The novel is suspenseful and enjoyable, and the food descriptions are indeed mouth-watering. The naive Joanna, first-person narrator of the 1973 chapters, is constantly impressed by the cuisine of her peasant hosts in the fictional village, and fascinated by their great cooking skills as she watches their preparations. She contrasts the delicious Tuscan food with the limited British food of her childhood and her life as a single woman in London. It's a fun read for a foodie.
Unfortunately I think the author's food research was a bit sketchy, and that many of the specific dishes that feature in Joanna's narrative have more to do with high-end 21st century restaurants and food writers than with accurate portrayal of Tuscan peasant cooking in 1973. (The food of 1944 was extremely scarce and doesn't figure in my critique.) Joanna's enthusiastic descriptions don't, in my opinion, seem convincing as a naive reaction, but use too much now-popular food jargon and too many cliches about both English and Italian cuisine. Her quotes from her the Italian hostess seem a bit too predictable and sophisticated as well.
Here, to explain my reactions, are specific examples of the indisputably delightful descriptions of the food served to Joanna on her visit in June, 1973, and an explanation of why I'm not convinced that they represent the reality of peasant life in rural Tuscany of that era. My impressions are based on the overall way that the book echoes current food writing, and on specific mistakes about regional food that are present in these passages.
"'Asparagus from the garden,' she said. 'It is asparagus season. Such a short time that we make the most of it and eat asparagus at almost every meal.'
"She placed a dish of white stalks in front of me, then drizzled them with olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese over them from a big block." (The Tuscan Child, p. 133, emphasis mine)The problem here: white asparagus is a specialty of a region near Venice, and doesn't grow in simple gardens like those in the description. Joanna's hostess in the village gathers the asparagus from "a feathery plant." (p. 152). White asparagus grows under a mound of sand to prevent it from being green, not as described. Maybe this is trivial, but it's part of a pattern of ignoring the regional differences in Italian foods.
The descriptions of food preparation and attitudes of Joanna's hostess also frequently sound more like high-end food writing than like the spontaneous conversation of a relatively uneducated woman. For example:
"'How do you make this soup?' I asked.
"She laughed. 'So simple. It is what we call part of our cucina povera— simple food for the peasants. And a good way to use up yesterday’s stale bread. It is simply stale bread soaked in broth, and then we cook the garlic, tomatoes, some carrot, and celery and add these to it, then serve with olive oil. That’s all.'" (p. 99).Cucina povera is a term you expect from culinary writers -- not so much from peasants describing their own food. It's a bit unconvincing.
I have similar doubts about the foods mentioned in the following meal:
"'We will have a good meal tonight if it is to be your last,' she said. 'A mushroom risotto, perhaps, before the aubergine Parmesan and panna cotta, definitely.'" (p. 278).Risotto, the rice dish, is characteristic of northern Italy around Milan, not Tuscany. Aubergine (eggplant) Parmesan is a classic dish from around Naples, Calabria, and Sicily, not Tuscany. And panna cotta is a specialty of the Piedmont and is known in Sicily. These dishes are also very popular outside Italy. Panna cotta and risottos appear on trendy menus at prestigious restaurants. The author pretends that Joanna is experiencing the authentic deep Tuscan cuisine, unspoiled and naive.
Finally, this last meal ends with a famous liqueur:
"We finished the meal with the little dishes of panna cotta— smooth and white and slipping easily down the throat, and to accompany it a glass of limoncello, the local liqueur." (p. 288).Limoncello became highly popular outside Italy long after 1973, which supports my theory that the author used modern sources about Italian food, not historic ones. More importantly, limoncello is not at all a specialty of Tuscany: rather, it is "mainly produced in Southern Italy, especially in the region around the Gulf of Naples, the Sorrentine Peninsula and the coast of Amalfi, and islands of Procida, Ischia, and Capri." (Wikipedia, "Limoncello," retrieved June 10, 2018)
All in all, The Tuscan Child is a readable book. The plot is a little exaggerated, but that's ok. The characters are portrayed effectively, and in general I liked the settings. In the Afterword, the author mentions doing real research about World War II airplanes -- I have no knowledge of this aspect of the book, so I take her word that she made it accurate. I wish she had done the same with her descriptions of Tuscan peasant food.
*I'm grateful to blogger Tina at the blog Novel Meals for the review that got me to read the book. Check it out at Tina's blog HERE.