Recently, I’ve become fascinated with ‘poor people’s cooking’ or, as the Italians refer to it, ‘cucina povera’. That when food is scarce, families still find ways to cook delicious, inspirational meals that, long after economic recovery, are not shelved and waved away as food from ‘bad times’ but their families keep and continue to cook in their honour, years later.
This book, Cucina Povera, traces some of these dishes, cooked in harder times in Tuscany in Italy. The author, Pamela Sheldon Jones, interviews some of the men and women that fed their families through historic events such as the Second World War and the Great Depression. Some of them share with her recipes that their families came to love and regard as family comfort food.
One of the women interviewed recalled a rhyme that echoes the cooking of more difficult times economically: “lo stufato del Signor Pelliccia – tutti patate miente cicca” (‘the stewed meats of Signor Pelliccia – all potatoes, no meat’). Another person recalled how their mother “would dip the anchovies in breadcrumbs twice to make them more filling for us”. These interviews give us authentic, first-hand knowledge of what it was like living through periods when food or money - or both – were scarce.
The book contains over 60 recipes for appetisers, soups and meat and fish dishes. Some of the dishes featured include Farmyard Crostini – a meal that makes the most of chicken or goose giblets. The whole idea of cucina povera is that you don’t waste anything. There is also ribollita, a Tuscan vegetable and bread soup, and panzanella– a bread salad. But before you start to think that this consists only of recipes bulked up with bread, think again. The book also includes a recipe for delectable stuffed zucchini flowers, a dish once made by the poor people of Italy, and now served in upmarket restaurants in cities around the world.
As for meat and fish dishes, the book offers recipes for chestnut polenta and fresh sausage, wild boar and artichokes, and stuffed squid. A chapter on desserts finishes the book, including gems such as grape focaccia, walnut and honey bars and a traditional ricotta cake.
The book is splashed throughout with photography that is evocative, elegant but still raw. From a photo of two ladies laughing, enjoying a joke, to a pair of weathered hands crushing garlic cloves on a wooden board, the images conjure up a sympathy and deep respect for these people who had to be inventive with meals to feed their families.
The recipes are written in American measures, but if you don’t have a set of measuring cups handy there is also, helpfully, a metric conversion chart at the back of the book. Here, there is also a run down of basic techniques (how to steam spinach, roast hazelnuts, etc) and some simple recipes for stocks, sauces and dough.
Reading this book gave me a deep respect for these people who had struggled to feed their families in economic crisis. They were inventive, creative and resourceful and very often had to go out and forage for chestnuts or plants to use in their cooking. Whether they were coating anchovies in breadcrumbs to bulk them out, or making soups from stale bread – we owe so much nowadays to these people who, unaware of their significance at the time, have shaped modern cooking. Just remember that the next time you see courgette flowers or ribollita on the menu of a trendy Italian restaurant.
Cucina Povera by Pamela Sheldon Johns is published by Andrews McMeel Publishing. Publication date: 13th September 2011.