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Cucina povera is the food the poor of Italy used to cook, dictated by the limited number of ingredients available to them – either what they grew or what little they could afford to buy. Grain-based foods such as pasta, bread, polenta and gnocchi were staples of peasant cooking, with rice, beans and pulses providing much-needed protein. Fruit and vegetables, probably gathered in the wild, would be added to dishes to provide necessary nutrients.
Meat did not feature much in cucina povera as it was far too expensive, and any animals in the country would have been used as valuable sources of milk or eggs. It was mainly offal which the poor could afford, as these were the parts of the animal rejected by the rich. This is how the famous Neapolitan dish of soffritto was born – when a grand banquet was being held, the poor would gather outside the hall to collect the unwanted parts of whatever animal was being cooked for the feast. To make the offal taste better, the poor would add a lot of herbs and spices such as chilli, making this dish quite fiery in taste. I actually love soffritto and it was often cooked at home when I was growing up; not because we couldn’t afford other meat, but because it was a well-liked dish, especially by my father who would often make it himself with pork offal slow-cooked in tomato sauce and flavoured with lots of chilli. This is how it is still made today in Naples, where it is served like a thick soup or stew with lots of toasted bread to dip in.
Because poor people had limited ingredients available to them, they learnt to value what they had, cook dishes lovingly to make them taste better and really use all their imagination to make dishes go as far as they could. They also learned to preserve food by salting, drying and curing. A lot of Italian food is based on this principle – look at all the delicious cured meats and sausages available in an Italian deli.
Fish was also dried or salted so it could be kept for longer periods like baccala’ (salt cod) or stoccafisso (air-dried cod). These foods were once looked down on by the rich, but over time, the opposite has happened! Most families these days can only afford to buy preserved fish at Christmas, to enjoy at the traditional Christmas Eve supper. It is also served in restaurants all over Italy – in Venice, it is known as baccala’ mantecato, cooked in milk, then reduced to a mushy consistency with olive oil, garlic & parsley and served with grilled polenta. In Liguria, you can enjoy a similar version prepared with potatoes or fried in an agrodolce (sweet and sour) sauce. In the Naples area, it is cooked in tomato sauce with potatoes (baccala’ e patate) or, like I enjoy it, in a simple salad dressed with olive oil, garlic and parsley.
Pulses of all varieties are used in Italian cooking and this certainly dates back to the times when meat prices were prohibitive. Italians love thick, bean-based soups and each region has its own version of pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans). The differences may lie in the type of bean used, or the additional local ingredient that goes into it to make it unique to any one town or region. By the sea, mussels may be added like they do on the Neapolitan coast; in Tuscany and Umbria, local beans like the very delicate zolfino variety are used, and in Venice, it is sometimes served cold. Some of these more unusual varieties command high prices, as the production is labour-intensive – like the castelluccio lentils from Umbria. They’re a particular favourite of mine, especially at New Year when I enjoy them with cotechino – a large, sausage-like pork product.
Pasta started out as a cucina povera food, mainly in the south where it was made without eggs and simply with flour and water. Pasta shapes such as orecchiette and cavatelli from Puglia, strozzapreti from Tuscany, trofie from Liguria or Sardinian malloreddus form the basis of many delicious regional dishes. Traditionally, pasta was the staple of the south and the north ate rice and polenta, which were enriched with whatever little ingredients were available – from this grew delicious risotto and polenta dishes.
Bread was another grain-based food used in many cucina povera dishes; stale bread was never wasted and put to good use like the classic Tuscan panzanella salad and the Puglian dish of pane cotto e patate. Bread was used to fill vegetables like peppers, courgettes and aubergines to make the family meal go further, as well as made into breadcrumbs to coat foods for frying.
Nothing was ever wasted in the cucina povera and this tradition, as well as the way of eating, is still maintained in Italy today. The sheer simplicity and tastiness of these humble dishes never ceases to amaze me and they give such a great insight into the resourcefulness of the once-poor people of Italy. In recent years, this type of cooking has become very fashionable and can be seen in some of the best restaurants, often commanding high prices. For these dishes to be cooked at home as well as eaten in top restaurants is a sign that the poor of years ago actually ate very well!