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In praise of cucina povera

The age-old Italian expression isn’t a relic of Mediterranean past, it’s as relevant today as ever, writes Serena Mariani.

Cucina povera, an Italian expression often translated as “peasant’s food”, was born out of the need to avoid starvation and to ensure variety and taste in the everyday. It was born out of times where the peasant would be performing very energy-consuming tasks such as sowing fields, picking fruits or harvesting miles of corn with the help of a sickle (no need for fancy ‘caveman style‘ workouts then).

If you’re thinking this was a few centuries ago, thing again. This was happening well into the ’50s in rural areas of Italy such as my native Abruzzo, and people like my parents have vivid recollections of it (I have documented some of them here). With most rural families having four to 10 children, portion control was more an issue of how to share too little food between too many people. Staple foods made from cereals – dry and fresh pasta, polenta – made up the energy backbone of the Mediterranean diet for centuries as they were luckily ubiquitous and cheap enough for everyone. Variety of taste and much-needed fibres, proteins and vitamins, were ensured by the addition of vegetables, pulses, eggs and cheese and olive oil (and occasionally, in some areas and for special occasions, lard and butter).

But thinking of cucina povera as simply a collection of stodgy, carb-laden dishes created by and for hungry people wouldn’t do the creativity and resourcefulness of generations of Italian massaie (homemakers) and the sheer deliciousness of their cooking, any justice.

Cucina povera was pioneering, and is more relevant today than ever. Here’s five ways in which cucina povera is so 2014:

Seasonality and “eating local”

Eating local was at the same time a necessity and a choice. Most people would grow their own food and barter with neighbours or in markets any excess surplus they couldn’t consume immediately or preserve without the help of refrigeration or preservatives. My Grandfather tells me that people living in the hills used to trade sheep cheese (pecorino) for fish brought in by people from the coast (less than 10 miles away). One of Italy’s most famous dishes, brodetto (also known as caciucco) is said to have been born by the encounter of fishermen and farmers (for saffron and tomatoes) on the trails for transumanza (the twice-yearly migration of sheep and cows from the highlands to the lowlands, and vice versa, happening for centuries in Southern Italy).

Foraging

Before it was a foodie pastime, the sourcing of wild herbs, fruits and plants in the wild was just what you did when you wanted lunch. From pine nuts to chestnuts, from wild herbs to bitter herbs and roots – they all feature in famous dishes like the traditional Easter favourite torta alle erbette (a savoury pie with ricotta cheese and wild herbs).
The search for umami – just because peasants were eating simple food – doesn’t meant it was plain and boring. Whilst spices have never been widely used in traditional Italian cooking (with exception of the rich’s table in the renaissance and baroque era, and in bad Italian restaurants with a giant pepper grinder for everything), a rich savoury kick was guaranteed for all. The primary (and cheapest) way of achieving what we now call “umami” were fermented foods – from pickled vegetables and salted dried fish to strong cheese – and seldom washed pots and pans (sorry). Pasta aglio e olio which is now served in restaurants was really poor man’s food, but it would be lifted by the presence of some anchovies (or oil from preserved fish) tossed into the mix with chillies and breadcrumbs from old loaves.

Nose to tail eating

More than a fashion, it was a necessity. Del porco non si butta via niente (no part of the pig is thrown away) is a famous peasant’s saying which also extends to most other animals. Tripes, ears, knuckles, necks, tails – you name it – would end up in soups, stews and more. Piedmont’s finanziera is an extreme example of a stew made exclusively from many types of organ meat. But even simple pasta e fagioli (beans and pasta soup) would have been far from vegetarian with a big helping of cotiche (pig skin strips) – not that that was a problem at the time.

Sharing

No, we are not talking dainty small plates ordered so you eat less whilst spending the same amount of money. Peasant’s food was all about communal eating, with virtually no individual-sized dishes. A big tableful of polenta would be spread directly on the wooden table and family members would eat with their hands or spoons, often making a beeline for the sparse “condiment” (seasoning) consisting of a sausage or clumps of cheese mixed into the gruel – you see a pattern here…

Alternative protein sources and cost control

It has been proven (although the recent paleo fad seems to go against it), that a combination of vegetable proteins and complex carbs – the duo around which so much of “cucina povera” is built – gives proteins the same quality as meat. One-pot meals such as risi e bisi (peas and rice) meant that people labouring in the fields every day would keep their muscle tone up and avoid the feared condition called pellagra (due to the exclusive consumption of corn). Meat was an exception and a treat, and meat dripping, suet and lard would be treasured and used carefully to the last drop, as elixirs to flavour other dishes.

So we have come full circle on money, hunger and need – it doesn’t sound so sexy, I admit it, but it also makes cucina povera so relevant in today’s world dominated by cheap processed food. The problem may have shifted from starvation to the quality of nutrition, but the affordability question is very much alive: how much good, nutritious, “real” food can an average person afford? Could the spirit of cucina povera, “making more out of less” by creatively combining cheap ingredients into something nutritious and fresh – be the way forward?

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