Cucina Povera: What is the Secret Ingredient?

March 17, 2015 / Food & Wine
Puglia

Cucina povera, which can literally be translated as “poor kitchen”, is rich in tradition. With origins primarily in, but certainly not restricted to, southern Italy, cucina povera has humble beginnings rooted in a very simple way of life.

Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio
Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio
Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio
Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio

Before and after war time, in particular, families learned to utilize simple, available, and high quality ingredients. Recipes and techniques evolved from necessity; from having to shop, cook and prepare healthy and nutritious meals daily from what was available and convenient. With little or no refrigeration, they learned to make use of everything, i.e., nothing was wasted! Hence, creativity grew from finding ways to prepare different dishes with limited budgets and the same ingredients.

Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio
Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio
Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio

Cucina povera has never been about elaborate preparation or using fancy stoves, pots and pans or utensils. And it’s not about some ecological concern or conscience or about being trendy or a foodie. Eating what was fresh, local, and seasonal wasn’t a conscious decision, it was the result of what was brought home that day, literally farm to table.

Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio
Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio
Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio

The farm to table tradition is undoubtedly alive and well today in Italy. This daily ritual is a lifestyle that not only supports local farmers and food artisans but ensures but the quality of the goods they bring to market. The relationship is intimate and ingrained.

Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio

It was and is a way of life, a very simple and healthy one that is usually learned but not at some fancy cooking school or class or from a celebrity chef or pricey cookbook. It’s learned in the kitchen watching, helping and learning from mamma or nonna as she prepared, with loving hands and heart, her family’s meal. Today’s menu is prepared from what was available this morning. And it is prepared with love…

Cucina Povera - Victoria De Maio

Si, that’s the secret ingredient… love!

Victoria De Maio

by Victoria De Maio

Victoria is a lover of all things Italian! A travel advisor, blogger, writer, tour leader, and published author, she is passionate about traveling to and writing about Italy.

Her book, Victoria’s Travel Tipz Italian Style, is available on Amazon.

Join Victoria for her fabulous unique, boutique tours of Puglia,, and the Italian Riviera.

Visit PostcardZ from Victoria where she shares expert travel tips, insights and more about Bella Italia.

21 Responses to “Cucina Povera: What is the Secret Ingredient?”

  1. Victoria, Thank you for a great article. God it brings back memories. When we were a much younger family I remember mama made what we referred to as “poor mans pasta” it was called this because we had no red sauce or meat at the time. It was simple, pasta, milk butter, some salt some pepper, bread on the side. I never complained about eating this, I actually liked it.
    Many years later a famous Italian eatery in Boston was selling an appetizer for an large price. It was all the rave. One of my friends “non Italian” told me he just went there and I absolutely had to try their appetizer it was a little pricey but unbelievable. When he told me what it was I laughed. I couldn’t believe they were selling poor mans pasta as an appetizer. I say all this to say, When we were poor, we were rich and didn’t know it.
    The secret ingredient is love…

    Again thanks for the article.

    Reply
    • Victoria De Maio

      You are oh-so-right, Tom! We weren’t poor but I remember how much my Mother loved polenta and my father (who did grow up poor) refused to eat it! When it became “trendy” I laughed, too…
      Grazie for sharing…
      Victoria

      Reply
  2. Beautiful photos! I can almost taste them! Love the overview of the area as well. Fabulous as usual!

    Reply
    • Victoria De Maio

      Penny – I so get that! Oftentimes (read “always”!), as I’m looking at my photos, a sense of longing and tummy rumbles definitely bubble up!
      Can’t wait to return in May – hopefully you’ll join us one day!
      V.

      Reply
  3. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    with my first visit to Puglia, I picked up on that secret ingredient, not only in the food but also the people . That is why I LOVE Puglia ! Grazie Vittoria con abbracci e baci.

    Reply
  4. Gian Banchero

    LA CUCINA POVERE: LASAGNET
    I’m so glad that forty years ago I took upon the task of writing down not only my grandmothers’ recipes (Piemonte and Sicily) but the recipes of Italian neighbors, all who are sadly gone now. The recipes from the grandmothers and my mother were from the 19th century, they hadn’t changed their mother’s, grandmothers and aunts recipes one iota, all of which were of La Cucina Povere. Almost all the recipes are so old that they’re no longer in the repertoire of family in Italy, occasionally I receive requests for recipes that haven’t been tasted but have been heard about from the anziani. Here’s a recipe for a Piemontese dish that proves that one of the most garlicky Italian dishes to be had doesn’t mean it’s from the South: Lasagnett. Soak two cups of borlotti beans overnight, then cook until beans are soft. In the morning chop finely one cup worth of garlic and allow to marinate in a cup and a half of olive oil, allow the garlic and oil to sit together for at least five hours. If possible cook up about 3/4 pound of FRESH lasagna noodles that are 6″ x 3″, drain and while still hot mix with the warmed up beans and room temperature garlic + oil Avoid the temptation of using cheese. Nonna said that she learned the recipe from her grandmother who learned it from HER bis-nonna (great grandmother). Enjoy the lasagnett with a good hearty slightly rough wine.

    Reply
  5. David Barneby

    People tend to like the food they grew up with throughout their lives , no matter how poor it is .
    I was resident in Tuscany for a few years . Tuscans pride themselves on their food , but Tuscany used to be a very poor agricultural region , hilly , rocky difficult land to work . My experiance was that Tuscans like ” Cucina Povera “, spaghetti sauce made with olive oil , garlic and hardly any tomato to colour it .
    In Maremma they have ” Acqua Cotta ” a vegetable soup on dry bread to which an egg is added , delicious , I believe it derives from the mosquito infected Po delta . Agricultural workers came frome there to work the equally mosquito infected marsh land of the Maremma . The very best , most tasty pasta I ever ate was in a very large ancient villa . The Sala di Pranzo was enormous , the walls varying shade of gray from years of condesation running down them . A small table and chairs was placed in the middle , we were waited on by a gloved butler .
    After very crude antipasta the spaghetti arrived , a sauce of just oil and garlic , but with freshly picked cherry tomatoes , chopped and scarcely cooked , delicious .
    I have had a brief holiday in Puglia at the farmhouse belonging to a ladyfriend .
    A neighbouring farmer’s wife came in to cook for us each evening . The meals were delicious and couldn’t be described as Cucina Povera .

    Reply
  6. Anne Robichaud

    Enjoyed reading about la cucina povera (“poor man’s cooking”) during a break from teaching la cucina povera umbra here in the US – and LOVED eating the southern Louisiana versions of la cucina povera over the past few days: cajun in Lafayette and now Creole in New Orleans.
    Ah, yes, wherever you go, the cooking – and eating!- of “the poor” is the best.
    Thanks for your note, Victoria!

    Reply
    • Victoria De Maio

      Thank you Anne, and I agree, there’s something homey, simple and authentic about la cucina povera wherever we enjoy it – truly made with love everywhere!

      Reply
  7. Well done Victoria! I always think about the fabulous produce available in Italy and what great cooks do with it! I have upped my game since our travels there!

    Reply

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