Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking
by Pamela Sheldon Johns
Andrew McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2011
Review by Linda Lappin
During my thirty year romance with Italy, I have caught a few glimpses of the rustic life as it must have been lived once, not so long ago, before the sharecropping system was disbanded in the Italian countryside and the massive migrations to the cities began in the nineteen sixties. Decades later in most rural areas, old traditions lingered, and still linger today: old ways of doing things, old remedies and recipes, handmade tools passed down from generation to generation, along with an even older wisdom of survival that comes from living off the land. Stepping into an old house in Tuscany, Umbria, or Tuscia today is still like stepping into a story book. You are likely to find a sink hewn from stone, a pan of castagnaccio –pudding cake made from chestnut flour -- steaming on the hearth, tarnished copper pots hanging on the wall by a wood stove, or fragrant bunches of dried fennel or lavender dangling from the ceiling beams. In any Tuscan village, you’ll still find someone who can tell you what herbs will soothe a burn or a fever, what phase of moon you need to plant, prune, bottle wine or cut your hair. You’ll be offered the best red wine, olive oil, cheese, bread, bean soups, pasta, and prosciutto you’ll ever taste, and maybe some porcini mushrooms and truffles as well, prepared according to some grandma’s recipe which she in turn got from her granny’s granny, dating way before the Napoleonic wars, and maybe as far back as the Etruscans. And of course every recipe has its own story, history, and secrets.
When we travel, most of us want to take home souvenirs, those talismans that encapsulate the genius loci of the places we have been. Before I moved abroad, on my return trips from Italy to the US, my suitcase would be crammed with every edible allowed into the country by US Customs along with terracotta dishes, old copper pudding molds, pepper grinders, long narrow rolling pins for pasta, ancient-looking cheese graters and colanders picked up at the markets of Florence or Siena. With these castoffs, which had once inhabited old country houses, I dreamed of creating my own Italian kitchen at home.
Cucina Povera, Tuscan Peasant Cooking, by Pamela Sheldon Johns, helps you do just that. This handsomely- produced volume is more than just a cookbook dedicated to Tuscan country- style cuisine. It is a gastronomical travel essay on Tuscany, beautifully illustrated with photographs by Andrea Wyner; a culinary-anthropological study of the vanishing traditions of peasant life, and a historical report of how Tuscans survived famine during the Second World War. But above all, it is a door opening into the archetypal Tuscan kitchen, where you can pull up a chair, sit down to a plank table and enjoy a hearty, frugal, and delicious meal. Through the stories, photographs, and recipes collected in this book, the author transports you to a Tuscan farmhouse, while giving you the means to conjure up authentic Tuscan flavors in your own modern kitchen. Most of the ingredients you will need can be found at your local supermarket, but you may be surprised to find a few others growing wild in your backyard.
Tuscany, which many people consider to be an earthly paradise, has in recent history seen some very dire periods. Perhaps one of the worst was the Nazi occupation, which reached its peak of horrors in the summer of 1944, when hundreds of civilians were executed. Food was scarce, yet families survived thanks to their natural parsimoniousness and their knowledge of the territory. They knew how to make a meal out of nothing, how to forage for dinner, how not to waste a single crumb of bread, how to extract the savor of every wild herb and how to turn the toughest scrap of meat into a delectable meal. If you are game, you can that learn that, too, from this book. In these pages, we follow the author through various areas of Tuscany, gathering recipes and cooking techniques, and learning bits of history and folklore as we go. We discover Tuscany’s seasons, holidays and traditions, how the local people really lived and ate in times of plenty and of scarcity. “Any conversation about the traditional dishes here eventually turns into stories and remembrances of how precious each bread crumb was in the past,” she writes. We learn what it was like during the war in the mountains, or out on the islands of the Tuscan archipelago, where the local people could not fish or even approach the sea because the beaches were mined.
Readers will find classic recipes for Acqua Cotta, Tuscany’s equivalent of stone soup, a dish made with wild greens and eggs which may have Etruscan origins; Panzanella, popular summer salad made with stale bread, as well as recipes for braised beef with marrow, wild boar with artichokes, omelets with wild greens, saltless Tuscan bread. Among my favorite recipes in the book is “Poor Man’s Parmesan,” a crunchy topping made of breadcrumbs fried in olive oil and tossed with herbs and garlic, to be sprinkled on pasta as a substitute for grated parmesan cheese when there was none to be had. The author also acquaints us with Necci, chestnut cakes baked on the hearth in chestnut leaf wrappings, layered between smooth, round river stones stacked up in a column. Today these are cooked in non-stick frying pans; few people know how to bake them the old way. Pamela Sheldon Johns was lucky enough to get the recipe and photograph them being prepared and baked on the hearth, preserving what will surely in a few years’ time be just a memory of something granny used to do.
The material in this book has been gathered from mostly older people who lived through the war, whose testimonies to those times also offer valuable advice on how to get by when life is tough. In addition to the luscious color photos of food and fresh produce, the book includes portraits of the many housewives, butchers, fishermen, monks, farmers, salumai, who shared prized family recipes and anecdotes of their lives to create this unique document. Readers will also delight in the sepia shots of rustic kitchen interiors, past and present, featuring well-worn but still serviceable cooking utensils made of tin, aluminum, and terra cotta, which the owners would never dream of replacing. These are kitchens where consumerism is unknown, where every surface reflects, as Pablo Neruda once wrote, “ the wear that the hands give to things” and the “contacts of men with the earth.”
In an era of food porn and chef celebrities, Pamela Sheldon Johns offers a completely different approach to food—basic, humble but satisfying, and ultimately eco-sustainable. “I felt as if I were reborn into the mentality of no waste,” the author tells us. Living in Tuscany, she claims, has also helped her “understand how simple dishes have earned a permanent place in today’s cuisine by their reliance on fresh and seasonal local ingredients, foods foraged from the land, and inexpensive cuts of meat. These are the tenets for good food in hard times.”
These tough Tuscans have a thing or two to teach us. There is no need to spend a fortune to make a special meal. We need only open our eyes to the bounty around us, and with patience and savvy, transform what nature gives.