Thursday, December 6, 2012


"Alphonse Daudet in his studio with his wife, Julia Allard" Louis Montegut, Carnavelet Museum, Paris

Travel Oyster is back. As I hope you've noticed, the blog has been on vacation for the last few months. I decided to take a little respite from my self-imposed deadlines, incessant photo-taking, painstaking recipe testing and time-consuming research on historical facts. I've spent much of the past long, hot summer in our little, rustic cabin in the North Woods of Michigan. It's cooler there; people are scarce; and nature is plentiful. It's a good place to relax, think and, of course, read. Which, in turn, leads me to this year's edition of Travel Oyster's Great Books. 

For Great Books IV, I've chosen a classic Italian cookbook on regional dishes; a well-known and well-loved book of 19th-century tales of France's sunny Provence region; an engrossing, fascinating, page-turning history of the 14th Century, and a book of beautiful 360º photographs of Tuscany;

The Talisman Italian Cook Book
by Ada Boni
Translated by Matilde La Rosa

When this cookbook first appeared in Italy in 1928, Italian women, like their counterparts in the rest of the world were enjoying new freedoms.  In her preface to the first volume, Boni congratulated them for their achievements,  saying: "Many, among you know how to play the piano very well or can sing with exquisite grace; many others have grand ambitions for higher learning; you know modern languages, are pleasingly literate or fine painters or you can take the wheel of a luxury car with a steady hand."  But, she goes on to say, "how many of you, if you make just a little examination of your conscience, can say that you know how to boil two eggs to perfection." 

The Talismano della Felicità (Talisman of Happiness), as it is known in Italy, is universally recognized as the country's standard national cookbook. My version, the first Italian cookbook I ever owned, was originally published in 1950. It's a no-nonsence, easy to follow, unillustrated book, adapted for American cooks. Oddly enough, it doesn't tell me how to boil an egg, but its stained and annotated pages attest to its constant use. Its almost 1,000 recipes include regional dishes from all over Italy, but my copy seems to open of its own accord to those of southern Italy, such as Whole Eggplant Sicilian Style or Fresh Sardines Palermo Style. (I make this in the spring with fresh Michigan smelts replacing Palermo's wonderful sardines.)  

Even though it is adapted for American cooks, this is an Italian cookbook, not an Italian-American one. Some cookbooks lose their appeal for me after time, but this one never has.  It remains, along with Marcella Hazen's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, one of my two favorite books of Italian recipes.

Letters From My Mill
by Alphonse Daudet
First published 1869

Written when Alphonse Daudet was still in his  20s, this book is, nonetheless, a nostalgic look back at the region of Daudet's birth. The mill in question is a windmill that Daudet bought on the heights of the town of Fontvieille, near Arles, in 1864 when he was just 22 years old. Combining folk tales with descriptions of everyday life and ordinary people, Daudet weaves a web of interlacing stories that create a Provence at once dreamlike and very real. The book is among the most accessible and well-loved masterpieces in French literature, and reveals the humor and finesse of one of France's great storytellers.  

The French is not difficult, but there are also several good translations in English. To read an English translation of the book free online, click here.

A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century
by Barbara W. Tuchman

I bought this book years ago, but didn't get around to picking it up until last month. Since then, I haven't been able to put it down.  A Distant Mirror chronicles life in Europe in the 14th Century. First published in 1978, the book was on the New York Times Bestseller List for more than nine months, and I can see why. It's wonderfully written and meticulously researched. Its cast of real people includes kings, cardinals, beggars, thieves, saints and serfs as well as perhaps the Western World's first feminist writer. And, of course, there are the knights in all the glory of chivalry and all the brutality of war, terrorism and torture.  

Marked by three great plagues that killed nearly half the population, the 14th century was a time when loyalty often gave way to treachery and where political assassinations were commonplace. Corruption in the Court and in the Church, opulence among the rich, and unbearable taxes on the poor and middle class led to a universal longing for reform. Yet amid all this chaos, great cathedrals and castles were built, beautiful illuminated Books of Hours were produced and poetry and art flowered.  

Although a world away from us, the book is indeed a distant mirror of our own times - a reflection of the same human strengths and foibles that mark our own century. A Distant Mirror, in fact, begins with a quote from John Dryden:  "For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered." 

Tuscany 360º
Photographs by Ghigo Roli

My last pick is an easy on the brain, delight to the eye coffee table book.  Part of a series that also includes books on New York, Venice and Paris, this book has dream-inducing, 360-degree views of Tuscany. Many of the places photographed in the book, including Pisa, Populonia, Elba, Massa Marrittima, San Galgano and Siena, have been featured in past postings of Travel Oyster. So, if you're looking for a getaway on a long winter's evening, buy the book and surround yourself with beauty. Then click on the links above and take a Travel Oyster visit to Tuscany.

Until next time from Paris,



  1. Love your new post.
    You are a great book critic.
    You made me want to read them all.


  2. Just bought the Tuchman for my Kindle-- your review was enticing!
    Rick L.


  4. Welcome back! Great post! As always, very inspiring.


Thanks for your comments.