Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Cucina Povera

Lots of good causes now seem to have their own official day in the calendar. Sunday 28th May 2017 is this year's World Hunger Day. Alongside raising awareness, and encouragement to give to hunger-relieving charities, such as The Hunger Project, past years have included throwing out the challenge to "Live Below The Line" for five days. "Living Below The Line", if you're not already aware of it, means living below the extreme poverty line of subsisting on no more than £1 (or the equivalent in other currency) for all food and drink per day and it is a shocking fact that over a billion people do this, not for five days for a challenge, but every day for real. It got me thinking.

As you will probably know, if you've dipped into these pages before, I love cooking. I get withdrawal symptoms on holiday, if I am away from a kitchen for too long. I find it therapeutic, soul-nurturing, calming and energising all at the same time. I am lucky not to have to subsist on a food and drink budget of £1 per day. I am extremely grateful that I earn enough to fund my creative kitchen experiments (and to drink unlimited cups of tea while I undertake them). My days are lit up by grinding flour from a sack of leftover grain, given to me by my farmer neighbour, to prepare everyday bread for lunch, (I succumbed to buying a grain-mill last autumn), boiling up crab-apples for jars of translucent jelly, baking gingerbread, or submitting fresh vegetables to steam under pressure to make fennel and asparagus soup for supper. Cooking is my life-blood and life without its creative possibilities would seem sadly colourless. But this challenge got me thinking, as I say.

It's reminded me that this cooking habit of mine is not a right, it is a huge blessing; and I wanted to do something to acknowledge that. What about taking on the challenge? To begin with, the idea seemed fairly simple; yes it would be challenging but it didn't look impossible. Of course, I knew meals would need to be mostly vegetarian - no expensive meat* or fish. Wine wouldn't figure, nor would out of season fresh fruit or vegetables but I had a sort of vague idea that by steering towards the more frugal regions of my culinary repertoire, it might not be too difficult.

*D offered to shoot a couple of pigeons, a rabbit, or even a squirrel for casseroling, (an idea that every local farmer for miles around would most surely encourage me to take up, if they knew about it), but I am afraid I drew the line at this. I am aware that this immediately betrays my privileged status. If I genuinely had to subsist every day on only £1 a day, I am sure I would have to overcome my squeamishness at the idea of skinning and gutting this kind of free, wild food but for now it's just a step too far. Apologies to more rigorous souls, if they feel this is a cop out!

Anyway I've decided to give the challenge a go. Having decided, I've begun to do some homework to see whether my initial hunch about it not being too difficult was correct. Here are ten things I've discovered so far:

1 I was completely wrong about it "not being too difficult".

2 While I was right about meat and fish being off the menu, a lot of the fairly simple vegetarian things I cook were out of the question too. I discovered, as I began work on costing out recipes, many of them that I thought were straightforward and inexpensive, that virtually everything blew my budget. We're not talking vast sums here. Meals that I thought were cheap, were cheap but just not cheap enough. Because that £1 per day budget has to cover everything. Not just one meal. I could come up with supper costing a £1 a head, no problem, but what about leaving some slack for breakfast? Or lunch?

3 I've realised very quickly that this challenge isn't just about cooking, but about the thrifty sourcing of ingredients. I do most of my shopping via a once-a-week Ocado order which suits my cooking and the time I have available for shopping which isn't a lot generally. I top this up with the odd periodic foray for fresh vegetables or fruit from a supermarket or the farm shop down the road. None of this will work on the challenge. My shopping habits will change, have already changed, radically.

4 My attitude to left-overs has changed overnight. I am not talking here about the two portions of soup left in the pot after four generous bowlfuls have been filled for supper, nor the few stray roast potatoes that no one quite had room for, nor even the roast chicken carcass that I often boil up with onions and herbs for stock, I am talking here about left-overs that I would normally put in the compost bucket outside the back door, without a second thought - trimmings from vegetables, tea bags dipped for a few seconds in a mug and then discarded, orange or grapefruit peel; even things I would normally pour down the drain such as the milk that clings to the glass in an empty bottle before rinsing out, or the water at the bottom of the pan after steaming vegetables, these things are no longer to be discarded without considered thought. They've all suddenly acquired new significance; new potential and new value.

