In her new cookbook “Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011), Italian food authority Pamela Sheldon Johns takes us on a tour of Tuscany — as it was just before, during and after World War II. In the 20 years she has lived in the area, Johns has forged relationships with locals who share their memories of cooking through hard times. They made the most of what they had, whether it was cultivated in small plots, grew wild in the hills, streams or sea or was given to them as part of wartime rations. Reading the stories of these resourceful Tuscans reminds us just how good — and precious — locally grown and simply prepared food really is.
To mountain dwellers in the province of Lucca, Johns tells us: “the chestnut was a gift in every aspect of their existence. Nothing was wasted; it could be considered the symbol of cucina povera. The nut was eaten fresh or dried and ground for flour; the shells were used for fuel to dry the chestnuts. The dark, pungent honey from the chestnut flowers was eaten with the fresh local ricotta.” (The wood, tannins and leaves were all put to good use outside the kitchen.) As long as there were chestnuts — and some foraged foods to round out their diet — these locals wouldn’t go hungry.
Little fishing during wartime
Despite the abundance of the Mediterranean, wartime on the Tuscan coast was just as difficult. Ilvana Corsi Tognocchi, a man Johns meets in Pietrasanta, told her, “We were forbidden to go to the water or out in boats for military security reasons. The best we could do was an occasional bucket of seawater to boil down for the salt.” On the island of Capraia, residents couldn’t leave the island or do much fishing; Germans had planted mines in the waters. “We lived completely off the land and the coastal fish that we could catch from the rocks, especially totani (squid), crab, urchins, octopus and little mollusks,” a local explained.
The photographs in the book — a mix of vintage black-and-whites, portraits, landscapes and food shots — collectively tell the rich story of how limited resources shaped the character and the cooking of Tuscan peasants. While Andrea Wyner’s food shots don’t quite qualify as “food porn” (it’s hard to make ribollita, the classic vegetable and bread stew, look sexy), they are beautiful and inspiring. Her photos of life in Tuscany — at the table, in the forest, or seaside — make you want to be there. The author’s photographs, also included in the book, are quite good too. What’s lacking are captions. I’d like to know who’s who; and where, exactly, some of the pictures were taken.
Limited ingredients, expanded uses
Johns introduces us to people who collected herbs and edible greens in open fields and empty lots; set traps for wild rabbits; ate polenta for dinner and for breakfast the next day; and considered the head of a cow left in the road by the Germans a treat. When the land gave them farro, or chickpeas or corn, the locals figured out dozens of ways to prepare and eat them. The recipes that follow the introduction are simple but become more interesting after reading about and understanding the context in which they were created.
Although she offers a chapter on appetizers Johns notes that they were not typically part of the peasant table. “What we enjoy as an appetizer today,” she writes, “might have sufficed for an entire meal in the past.” Her recipe for Crostini del Cortile, or Farmyard Crostini, calls for livers, hearts or gizzards from chickens, geese or ducks — all animals that could have ranged freely on a farm — and was delicious made with what I could easily buy: chicken livers. The flavor was mellow and seemed typically Tuscan, thanks to the added apple, anchovy, capers and vin santo.
I felt gluttonous having a course after the crostini (it could, as Johns says, have sufficed for an entire meal, maybe with a green salad and a glass of wine), but I wanted to try Johns’ recipe for Totani Ripieni (Stuffed Squid). The bread and garlic filling was flavorful; and the squid, simmered in a simple tomato sauce, tender. It was the quintessence of good, simple cooking and is a recipe I will make again.
Recipes that connect with the past
The Pollo Arrosto al Vin Santo (Roasted Chicken With Vin Santo Sauce), is an easy dish that’s finished with Tuscan dessert wine (marsala or a dry white wine can be substituted). Johns says the three-pound chicken serves six — and in wartime I’m sure it did — but today’s eater might be happier sharing it with just a few others.
The classic recipe for Tuscan cannellini beans, cooked with garlic and sage, is here as is a rustic casserole dish made with them and roasted cipolline onions, fennel, potatoes and cherry tomatoes. So few ingredients come together for a frugal but satisfying vegetable dish that could make a mogul with infinite choice as happy as the peasant who likely created it out of necessity.
After reading about the importance of chestnuts in the culture, I had to try making the Necci(Chestnut Crepes), which Sauro Petroni, a native of Colognora, continues to make in the traditional manner: baked in a fireplace between chestnut leaves and layered stone disks. (Photos of this in the book are exquisite.) I used a nonstick pan, as Johns suggests for American cooks, and ended up with crumbly cakes. I certainly couldn’t wrap them around ricotta, as directed, but I could top the dark, earthy and slightly bitter shards with dabs of the cheese. I added a drizzle of chestnut honey. And as I ate, I felt as if I was connecting with the past.
Photo: Cucina Provera cover. Credit: Christy Hobart