Review by Linda Lappin
September 2023 marks a solemn occasion in Italy, the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Nazi Occupation which devastated Tuscany from September 1943 until the liberation in 1945. Not many are alive today who directly witnessed those events as adults; even fewer can recall from personal experience what life was like in Tuscany before the war. Still, the remembrance of tough times past lives on in historical archives and photos, and in the stories, mementos, and daily wisdom transmitted by the survivors to those who came after.
If medieval monks can be credited with saving classical culture from the dark ages, we are beholden to a different group of people for safeguarding Italian values during the cataclysm of World War Two and the subsequent period of reconstruction: the Italian contadino–a word often translated into English as “peasant.” What the contadini passed on to the younger generation was resilience, resourcefulness, parsimoniousness, and respect for the land, an attitude refined over centuries: how to make it through the worst of times, whatever the circumstances. Much of that concerned the most basic human need: feeding yourself and your family when there is almost nothing to be had: the art of la cucina povera.
In her new cookbook, Cucina Povera: The Italian Way of Transforming Humble Ingredients into Memorable Meals, Tuscan native, homemaker, and award-winning food blogger, Giulia Scarpaleggia introduces “Italian peasant food” to an American and British audience. The recipes she has collected from up and down the boot of Italy and its major islands reflect the core of her career: a search for traditional dishes which are delicious, budget-friendly, nutritious, and above all authentic, rooted in kilometer zero food products and flavors. Drawn from rural, urban, and coastal contexts, the recipes she presents in this book, illustrated with exquisite photographs by her husband, Tommaso Galli, are the Italian equivalent of “soul food” or “comfort food”–passed down through generations, keeping families together and alive.
The author shows us how la cucina povera is more than a style of cooking or an economical approach to household management: It is a philosophy of life. L’arte di arrangiarsi—making do. Relying on ingredients which are inexpensive, seasonal, homegrown, foraged, or easily available at most corner grocery stores, she teaches her readers to recreate hearty, satisfying Italian meals in their own kitchens, using legumes, vegetables, dairy products, poultry, seafood, and cheap cuts of meat, basic equipment and simple techniques. To that end, the opening chapter “The Italian Pantry,” offers a detailed discussion of the basic items every home cook should keep on hand in their pantry at all times.
Budget-conscious cooks will appreciate the chapter dedicated to the Italian art of turning leftovers into fresh, delightful new dishes: day-old bread becomes scrumptious dumplings or tomato-tangy panzanella; leftover spaghetti becomes a crispy, cheesy frittata; leftover rice–irresistible, golden-fried, arancini. For the more adventurous, there are recipes for a variety of handmade tortelli to fill with wild greens or beets, and a tempting array of luscious desserts. The concluding chapter returns to basics: how to make bread, sauces, and stock. Scattered through the book are tips on freezing vegetables for minestrone, cleaning artichokes, enriching the flavor of soups and stocks with pecorino and parmesan rinds.
Cookbooks reveal as much about the author’s personality as about food. Giulia Scarpaleggia acquaints us with her family, her grandmother, Marcella, who taught her how to cook, her home in the charming Tuscan village of Colle Val D’Elsa, where she now runs a successful cooking school. She also provides fascinating details of her own research into the origins of recipes, the history of food production in Italy, local markets, and the science of cooking. This is a book for readers seeking a hands-on approach to Italian food and with Tommaso Galli’s stunning (and mouthwatering) photographs, a coveted gift for foodies to dream over. But it’s also much more than that.
Born of scarcity and hardship, la cucina povera privileges a regime of sustainability and an almost sacred sense of no waste allowed. These are values to cherish nowadays as families struggle with escalating food prices due to climate change, war, supply chain issues, inflation, issues currently affecting both Italians and Americans, as well as people all over the globe. Citing chef Massimo Bottura, Giulia Scarpeleggia reminds us, “To feed the planet, first you have to fight the waste.”
The English term “peasant” derives from the French “paysan,” which in turn comes from the Latin “pagensis” a person belonging to a rural district. In Italian, “contadino” comes from “contado” an outlying territory under a count’s jurisdiction. In other words: a person connected to a specific place. The contadini possessed a knowledge of their territory assembled from observations accrued over centuries in an unbroken connection of a people to their environment. The rich heritage of the contadini is deposited in Italian culture in countless ways, in its craftsmanship, building and planting methods, farming and forestry techniques, home economics, and of course: cooking techniques and recipes. All are based on an attitude, an approach diametrically opposed to the consumerism of our times: If you take good care of the land, it will take good care of you.
Cucina Povera, The Italian Way of Transforming Humble Ingredients into Memorable Meals, a treasure house of delicious wisdom from Italy’s rural past, is a book for today and also for the future.