Tag Archives: tuscany

Extending THE SENTIMENTAL RECIPE CONTEST! Send in by 10/10


In my book, THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS, I include a recipe that I hold near and dear. Not because it’s particularly hard or original, but because of what it represents to me. It is the tomato sauce commonly made in the summer by Tuscans and put up in jars for the winter. They call it the Pomarola sauce, and for it they use the freshest tomatoes from as close to the sea as they can find. The goal: to capture summer.

To me the Pomarola sauce captures much more than that. It is a symbol of a year in my life in which I found my heart language in a place and a family far from home. It is a symbol then, of finding home inside myself in a time of my life when I was morphing from child to adult. It is with this heart language that I went into the “rest of my life” and it was this heart language which I revisited with my daughter 21 years later (a few years ago). I had longed for it for all those 21 years, aching for it, naming it as the most important year of my life, yet not granting my return. I had realized a few dreams, some of which felt within my control: Getting married, having kids, building a home in Montana. Writing books. But I couldn’t seem to get those books published.

So after years of longing for it, I realized that I needed to stop basing my happiness on things completely outside of my control. I could write the books, and I could submit them for publication, but the rest was out of my hands. I decided to embrace the freedom of this surrender. And I started to look at the un-realized dreams of my life that I COULD control. Going back to Italy, with my daughter, to live with this wonderful family, was just that.

So I booked it and went.
One afternoon, my Italian host mother, Milvia, showed us how to make this sauce, how to can it, what to look for in ingredients. It was magical.

Little did I know that my new philosophy of surrender would be put to the test in a way I never dreamed, when my husband announced he wasn’t sure he loved me anymore and wanted to move out—this just two days after my return home from Italy.

There began a season of my life depicted in my book, THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, wherein I got the chance to practice what it is to embrace the present moment in a place of creating, not wanting. Of claiming responsibility for my own well-being despite what was going on with my husband. Of focusing on beauty and freedom and even joy. On p. 295 you will find a scene in which I make this sauce with my children, shopping for just the right ingredients, and spending the day up to our elbows in tomatoes, garlic, onions, basil, parsley. carrots, celery and pots of boiling water. On p. 300 you will find the recipe.

In re-visiting those pages now, six months after my book’s publication, I find it not coincidence that we came up with twenty-one jars of sauce. Instead, it feels quite deliberate, subconsciously. As if each jar represented of year of not claiming a dream that was completely within my control, and focusing so hard on another dream that was not.

So I pass on this message to you, in the form of a recipe. What is your Italy? What do you deprive yourself of that you CAN create in your life? What place do you long to re-visit in your life? So often I find that there is the nurturing element of food attached to our fondest memories and even our wildest dreams. Afternoons in a kitchen with a grandmother, a holiday feast with family in town from far-away places, picnics on a beach, a particular glass of lemonade. I’d love for you to share those sentimental recipes here. And a scene or story that shares why you hold that food, that memory, so dear.

The winner will be randomly selected and will receive a free signed copy of THIS IS NOT THE STORY OU THINK IT IS. I look forward to this sharing. Yrs. Laura

My Italian Family’s Pomarola Sauce Recipe
This is a light sauce that is the epitome of the summer harvest and is usually canned to capture summer in the middle of winter. It must be made with the freshest Roma tomatoes to get the right consistency, preferably from somewhere close to the sea.

Sauce for one pound of pasta. Serves six.
2 1/2 pounds unpeeled ripe Roma tomatoes
1 onion
1 clove garlic (Americans generally use more garlic than is the Italian custom.)
1 stalk celery- just the white part, not the leaves
1-2 carrots (depending on how big they are)
3-5 leaves basil
3 sprigs flat-leaf parsley- no stem
A pinch of salt
A pinch of white sugar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Cut tomatoes in half. Cut vegetables into small pieces. Rough-cut basil and parsley with scissors. Put all ingredients into stockpot. Simmer, covered, very slowly until the carrot is soft and can be easily mashed with a fork (about an hour and a half). Then pass everything through a passatutto, or food mill– a wide-mouthed hand-cranked strainer. Keep turning the passatutto until only the seeds and skins are left. Then put the sauce back on the stove until it reaches a boil. You may need to cook it for a bit longer to ensure desired consistency.

