Cucina Povera by Pamela Sheldon Johns – A Book Review
Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times come again no more.
“Hard Times” Stephen Foster (American songwriter 1826-1864)
I was bowled over when I received a copy of this cookbook to review. Its subject is Tuscan peasant cooking, and true to its folk, the Mangiafagioli (beaneaters), pictured on the cover is a bowl of Roasted Tomatoes, Beans and Onions – peasant food if ever there was. This is a simple dish, economical and easy to prepare, but more than that it is representative of the soul satisfying fare within. This dish like so many others in the book can be put together without fuss, yielding flavor greater than the sum of its parts.
Throughout history the working class of Italy has been no stranger to hard times. Years trapped beneath the boot of the upper class gave rise to the cuisine of the poor, a cuisine Pamela Sheldon Johns brings to life in her newest book, Cucina Povera. It is said you can get to know a people through their food. In this, her latest work, the well known food writer proves the opposite is also true – you can get to know a cuisine through its people. Ms. Johns has brought the culture, its inhabitants and food alive through recollections and profiles of the people she has met over twenty years in her adopted land.
Through an extended armchair tour of the region and touching portraits the reader is introduced to people who lived through the extraordinary privations of WW II and post-war Italy. These are people who through necessity learned to make do with what they could find around them. Every last bit of it. If necessity is the mother of invention, she is also the inventor of Cucina Povera, the cooking of the poor. If you are unfamiliar with life in Italy after The War, look no farther than the cinema of Neorealismo, Italian Neo-Realism. This movement has as its backdrop post-WW II Italy, a country in ruins; the genre deals with economic hardship and deprivation. Watch La ciociara (Two Women) and Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) for a taste of life in Italy sixty-five years ago.
Not to get any more philosophical than I already have (my regular readers are used to this), Cucina Povera is a gift to us all. Young men and women who lived through WW II will soon be gone from this earth, and their stories must be recorded. For its contribution to the fields of Italian cookery and food anthropology, this book deserves great praise.
The recipes are presented by course from Appetizers, to Bread & Sweets. The Basics section contains recipes for stocks, tomato sauce, pasta dough and numerous prep tasks for the Italian kitchen. Never again will you wonder exactly how to trim an artichoke. Resources will enable the home cook to purchase hard to find Italian ingredients.
The recipes range from the simple – Affetatti (an arrangement of sliced cured meats) and Pinzimonio (Crudites with Olive Oil) to those requiring heat and more preparation. The Fiori di Zucchine (Stuffed Zucchini Flowers) are notable not only for their flavor, but for the fact they are baked, not fried, a most welcome discovery from my standpoint.
Moving through the courses, you will find a soup lover’s paradise. Maremma’s famous Acquacotta (Water Soup) is here to delight. What a marvel that something so good has such a name. Also included are Farro Soup, and the region’s famous Ribollita (Tuscan Vegetable Bread Soup). Make these once, and you’ll wonder why you waited.
“The miller is the last to die of hunger.” So begins Pastas & Grains. From a toothsome Insalata di Farro (Farro Salad) to Panzanella (Bread Salad), to regional pastas and the newly popular gnudi, it is all here. Master the eleven recipes in this chapter, and you will be set for life. Honest.
In Meats & Seafood are recipes that will sustain you through the year. Here are the Tuscan classics Cinghiale e Carciofi in Umido (Wild Boar and Artichokes) and Poposo di Guanciale (Stewed Peppery Beef Cheeks). Guanciale has become so popular here in the U.S. over the last several years, this recipe is sure to catch on. And the Pollo Arrosto al Vin Santo (Roasted Chicken with Vin Santo Sauce) is as fine a roast chicken as you will ever eat.
I was pleased to see that among the Side Dishes is Fagioli al Fiasco (Baked Beans) the famous dish that in years gone by was baked in a glass container buried under hot coals. Ms. Johns uses a casserole dish, but the result is no less Tuscan and no less satisfying. From beans and peas, to squash and wild greens, the recipes await.
No cookbook would be complete without Bread & Sweets. Start with the Schiacchiata all’Uva, (Grape Focaccia). And I mean start now. This is the time of year to make this slightly sweet bread studded with the fruit of the Fall grape harvest. The recipe is simple and yields a chewy bread full of yeasty flavor and the sweetness of baked grapes. Within these pages you will find a recipe for the famous Pane Sciocco Toscano (Unsalted Tuscan Bread). We learn that in years gone by salt was so heavily taxed that the Tuscans developed a bread with no salt. And what a glorious loaf this is. Fermented over two days and baked on the third, my loaf emerged from the oven a golden brown dome, fully 12 inches across. As Bart and I ate it, I remarked that I could understand how a people could survive on this and little else. Fresh from the oven this bread is wonderful, but for the people of Tuscany it is more than a one day affair. Day old and beyond, this bread finds it way into Panzanella, Ribollita and more. Waste not, want not.
I can not finish without talking about the Sfratti, a traditional Jewish pastry from the town of Pitigliano. These treats were new to me, and I just had to make them. 10-inch cigar shaped pastries filled with a mixture of honey, orange zest, cinnamon and cloves, they commemorate the batons used by Italian officials to bang on the doors of the Jews to evict them. A traditional Rosh Hashanah treat, I made the Sfratti and gave them to our neighbors to enjoy during their celebration. They too were unfamiliar with this pastry, but needless to say the Sfratti were a most welcome addition to their table. This is the kind of book that Cucina Povera is. Much more than a cookbook, it is a window into another time and place.
A word about the food styling – it is the author’s own work, and each tableau is lovingly prepared and simply presented. Nothing is overdone. Nothing is contrived. The photography by Andrea Wyner displays an earthy esthetic altogether in keeping with the spirit of the book. Some black and white, some color, and all honest, Ms. Wyner’s work gives a real feel for the region and its people, all the while never stealing attention from the essence of Ms. Johns’ work. The book is peppered throughout with historical photographs from various sources.
When I first pulled Cucina Povera from its envelope, I thought it was charming, its scalloped yellowed pages reminiscent of the well worn pages of a family’s treasured recipe collection. I quickly realized that charming came nowhere near to giving this volume its due. Cucina Povera is authentic, and its design mirrors what is within, a people whose genius enabled them to create a cuisine from what they found around them. This is a book you can sink you teeth into and cook from every day.
Visit the author’s website here.
Publisher’s info here.
Cucina Povera – Tuscan Peasant Cooking
by Pamela Sheldon Johns
Hardcover, Andrews McMeel Publishing (September 13, 2011)
I have no affiliation with any product, manufacturer, or site mentioned in this article.