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La Cucina Povera: The Poor Cuisine of Tuscany

“It’s a type of cuisine that teaches us the value of food and how not to waste it. This is why we have to defend it from extinction.”

There are smells that take you back in time, special keys that have the power to unlock memories tucked away in our minds long ago. These keys are hidden everywhere: in the perfume of a passerby, in the pine grove on a seashore, in the hallways of an old house. But their best hiding place is certainly the kitchen, where even I find a few keys every time I cook. It happened last Sunday, while I was preparing lunch for my family. As the garlic and rosemary sautéed in olive oil, the pungent aroma emanating from the pan instantly brought me back to my nonna’s kitchen, where as a kid I’d watch her cook my favorite meals. Everything that was cooking on my stove had also been on hers: the warming bread stew with its ribbons of cavolo nero and cubes of carrot, the tender coniglio bathing in tomato sauce dotted with black olives, the saucy cannellini beans tinged with red and infused with sage. These were the dishes of my family, of my childhood, of my land, part of the so-called Tuscan cucina povera, “peasant food” or “poor cuisine.” Very simple, composed of few ingredients, but exploding with flavor. A type of cuisine that looks a bit different from town to town, but shares a common creator: the farmers who put it on our tables.

Yes, we can thank the farmers of another era for giving us this great gift. Of course, they couldn’t imagine that one day the dishes created in their humble kitchens would be ordered from restaurant menus or printed in the pages of cookbooks. After all, they created them purely out of necessity to efficiently nourish their tired bodies. These were people who spent their days in the fields doing manual labor and needed to feed themselves with accessible, substantial ingredients. Today, we can go to the supermarket and find everything from Mexican avocados to Japanese noodles to make guacamole and ramen no matter where we are. Decades ago, this wasn’t an option, so the people “grocery shopped” in the fields, barns, and gardens, their own open-air supermarket. Without a large choice of ingredients on their culinary palette, they would prepare and mix them in hundreds of ways, creating an infinite rainbow of flavor combinations. And so, by “poor cuisine” we simply mean a cuisine poor in ingredients, but rich in flavor.

In Tuscany, peasant food has a long and important tradition, made up of a myriad of dishes. At the top of the list are plant-based plates full of legumes, kale and tomatoes, ingredients that are irrevocably intertwined in the DNA of our cuisine. But the true identity of Tuscan cuisine can be found in a rather ordinary food, king of the carbohydrates and a side to many meals: bread. Tuscan bread isn’t like every other bread. It stands out amongst its leavened counterparts for the simple reason that it’s made without salt. It may seem strange, but history has an explanation for this custom. In the 12th century, the people of Pisa wanted to make their Florentine rivals pay higher taxes on salt, so Florentines, angered by the increase, found an astute solution to the problem: they stopped adding salt to their bread, eliminating the need to buy it, and salt never made its way into Florentine bread again.

Many don’t understand why we would eat unsalted bread. But we Tuscans know it pairs perfectly with the strong flavors of our cuisine, which is full of bread-based dishes. The most classic is perhaps the same bread stew I made for my family, minestra di pane, which fills our bellies with carbs and veggies and warms us up on cold days. Then we have the famous pappa al pomodoro, a simple bread and tomato stew with less than ten ingredients that come together to create a tangy delicious comfort food. A stew so beloved that we even made up a children’s song for it, “Viva la Pappa Col Pomodoro!”, “Long Live Pappa al Pomodoro!” And we’d be remiss not to talk about panzanella, the quintessential Tuscan summer dish that’s also become popular in other countries, where it’s made in every way besides the original. Authentic panzanella is a cold stew with dampened bread, raw tomatoes, red onions, crunchy cucumbers and bright green basil, which makes for a fresh, light lunch on a hot day. Lastly, we can’t forget to mention the classic Tuscan snack of bread, wine and sugar, an afternoon pick-me-up that was given to kids back when my mother was a little girl. And no, small children were not running around drunk on bread. Take notice – the recipes always call for stale bread. This is because years ago, farmers were true conservationists who didn’t dare throw bread away even when it would get old and hard. To keep using it, all they had to do was wet it in stews, water or wine, and it would gain new life. 

While it might seem like Tuscan food is only made of bread and vegetables, we also have plenty of meat in our dishes. I’m not talking about the salty pink charcuterie that we nibble on at wine tastings or the big juicy steaks that we drool over at all the best restaurants in Florence. We almost never see pork or beef-based dishes in traditional peasant cuisine as in the past these were meats mostly reserved for nobility. Farmers, on the other hand, didn’t own cows and they only had one pig, which they would slaughter once a year, and use all its parts: the thigh became prosciutto, the blood a sweet pudding, the hair bristles for brushes. From here came the saying, “of the pig, nothing is thrown away.” Mostly, though, farmers ate poultry and game, such as rabbit, hare and pheasant, small animals that were easy to hunt. These meats were stewed or prepared alla cacciatora, with bases of either sautéed herbs or tomatoes and black olives. Nothing complicated, but a true delight. 

In summary, that’s what peasant food is: uncomplicated, but delightful. It has deep roots in our culture and has been passed down from farmer to farmer, family to family, and grandmother to granddaughter. It’s not gourmet or fancy like that of a Michelin restaurant, and it costs much less to go out and eat it in our local tavern. It can be heavy, with its legumes, bread and sauces, and maybe in today’s diets we have less need for it, but it has fed and strengthened our people for centuries. It’s food for the soul, that comforts us like a warm embrace when we need it most. Each dish has a purpose and a story that teaches us the value of food and how not to waste it. Today this lesson is as timely as ever and we have to keep teaching it, just like my peasant grandma taught me with her keys of garlic and rosemary.

 

Find out some of our favorite Florentine restaurants where to taste great ‘cucina povera’ dishes.

©Irving Penn