Cucina povera or the food of the poor

Cucina povera or the food of the poor

One of the most interesting trends in modern cooking is the ever growing popularity of what Italians call “cucina povera” or the poor kitchen. Michelin star restaurants, TV chefs and cook book authors around the world embrace the use of simple, local, sustainable and above all seasonal ingredients. Whole areas of the this country and those overseas, promote themselves as a culinary destination by stressing their access to great local ingredients. What makes this so interesting is that almost every dish that results from this trend is a visitor from the past. True, they may have a modern twist, some may be presented in a fancy way but so many of them are dishes that our great-grandmothers would recognize in an instant.

Stinging nettle soup with creme fraiche, veal tongue and croutons (courtesy of www.foragerchef.com)

This trend is relatively new and in many ways goes against centuries of culinary history. In the past, the more money you had, the more elaborate and flavourful your food was. In Middle Ages and Renascence nobility ate dishes that were so heavily seasoned that they would be almost unpalatable to a modern eater.  Your food, like your clothes and your house was supposed to shout about your wealth and importance. What better way to achieve it than to add very expensive and exotic herbs, spices and sugar to every dish? While the nobility and the clergy were per-occupied with showing off their status, peasants were busy trying to survive. All the best cuts of meat, cream, cheese went to the lord and/or the bishop. What little was left had to be used without any waste and the more the meal “stuck to the ribs”, the better. Things somewhat improved for the poor people in the 19th century but then the two World Wars and the Great Depression plunged millions into poverty again. There was no time to worry about calories or sustainability – you ate what you had.

For better or worse, the industrialization of agriculture after WWII made food much more available, at least in the West. People whose parents saw meat maybe 3-4 times a year could afford to eat it several times a week and their children could do it every day. In some places it happened over decades, while in others, it happened so quickly that grandparents’, children’s and grandchildren’s diets were completely different. In the United States and the United Kingdom (to a lesser degree) this was also accompanied by whole generations no longer being able to cook almost anything. TV dinners, take away meals, cheap chain restaurants and fast food made cooking an unnecessary skill. Or so we thought.

Swanson Beef Dinner Blueberry Muffin 1967 Ad. Food. Stock Number: 00326.

When almost everyone can afford to ear fillet Mignon and lobster (albeit of varying quality and authenticity), how do you make diners feel special? How do you stand out? Well, cooking simple dishes from the past and using highest quality and sometimes forgotten ingredients is one way to do it. If you could ask home cooks from early to mid XX century if they cooked in cucina povera style, you would probably be laughed at and, possibly, would find out how painful a pin roller or a cast iron skillet could be in the hands of a sweet looking grandma. They did not do it to be hip. They did it because it was what they could and had to do.

Tuscan ribollita soup with poached eggs. Photo: Iain Bagwell, Erin Merhar, Heather Chadduck Hillegas

However, these days people are starved (pun intended) for something simple and delicious where high quality ingredients are allowed to shine. As a result, we are seeing more and more dishes like the nettle soup, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro, pâté, salumi on menus and home dinner tables.

While we are on the subject of cucina povera, I highly recommend this book for both the recipes and the background story on the roots of poor people’s cuisine in Italy.

Do you have any stories about your grandparents’ or parents’ cooking? Some recipes to share?

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