The Mediterranean Diet

There are many reports on the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. It’s one of the most recommended diets for its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, certain types of cancer, as well as to help prevent cognitive decline and dementia especially vascular dementia. See link from Harvard Health newsletter, A Practical Guide to the Mediterranean Diet.

With it’s emphasize on plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes which are minimally processed, seasonally fresh and locally grown, olive oil as the principal source of fat, fish and poultry instead of red meat, cheese, yogurt and wine in low to moderate amounts, and fresh fruit for dessert, with limited sweets, it sounds like a healthy way to eat.

And then there’s the whole Mediterranean thing…because of course the traditional Mediterranean diet is based on foods available in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.…where the sun shines and life is la dolce vita. (less stress, less inflammation)  But I live in Canada, where it’s cold half the year and hearty meals abound. Things like chili and chicken pot pie have been staples on my diet this winter but does my latest favorite dish, chicken and mushroom crepes, count as the French Rivera is on the Mediterranean?

Italian Villa – 2015 – one of my mother’s paintings

Still the Mediterranean diet is something I aspire to, if only in the frozen food aisle.

Not crazy about edamame= green soybeans
This was surprisingly good for a ready-to-serve lentil soup, but does the sodium content cancel out any benefit?

So it was some anticipation that I read Debbie Travis’s latest book Joy – Life Lessons from a Tuscan Villa.  (You knew there was going to be a book in here somewhere.)

I was only vaguely aware of Debbie Travis (a decorating guru and pioneer of painting techniques) and I don’t usually read lifestyle books, (she’s written eleven), but it had a pretty cover and gorgeous pictures of the 13th century villa she restored over five years and now rents out for relaxing retreats.

Here’s a link to the Villa Reniella, should you have some extra cash to spare. It was hard to figure out the pricing, as while googling I saw various listings in different currencies, but they were all expensive.

There was a time in my life when the idea of a week at such a place would have seemed wonderfully idyllic.  Now I’d probably be bored. My retirement life is already pretty low stress.  Yoga looking out over a row of Cypress trees is still yoga and I hate yoga. 

Stairway to Tuscany – 2018

And I have no desire to stay in a room which was previously a pigsty – wouldn’t it still reek of pigs?   According to the book, the family stays in the original three story villa, but there are 12 individual well-appointed Porcilaia suites for rent, plus a renovated horse barn.  

Only a rich celebrity would buy a run-down villa with livestock living on the ground floor and no running water – the village turned it off 30 times before they dug a well. The original building was surrounded by pigsties that were transformed into suites, each with its own private entrance and garden.  Not to mention the 1200 olive trees which needed pruning and harvesting, an old non-productive vineyard and nightly battles with a herd of wild boor.  She only mentions these in passing, and also introduces us to the previous owner (an elderly Tuscan man who surely must be laughing all the way to the bank), but I would have been more interested in reading about her experiences renovating the place than perusing a bunch of stylized photos of food I’m probably never going to make nor have any desire to eat.  I don’t even like the taste of olive oil. (Edited to add – apparently there is a six episode series on youtube – La Dolce Debbie – for those who would prefer a documentary about the renovations. I have not watched it yet but here’s the link.) (April 21 – edited to add – I watched it and found it very enjoyable but it must have cost them a fortune – I highly recommend it if you’d prefer a visual tour!)

There’s a section on the villa’s extensive kitchen garden, which produces a multitude of herbs and vegetables with accompanying recipes.  Kale, artichokes, beets, (no), leeks, peas, asparagus, mushrooms, tomatoes, radicchio (yes), zucchini (boring), fava beans, eggplant, celeriac (never tried them).    

My own kitchen garden will be coming soon…it’s so much easier to eat healthy in the summer.

I found the book entertaining but also very light and fluffy – it’s certainly no Under the Tuscan Sun. I wonder though if the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet can be partially attributed to a different lifestyle, and the book does give us a peek into the Tuscan way of life with their emphasize on family and socializing, their coffee culture, aperitivos (pre-dinner drinks and nibbles) and the Passeggiata – a long promenade before dinner.  Yes, I could see myself strolling around the village square with a glass of Prosecco in hand…a good way to get those steps in, if you don’t drink too much and stumble over the cobblestones. Plus, any country whose shuttered shops and businesses allow you to take a long afternoon nap has my vote. Perhaps they are just healthier because they get more sleep?    

There were lots of recipes and pretty pictures of food, most of which I would probably not make because I’m not big on quinoa, chickpeas or legumes for my protein.  The Limoncella recipe sounded interesting, as I always wanted to have a lemon tree, although not necessarily a whole grove.  I like pasta and tomatoes occasionally, but she assures us the pasta (with fibre-rich grains, obesity is rare) and tomatoes taste different there, and their bruschetta is made with their own sun-ripened tomatoes.   If anyone wants to lend me five thousand pounds, so I could find out, I believe this may require more research…..maybe in June during the Classic Car Rally? Now driving a vintage car around the scenic hills of Tuscany sounds like my kind of retreat.

PS.   In the meantime Stanley Tucci’s – Season Two of Searching for Italy starts Sunday May 1 on CNN.   I believe he is eating his way through Venice and Umbria.

