One Sunday, while I prepared lunch at her home, my late Ma gathered my amused daughters to watch me. She rolled her eyes: “Oh my God, look at your father. No one who didn’t live through the war knows how to peel a carrot properly!”
The Second World War thrift generation could not tolerate waste. Clothes with holes, rickety furniture, vegetable peel and animal innards were all under my Ma’s beady watch.
Ironically, these are all in vogue today, as we experience economic and supply chain crises, and are encouraged blithely to eat more turnips.
I have never tasted a turnip, so “veg guru” Gerald Stratford’s excellent article on the maligned root vegetable in iWeekend was intriguing. And not rushing out to find one in Sainsbury’s does not mean I reject such mindful shopping and cooking. Instead, I’m already a lifelong adherent to a philosophy that embraces thrift and seasonality: cucina povera, the Italian cuisine known as “peasant cooking”.
Somehow, this philosophy, forged from the necessities of scarcity and poverty in rural Italy, became bastardised into signature motifs for high-end Italian restaurants such as the River Café, charging astronomical prices for simple fare. Yet in its pure origins, cucina povera was the only way that rural Italians like my Ma, could eat.
My family knew that to survive meant making more out of less. This resulted in frugal recipes – the need to cherish every ingredient. Carbs were the staple: pasta, bread and polenta. All of them would be accompanied by seasonal fruit and vegetables. Meat was a rare treat, so if you had an animal you slaughtered, cooked and ate it nose-to-tail, long before London’s famous St John restaurant re-introduced the notion of offal recipes as trendy.
The poor ate the animal parts that the rich rejected. For me, that meant regular meals involving lamb hearts, kidneys, liver with pancetta, sweetbreads and ossobuco (braised veal shanks). Peasants would heap on herbs, garlic and chilli to help with flavour. That’s also how soffrito came about – the heady mix of celery, carrot and onion that is the basis of the Italian stewed sauce, ragu, or soups like minestrone.
Many of today’s fashionable middle-class dishes have origins in cucina povera: pesto (wilting basil), panzanella salad (stale bread), toasted bruschetta (also, stale bread), dried pasta (no expensive eggs) and baccalà (salted cod).
This also explains the entire concept of cured meats like salami, mortadella, prosciutto and pancetta. I spent many hours watching my Ma’s Neapolitan friend Concetta stuffing pork, fennel, garlic and herbs into pig intestines to make Italian sausages. She also had an allotment in Croydon, decades before it was an on-trend hobby. We ate caponata (Italian ratatouille) several times a week.
Italian pizza and pasta recipes have now become affordable British staples. With supreme irony, some restaurants are removing these from their menus today, because of the tomato shortage.
We throw away 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food a year, globally. Eating more caponata, sweetbreads and panzanella will not fix that crisis alone. However, longer term, it will save you so much money, bring you joy in the kitchen and make your family very happy in its communal eating. Trust me.