that are mentioned on the trip routes that have been translated into Hebrew and adapted by Gil Hovav.

"Tuscana L'Mitkadmim" is not only a cook book or a travel guide - it is a slice of life: From Elon's restrained preface, one understands just how unusual the couple's decision to change their life was. When they were still living alternately in Jerusalem and Tuscany, Elon published two more specific cookbooks: "The Big Book of Pasta" and "A Mediterranean Farm Kitchen," both of which are available in English.

In a single moment

The decision a few years ago to bid farewell entirely to their home in Jerusalem, in favor of the neglected 17th-century manor house in the village of Buggiano Castello was not made in a day. However, the initial decision - to purchase the house in a part of the world that was not yet very much of a tourist destination - was taken in a single moment, somewhere at the end of the 1970s.

"We bought the house for pennies, and in a single day. We were a young couple, and we were always telling ourselves that we couldn't afford another apartment in Tel Aviv, but a house in Tuscany - yes," she relates in a telephone conversation from Italy.

The couple bought the estate in Italy as a vacation home and traveled there every summer from Jerusalem with their children, for two months. "It was a house with rotted shutters, only two rooms that were fit for use and a huge wooden barrel next to the fireplace. The village carpenter built a desk for my husband from it, and to this day he writes on it," she relates.

"We renovated only what we could afford and that was too little," she continues. When the children grew up and went off to study, and the couple realized that they were increasingly investing their time and energy in the house in Tuscany, they decided to sell their home in Jerusalem and live in Italy all year around.

"When I look back, I realize how much I needed to learn," Elon writes in the introduction to the book. She relates that the people who lived there before them had been "tenant farmers who paid the owner in crops and products from the poultry, goats and sheep. They had left the house 20 years before we came and the place was utterly neglected." Over time, the two urban Jerusalemites learned farming, gardening, cookery and renovating from experience.

A few weeks after they settled into the huge and neglected manor, Elon says, Josefina, a young farm woman from Benevento, a poor area in southern Italy, showed up. She was immediately hired as their cook, and worked in their home for 18 years. She bequeathed the position to her daughter-in-law.

A few months after the Elons moved into the house, they made the acquaintance of Signor Biondi, who cultivated a plot at the edge of the estate. He asked to remain there with his family and became a close friend who taught Elon precious secrets of the Italian kitchen.

"I don't know what we were thinking, where we had the courage from," she says. "I grew up in New York. The closest thing to country life and agriculture that I knew was summer camp in New England. My parents would send me there for the whole summer but my friends would go home after one week. Maybe that's how I got my sense of adventure."

Two families, 300 years

The 120 inhabitants of Buggiano Castello, the small village where she lives, are friendly and hospitable, she says, but they will see the newcomers as outsiders forever. They will invite her to watch them working in the kitchen but they will never allow her to cook and every time she tries to knead something they will direct her with a forgiving look that means: This is the right way to do it.

"We have been living here for 30 years now," she says. "Our children, who came here every summer, were to a large extent our entry ticket to the village - the inhabitants here really love children and through them we connected with the surroundings. But the village is based on two families, for 300 years now, and we will be the foreigners for all eternity."

However, the fact that they are Israelis had special significance in the village, in an interesting twist of history. "Only after years of living here did I dare to ask a local girlfriend about what happened here during World War II. It turned out that they had hidden in our house a large family of Jews, whom everyone knew well and they helped the family a lot. Somebody informed on them and in the village they are convinced to this day that it wasn't anyone local but rather someone from above. When it was Israelis who chanced to buy the house it seemed to them like the closing of a circle."

As in many beauty spots around the world, in recent years in Tuscany too a class of homeowners has coalesced that has very much developed the region.

"The vines are tended, the vineyards are green and there is always light in the windows," says Elon. "People are living here. There is even a supermarket around the corner. But the conservatism of the inhabitants has helped to preserve the methods of cooking, the dishes and the cuisine."

Contributing to the quality of the book are the careful editing by the publishing house and the photographs by Yossi Ribak, an Israeli photographer who is well-acquainted with Tuscany but, he says, it was only when he set out on the trips along Elon's routes that he succeeded in "really discovering it."

Not afraid of inundation

The book is divided up into itineraries accompanied by maps: from Massa to Lucca, the Sirchio Valley and the Carrara Mountains and the Lunigiana region, via small villages, recommended restaurants and small, family hotels. Elon: "I haven't written about any place where tourist buses will come. I tried to write about places that will be fun to discover yourself." The recipes go right to the heart of the rural Italian menu: There are baked vegetable dishes, soups and purees, a beef roast and stews, but also a seafood salad, an Easter cake, trout in wine and more.

Is this a book that can be taken on a trip?

"That is the question," says Elon. "As far as I am concerned, of course, but in its Hebrew version it is a heavy, respectable tome. We have produced something that is beyond a travel guide and affords additional contents to those who are interested."

Isn't Elon in fact subverting the remote simplicity that attracted her to life there, before "Under the Tuscan Sun" and her own books, which have attracted hordes of visitors to the narrow streets and the small restaurants of the region?

"I believe that the large entry of foreigners, which has very much developed the region, came in the wake of the romantic dreams that these books sold, and perhaps I am selling them too," she says, "but I believe that I really have written about unusual places that will benefit if more people come. As I see it, I am spreading a message, and I am living with this in peace. There are many more good places to discover."