If you’d like to make a big batch of this sauce for canning, then adjust ingredients proportionately, adding an extra hour or so before passing the ingredients through the food mill, and after returning the sauce to the stove. Working with eleven pounds of tomatoes at a time is a good amount.

At this point you can serve or keep it in the refrigerator for a week, or put it in jars. Use the ones that have a self-sealing lid– which pops as the sauce cools and provides a vacuum seal, making it possible to store for months. The wonder of this sauce is in its fresh ingredients and its simplicity.

Here’s a blurb for my book written by my dear friend and literary hero. If you haven’t read his “Brother’s K,” you simply must.
“With amiability, wit, and a modicum of self-pity, Laura Munson’s memoir reminded me of the twenty-one jars of organic tomato sauce she and her children hand-made. A chapter is like a jar lid: if it doesn’t pop as the contents cool, the seal is faulty and the sauce is worthless. Exhausted from their all-day effort, mother and kids sipped hot chocolates and listened as twenty-one jars cooled. To their satisfaction, they counted twenty-one distinct pops. In reading this brave memoir I counted about the same.” —David James Duncan, author of The Brothers K and God Laughs & Plays

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Filed under Contests! Win a signed hardcover of THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS!, My book: This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, My Posts

The heart language of an Italian family.

In 1986, I sat in a classroom at the Syracuse University school, in the Piazza Savonarola in Florence, Italy, waiting to meet the people who would be my host parents for the next year of my life. I was nervous. I didn’t speak a word of Italian. I’d chosen Florence precisely for the art and the gut-spawned sense that it would be good for me to be mute for a year, or at least wildly misunderstood. I was in rebel mode, and I needed to slip sweetly into humility. I needed to get rid of the fight and get into receiving the beauty and power of life, and what better legacy of beauty and power than in those streets. I threw my eight years of Spanish out the window, and arrived in Italy thinking that you spelled the word “ciao” like this: Chow.

A lot of the students looked like they’d already spent a year in Italy, dressed in leather and capes, chatting and drinking espresso long before Starbucks hit the American scene. I felt small and invisible. One by one, students were paired with their Italian host families, lugging their suitcases and duffel bags down the parquet floors, out to the grainy honeyed light of the city. I was the last one left. It felt a lot like gym class. Before the teacher could call my name, a man who looked like Picasso, with large blinking doe eyes, stood up in a blue workshirt and jeans, nodded and smiled at me like he was rescuing me from waiting a second longer, like he was choosing me, wrapped his calloused black-etched fingers around my duffel, and walked toward the door. I guessed the nod and the smile had been our hello.

He opened the door of a tiny car called a Panda, similar to the 1960s Topolino (means Mickey Mouse), and I climbed inside, smooshed up against my bag. He lit a cigarette, smiled and nodded again, said something in Italian which I of course didn’t understand, and careened us through the streets of Florence, out to the highway, and through the Tuscan countryside. I beamed with measures of invigoration and confusion. Our host families were supposed to live in town. This was not town. How was I going to pound the pavement of the Renaissance in what was looking, ten, twenty, thirty miles out of the city? I wanted urban grit, not Cyprus trees and vineyards. Plus…there was the question of “the rest of the family” and if it existed.

We pulled into a pea gravel driveway, an old mustard stucco edifice standing proud with arched windows, topped in terracotta tiles. A woman was standing at the front door, wiping her hands on her apron, bubbling over with words clearly spun of homemade love. She kissed both of my cheeks. I held her a little hard for our first meeting.

The father took my bag inside, and I just stood there smiling, wishing I could tell her everything. That I was smart and kind and trustworthy and would help out and…and…and…please like me! I’m really not a rebel. I just need to be re-booted.

But I didn’t need to say anything. She took me inside, gave me a helping of a thick bread soup called papa al pomodoro, which is to this day my favorite comfort food, (made from the week’s leftover bread, tomatoes, garlic, onions, and olive oil—sort of their version of mashed potatoes), and afterward an espresso. Then she introduced me to the cat, the grandmother (la Nonna), the housekeeper, the pot of sauce simmering on the wood-fired stove, and suddenly, I realized, I was home. I was a daughter in this house for a year. I didn’t know if there were other children. It didn’t matter.

