A Tuscan Childhood
If there is one book I could truly attach the connotation of “adored,” it would be A Tuscan Childhood. Beautifully written and fast moving, this is one of the few books I enjoy reading every time. Coincidentally, it was published around the same time as another Italy travel narrative, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. Although Mayes’ work was much more popular and well known of the two, A Tuscan Childhood was in my opinion by far the better read.
Beevor had a childhood that I and probably most of you reading this can’t even begin to imagine. Born to British bohemian parents near the turn of the last century, she grew up in a castle. Literally. The sixteenth-century Fortezza della Brunella and the village of Aulla where it was located, is where Beevor and her brother spent most of their childhood becoming wonderfully immersed in the Italian culture and intertwined with the Italian people. These relationships continued for more than half a century.
Never a British colony like India and Kenya were, Italy still was home to a sizeable British expatriate community. Even though her parents were bohemians, they still followed the practice of sending their children back to the “mother country” for proper schooling. Of course there was the matter of Beevor’s lack of ability to read or write in her mother tongue:
“Unfortunately, my mother never realized that, owing to the useless governess she had chosen, I could hardly read or write English. The problem of sending a girl quite so unprepared to an English boarding-school never occurred to her.”
Perhaps my favorite chapter in the book is the one entitled “Food and Farms at Poggio Gherado”, this being the home of Beevor’s maternal great-aunt. If you’ve ever thought that there’s only pizza and pasta to Italian cooking, think again. Beevor’s descriptions of dishes prepared at Poggio Gherado are enough to make your mouth water and book a stay at a Tuscan villa prontissimo:
“I particularly remember Agostino’s involtini di vitello-little rolls of veal with thin slices of prosciutto or mortadella inside, speared with toothpicks.”
“Agostino’s dolci reduced everyone to silent ecstasy. They included nocciola, pounded hazelnuts with eggs and cream; biscuits made with amaretti, eggs and cream; chocolate mousses surrounded by boudoir biscuits dripped in brandy; and curled wafer biscuits filled with cream.”
I think the reason why I enjoyed this book as much as I did was because it reads like Beevor is recounting her personal past to you, a book in the form of an oral history. It was published in 1993, only two years before Beevor’s death and so perhaps at the end of her life, she was looking back on her incredible years spent. She experienced Tuscany long before it was the “it” thing, from the waning days of the First World War, to the deep scars Beevor and her beloved Italy endured from the Second World War.
“But the most urgent need during the first months of peace was the resurrection of agriculture. At Poggio Gherado, shell bursts during the artillery duel across the Arno valley had destroyed thirty olive trees out of seven hundred.”
Long before Frances Mayes was “under the Tuscan sun,” Italy, specifically the region of Tuscany, was a charming and unspoiled spot. Although her glimpse into life then can never be recreated, it can be re-imagined by reading the book.