Tuscan Farmhouse – 2015 – one of my mother’s paintings
The March Hare boycotting the Mediterranean diet….and I even added carrots? Maybe he is waiting for the chocolate? Happy Easter Bunny!

The Literary Salon – Travel Books

If you’re not fortunate enough to get away for a vacation this year, what better activity than to curl up with a travel book and listen to the March winds howl, (like a lion the same way they came in).    Last year I wandered into the travel section at and never left.   There are so many wonderful travel books available, it’s difficult to narrow it down to just a few, but here are some of my personal favorites.    (Warning: travel memoirs can be equal parts enjoyable and annoying.   There can be a fine line between reading about someone’s wonderful experiences in a sunnier place, especially when you are still in the dull dreary dregs of winter, and resenting the hell out them.    But remember there can be comfort in staying home too…see The Golden Age of Travel post).      

The Pioneer

Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim, was published in 1923, and could be called the first travel memoir of it’s kind.   Set in Italy, I profiled it in a blog last year – see link   How could a book with a captivating opening sentence like this, not be good.    

“To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.  Small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain.  Z, Box 1000, The Times.”

The King and Queen  

A Year in Provence (1989) by Peter Mayle was the first travel memoir I read, and I found it LOL funny.   He went on to write a whole series of memoirs  (read) and a few novels (not read), about Provence.   He made Provence so famous that at one time he moved to Long Island to get away from all the publicity.   He died last year, shortly after his last Provence book was published, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence – Reflections on Then and Now, (read) which is a summary of his life there.   

If Peter Mayle is the King, then Frances Mayes, of Under the Tuscan Sun fame, is the Queen, and she made Tuscany a very popular place to visit.   It’s been 25 years since her bestselling book, and she has written wrote four or five more travel books, (read) and has a new one coming out this year See You in the Piazza – New Places to Discover in Italy.  (on order)  She also wrote a novel, Women in Sunlight, last year, which I found so unreadable that I can not recommend it.   I’m still not sure how a novel about four women who travel to Italy can miss, but it did.   Travel memoirs are definitely her forte.   

My Personal Favorite

Susan Branch is my personal favorite of all the travel writers.    For those who think of her as just The Heart of the Home cookbook author, did you know that after she lost her publishing contract with Little and Brown in 2009, she started self-publishing and now has a trilogy of marvelous illustrated journals, with a fourth on the way next year about England, Ireland and Wales.   Her first, Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams, is about her move from CA to Martha’s Vineyard in the 80’s after a divorce, which I enjoyed as that is a part of the world I would love to visit.  (Her second is about growing up in the 60’s and 70’s and is not really a travel book, but more a memoir of her youth).  

A Fine Romance:  Falling in Love with the English CountrysideA Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside by Susan Branch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Her third, A Fine Romance, is about her trip to England and is full of photos and watercolor illustrations, of such sites as Beatrix Potter’s farm in the Lake District and the Jane Austen House in Chawton. 

Susan Branch book

Susan Branch book

I find her monthly newsletters inspiring, and you can check out her books and order them from her website.    I wish she would venture into France and Italy.   

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod

A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

All About Paris

One of my favorite books about Paris, is Janice McLeod’s, A Paris Year, which I profiled last year in a blog titled, April in Paris – Part Two  A watercolor artist, her journal is illustrated with her own artwork, and is a quirky and whimsical look at her day to day life in Paris.  

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod

A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

Italy Revisited

Marlena de Blasi has written three memoirs about Italy – A Thousand Days in Venice, A Thousand Days in Tuscany and The Lady in the Palazzo – At Home in Umbria, which was my favorite of the three.    Her books are well-written and  often poetic, but sometimes irritating with respect to her ex-pat mentality and whining about their failure to fit into a foreign culture.   So if you want to read about someone who makes an impulsive decision to buy a run down palazzo and then complains about how long it takes to renovate it, then this book is for you.    So much of appreciating a travel memoir is based on finding the essayist appealing, still it’s an interesting if illogical journey.  

My Current Read

Elizabeth Bard wrote Lunch in Paris – A Love Story with Recipes, about her  move to Paris and subsequent marriage to a Parisian, which was good, even if I wasn’t much interested in the cooking part, (there are recipes at the end of each chapter).    But I am really liking her second book, Picnic in Provence – a Memoir with Recipes, about their move to a small village in Provence, with their young son.   The writing is honest and real and so well done, that it’s easy to overlook the fact that she has a wee bit of a privileged princess attitude.  

Le Road Trip book

My Latest Discovery

My latest discovery is Vivian Swift, another watercolor artist, found while browsing the bookoutlet website.  (I feel like I’m regressing to my childhood with all these picture books!)    Le Road Trip – A Traveler’s Journal of Love and France is a self-illustrated memoir of her fun and whimsical jaunt through France on her honeymoon.

Le Road Trip Book

 Her latest book (2015) entitled, When Wanderers Cease to Roam – A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put  details the pleasures of finding a place to call home (Long Island Sound) after 23 years of wandering – because sometimes there’s nothing nicer than staying home and reading about travel!    

As you can see, my tastes run to England, France and Italy.   But there’s a whole wide world out there.  What is your favorite travel book?