Tony Franco
Apr 5 · 3 min read

The Renaissance of La Cucina Povera

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During the lockdown we’ve all had to reacquaint ourselves with home cooking. To cook 3 meals a day. Every day. It’s even more challenging with children at home all the time. Schools are shut. Holidays are upon us and older children have returned to the family home.

Our meals need to be interesting, varied and healthy. Yet, fresh ingredients are not easy to get hold of. Plus we want to limit our trips to the supermarkets. And frankly, many of us are anxious about money in these uncertain times.

To use the language of a A Beautiful Constraint, our Propelling Question is something like

‘How can we create inspiring dishes without having access to the range of ingredients we’re used to?’

This is where ‘la cucina povera’ comes in. The phase roughly translates as ‘poor cooking’ and is based on the rural traditions of Italy, particularly the south. It’s all about making the most of a limited range of humble ingredients. There’s no waste and there’s very little meat. It’s delicious. It’s healthy. No wonder everyone loves Italian cuisine. It’s a great example of how constraint leads to creativity.

I’m lucky. My mum is from Puglia and I grew up with this kind of food. We always talk about recipes. (My dad had an ice cream business too, but that’s another story) I’ve learnt to embrace this style of cooking. And as a dedicated food lover, I’m always on the lookout for ways to extend my repertoire and to learn new skills.

Jamie Oliver is not everyone’s cup of tea. But he captures the spirit of the lockdown with his Channel 4 Programme Keep Cooking and Carry On. It’s a series of programmes that focuses on simple family favourites, using common household ingredients. It encourages us to be adaptable and flexible. Swapping out different ingredients based on what we have in the house. Chocolate cake with no eggs. Replacing onions with leeks. Using dried herbs rather than fresh. We’re encouraged to become inventive and try out new things.

Reports have consistently highlighted the staggering amount of food UK families throw away. We can no longer afford to do this. Food bloggers and writers are encouraging us to use our freezers to avoid waste. We’re encouraged to make stocks from leftovers. To save money by batch cooking. If you’re looking for inspiration, seek out Silvana Franco’s Instagram. Waitrose food writer (and my sister.)

In the recent past, recipes used to be about saving time. 15 minute meals. Quick and easy dishes. Before Covid -19, time was our key constraint. This is no longer the case. Now, in the tradition of la cucina povera, it’s about making the most out of what you have. Today’s Sunday Times Magazine is currently focusing on store cupboard classics. Jack Munro’s Tin Can Cook, about cooking with little cash is also featured.

Although the term relates to Italian cooking, it applies equally to other cuisines. Every culture has its own version of ‘la cucina povera’. All over Asia and Latin America you’ll see inventive cooks making the most of affordable local ingredients. It’s becoming so popular that Netflix has two series called ‘Street Food’ dedicated to this style of cooking. It’s everywhere.

So in summary

The constraints imposed upon us by the Covid-19 lockdown have changed the way we’re able to cook. Adopting the ‘cucina povera’ mindset is essential to make sure we feed ourselves properly for the foreseeable future. We’re all forced to become more inventive, creative cooks. We need to save money. Use our store cupboard. Use local ingredients. Avoid waste. This has to be a good thing.

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