Then the father came down and took my hand and walked me out to the back porch where all of Tuscany spread out in quilts of olive groves and vineyards. He didn’t need to say a thing. Stunning is stunning is stunning. He paused a while to let me take it in.

Then he reached up to what I soon realized was a walnut tree, and picked a nut. He moved us over to a fig tree, and picked a fig. Then he did a little hand play like a magician before the tah-dah, cracked the walnut in one hand, popped the nut meat into the fig, and held it in front of my mouth. Then he opened his mouth, pantomime, and I knew to open mine, and in popped my first fig, filled with my first fresh walnut. I chewed. The little fig seeds bursting between my teeth.

He watched, like: well? There was no way I wasn’t going to love this, he was sure of it.
“Mmmmmmmmm,” I said, which is the same in every language, I imagine.

Then we went inside to see the villa. I later learned that it was inhabited long before America was even discovered. Its foundation was built c. 1420-30, the first floor in the late 1700s, and the second floor in the late 1800s. It came into this family in the mid 1900s when the patriarch fell in love with the Italian style gardens, (think Boboli), a rarity for such a small property. From every window, you could see gardens, or hills or olive groves or vineyards or vegetable gardens.

This was clearly a family who loved land and the fruits of good soil, and it all came to a fervent dance in the glorious kitchen, a warm and never-dormant place of maternal pride and creation; a long table suggestive of a big family and many stories told.

The living room was an ode to  stone, with its large fireplace and smooth floors. I would later learn that Florentines were stone masons. The banister and chandelier were wrought iron masterpieces and I would also learn that the paternal side of this family was a long line of blacksmiths, explaining my Italian host father’s hands.


The dining room walls were done in fresco by, I would later come to learn, their famous artist uncle, Silvano Campeggi, the table set in lace, large windows letting in that grainy light so that it looked like a Dutch Vermeer. Up the steep stone stairway were three rooms off a central second living room, a harpsichord in the corner. The ceiling high with wooden beams across white stucco. What I soon realized would become my weekend country room, their primary residence in the city, was fit for a princess– the bed frame, twisted in the same skilled wrought iron, the wardrobe and bureau, priceless antiques, lovingly kept to a shine.


These people were not necessarily rich. They were simply longtime stewards of place. And they were teachers and parents to me for one of the best years of my life. It turned out there were children in this family. A lovely daughter, Elisabetta, who has become a true sister to me over the years and who now lives next door with her children and her British husband—all of them fluent in English, and a talented musician son, Francesco, who has taken over their city flat.

When I returned with my daughter 20 years later, I was thrilled to find that they’ve turned their country home into a Bed & Breakfast, also hosting dinners for tourists in the Chianti area.  This is a family of  true Tuscans, fiercely proud, as they should  be, of their region’s tremendous heritage.  Elisabetta, after years of working in the fashion business (Gucci and Ferragamo to name a few), now offers custom insider day excursions around Florence, serving as personal shopper at exclusive and/or off-the-beaten-path artisan shops, personal docent in the world famous museums, ushering you through the streets of Florence to places you might never know to visit like the Ferragamo Shoe Museum, or a silk factory truly fit for kings (the Grimaldi family of Monoco and the Kremlin to name a few of their clients) with silk worms at work and an age-old show room flanked in bolts of the most exquisite fabric I’ve ever seen…booking luncheons in private homes overlooking the Arno, and on an on.  My daughter and I got to spend a day with Elisabetta, touring the city of Florence in a way I’d never experienced it.  But that’s another blog post.  For now check out her website.

I am so thrilled to be able to share my Italian “family” with you. I wrote about them in my book, and I love them. They are touchstones for me. Cairns. Gatekeepers of the soul. It is my deepest pleasure to introduce you to Milvia and Luigi of the Renzoni family. If you’re travelling to Florence any time soon, you might be lucky enough to eat a walnut filled fig and bask in this unspeakable hospitality.
For theirs is heart language.

For information about the Villa di Riboia and how to book a stay at this fantastic family home in the Tuscan countryside, go here.

And this is me, returning after 20 years, happy.

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Filed under Food, My Posts, Vacation in Tuscany!