Italian Poor Cuisine : “la Cucina Povera”
Italian cuisine is world-renowned for the richness of its dishes and traditions. Among the many facets of Italian gastronomy, there is a unique culinary style born from the necessity of feeding oneself and forged over the centuries thanks to the ingenuity of the Italians: la “cucina povera” or kitchen of the poor.
A peasant-based cuisine
La cucina povera, literally “the kitchen of the poor”, is an expression that appeared in the 1970s to qualify Italian cuisine: a simple, inexpensive and peasant-based cuisine. This peasant cuisine has its roots in the Mezzogiorno (Southern Italy) and its rural and agricultural regions, notably, Puglia or Sicily, but also Tuscany and densely populated cities like Naples. Poor families had to be creative to feed their households with limited resources. This cuisine was born from the necessity of making the most of the available ingredients, such as vegetables from the garden, cereals, legumes, dairy products, offal and leftovers from the previous day. A cuisine that, during periods of economic hardship, especially after World War II, developed throughout Italy.
La cucina povera is a cuisine made from pantry staples and leftovers from the previous day that grandmothers and mothers transform with love and passion. The Italian poor cuisine recycles ingeniously and cleverly stale bread, meat scraps or less noble cuts, by combining them with vegetables and herbs from the garden. A “zero-waste” cuisine, made with little, uncodified and invented on the spot. This singular culinary style is the result of the resourcefulness and frugality typical of the traditional cuisines of rural Italy.
The essence of the “kitchen of the poor” lies in the simplicity and respect of flavors. Rather than looking for luxurious or expensive ingredients, this cuisine focuses on the quality of the products and the cooking techniques to enhance their taste. The dishes are often prepared in a rustic way, highlighting the authentic flavors of their ingredients. La “cucina povera” celebrates natural flavors, simple textures and harmonious combinations.
The ingredients of Italian poor cuisine
The Italian “poor” cuisine is made from everyday ingredients and forgotten vegetables. Passed down over the years, the “cucina povera” is still served daily at home and in traditional restaurants. Highly prized for its simplicity, it is now revived with a new twist courtesy of celebrity chefs and, increasingly, is elevated and feted in high-end restaurants.
Seasonality plays a key role in the culinary repertoire of the italian poor cuisine. The ingredients are chosen according to their availability, to guarantee optimal freshness. The dishes vary according to the periods of the year but also the regions, ensuring the “poor cuisine” a regional diversity and a close connection with the land.
Vegetables and plant proteins
Common and inexpensive vegetables and legumes are still today the root of local cuisine in Italy. In the family garden, you can find cicoria (chicory), cabbage, squash or potato, grown for their yield and size. The turnip greens or cime di rapa are present in every gardens and local food market. This wild herb used to feed the pigs and, in times of famine, the poor peasants. In the south of Italy, especially in Puglia, it is traditionally cooked with ear-shaped pasta, the Orecchiette alle cime di rapa. In Naples, they are called friarielli and are sautéed in a little olive oil. Today, the turnip green are becoming trendy and flourish on the stalls of organic markets, appreciated for their nutritional benefits.
The italian poor cuisine gives a prominent place to cereals and vegetables, easy to grow and harvest. This diet was dictated by the constraint: during ean periods, vegetables are excellent substitutes for animal proteins. Thus, we find polenta in the north, fava bean puree with chicory (fave e cicoria) or pasta e ceci (beans) in the south, especially in Puglia.
This peseant food abounds with recipes to recycle this everyday food. Bread has a fundamental place in everyday cuisine. The pane carasau or the pan biscotto are two varieties of dry breads prized by shepherds and peasants for their long shelf life. Bread also enters the composition of many recipes of the “cucina povera” elaborated to recycle the leftovers of the previous meals.
The Poor Cuisine of Tuscany is rich in recipes using stale bread. The ribollita, which literally means “reboiled” in Italian, is a very good example. This peasant recipe is a rustic and very nourishing soup similar to a porridge of stale bread and vegetables. The pappa al pomodoro is another Tuscan soup in which stale bread is recycled with tomatoes. In the recipe of the panzanella, stale bread is recycled in a salad seasoned with onion, basil, tomatoes, cucumber, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Finally, the inevitable bruschetta prepared from stale bread is grilled in the oven before being seasoned with garlic, olive oil and coarsely chopped tomatoes.
Stale bread is used to garnish spaghetti alla carrettierra in Sicily and stuff green peppers in Naples (peperoni ‘mbuttunati). In Puglia, bread is soaked in salted water and accompanied by tomatoes, onions, cucumber and oregano (acquasale). In the north, in Tyrol, stale bread is used to prepare canederli, bread dumplings that can be declined in different ways. The hard bread is softened before being mixed with cheese, charcuterie and herbs. A recipe inherited from the peasant tradition of Germany that influenced the Italian Tyrol.
The offal, also called “quinto quarto”, includes parts of farm animals such as, for example, the viscera, the internal organs, the glands… These parts considered as non-noble enter the composition of many recipes. Italy, which is the country that consumes the least meat, is paradoxically the one that consumes the most offal. Indeed, italian poor cuisine is rich in recipes using the offal of bovines, ovines, caprines, quadrupeds or bipeds, but also of marine animals (monkfish liver, tuna heart, …). It is not for nothing that Rome is considered the capital of the “quinto quarto”. The vaccinare (employees of the Testaccio slaughterhouse) were paid with the famous quinto quarto. Hence a rich culinary repertoire of dishes such as tripe alla romana, oxtail alla vaccinara or fried animelle (veal sweetbreads).
Baccalà and stoccafisso
The baccalà (salted cod) and the stoccafisso (dried cod) were considered as the poor fish, cheap and non-perishable.
The cod and the stockfish (baccalà) designate two preparations based on cod, salted and dried. The consumption of cod spread in Italy from the second half of the 16th century. Cheap, non-perishable and abundant in the Labrador Sea, the cod fillet was therefore marketed on a large scale. Gradually, the stockfish (baccalà) and the cod gained the inland and transformed the popular cuisine.
The fat pork, is the peasant fat par excellence, caloric and tasty. The fat of the pig plays an essential role in the Italian cuisine. It is used to season pasta dishes, for example with the guanciale or the pancetta, but also for cooking, especially frying. The use of the strutto (lard) dates back to the time of the Etruscans before being supplanted by olive oil. Still very present, the lard plays the role of flavor enhancer and enters the preparation of many pies of the peasant cuisine and pastries.
Spaghetti with turnip green toasted breadcrumbs
Spaghetti with turnip green toasted breadcrumbsCourse: Pâtes, platsCuisine: ItalienDifficulty: Facile
500 g of spaghetti
300 g of turnip greens
2 slices of stale bread
1 clove garlic
Salt and pepper
2 anchovy fillets in oil
- Cut the stale bread into pieces and chop with salt, pepper and a peperoncino. In a frying pan, toast with a drizzle of olive oil. Set aside for dressing.
- Blanch the turnip greens for 2 minutes in boiling salted water then cool them in ice water. Use the boiling water for cooking the pasta. Cook the spaghetti half of their cooking time.
- In a frying pan, heat a clove of garlic in a drizzle of olive oil with the anchovy fillets. Add the drained turnip greens. Finish cooking the spaghetti in the frying pan with a ladle of cooking water.
- Dress the spaghetti in a plate. Decorate the plate with toasted bread crumbs. Buon appetitto