5 My perspective on the food landscape outside the house has also changed. I've always enjoyed foraging for blackberries, sloes, elderflowers or other wild foods as well as growing a certain amount of food in the garden but I've done it in a rather dilettante fashion. Because I enjoyed it not because I had to. Suddenly I've begun to see things differently. That huge clump of nettles, growing under the horse-chestnut tree in a corner of the garden, was no longer a pernicious invasion of weeds but a steaming tureen of dark green, vitamin-packed soup waiting to happen and when D, in a fit of over-enthusiastic gardening, hacked them all down unexpectedly, I was seriously dismayed. "You've ruined my nettle soup!," I wailed tragically."But you don't like nettle soup!" he claimed plaintively. He's right; I don't like nettle soup much but it's May and the range of food for free in the garden and elsewhere is limited and I suddenly realise I need all the help I can get. Changes your perspective no end when you have to make something almost out of nothing.

6 Consciousness of the ingredients I often use has changed too - I use a lot of spices in my baking, for example. In Medieval times these were very expensive ingredients only used by the very wealthy and in judicious quantities. They are actually still some of the most expensive commodities, by weight, sold in the world, but I don't use them like that. I throw a spoonful of cinnamon and another of nutmeg into my weekend slow-cooked porridge with abandon; I add ginger, allspice, cloves and aniseed freely to my gingerbread; I scatter cardamom pods into a mortar, to flavour sweet bread, as if they were dandelion seeds; I snip up vanilla pods happily to flavour everything from apple purée to custard. I ought to be more thoughtful. Likewise with sugar although, of course, sugar is now cheap as chips. Again, our Medieval forbears used sugar very differently from ourselves - it was regarded as a flavouring rather than an ingredient used in bulk. Today, using too much sugar is frowned on for health reasons rather than money-saving ones, but maybe the Medieval approach that used it with respect might be useful.

7 I've realised that there are two main ways to approach the challenge. The first and simplest is to go out and buy what you can for the five days, using the budget of £5 and living exclusively off that. The second is to use a wider range of ingredients than you could buy in one shopping expedition costing £5, but to cost out meticulously each ingredient and make sure that each day's food comes within the limit. I've chosen to follow the second approach because, in reality, if I were living on such a budget all the time, I would, of course, use things in my larder or fridge that I hadn't necessarily bought that week and I want to be able to be more creative than the first approach will allow me to be. That's necessitated some careful and time-consuming preparation in order to swap cheaper ingredients in my larder and fridge for their usual equivalents, in order to make sure that I will be able to use them, even if only in small quantities, when it gets to the end of the month. Every single penny counts, with this!

8 Cooking, for me, is usually a solitary activity. I like being by myself in the kitchen, pottering with this and that with only my family of wooden spoons for company.  I have a secret almost mystical relationship with these spoons, known only to me and to them and which causes peril for the unwary. Woe betide anyone, for example, who thinks casually and unthinkingly to borrow the vintage (1987) chilli con carne spoon to stir a pudding, or who confuses the long-handled, slightly twisted spoon, bought years ago in a market in Sansepolcro, and used only for custard, with the vegetarian risotto spoon, that used to be the identical twin of the chilli con carne one, but now has its own totally unique identity. Sorry, I digress!

Some of my wooden spoon friends.
But approaching this project, I've realised that my solitary cooking habits are a privilege and that kitchen interdependency and kitchen community are crucial ways of making the most of resources. Buying in bulk seriously lowers the cost of ingredients but without vast storage facilities and in the absence of a large family to feed, bulk-buying is not very economical. Sharing bulk ingredients with a few friends, also taken with the project, however is a different matter. Similarly, pooling access to sources of cheap ingredients can help too.

9 Investigating the challenge has proved to be like setting off an unexpected firework sending sparks arcing in different directions. It's made me think afresh about how much I take for granted in the food I cook and eat and made me question a whole raft of assumptions I had acquired without really being aware of it. It's made me see the simplest ingredients in new ways and with new respect. While in many ways, reaching one's fifties is a bit depressing, I find myself comforted, even elated by what years of cooking experience has taught me and wanting to develop some of that further as I head towards retirement years, (which are on the now visible horizon), with rather less income but hopefully rather more time to play with. The whole thing has taken me by surprise in the way that it's engaged my imagination and heart as well as my mind.

10 Making the most of ingredients and being canny with what food you buy, grow or forage for is deeply ingrained in many rural societies. Some have made it an art form even though it has been a necessity for survival. That is particularly the case in southern Italy where la cucina povera or "peasant cooking" has a deeply creative and vivid heritage. That should not mask the fact that poverty there was a very serious problem for significant parts of of the 19th and 20th Cs. People knew genuine hunger and it wasn't easy to combat it. Having said that, the southern Italians responded to the challenge with a colourful verve and flair, whose legacy now populates some of the most stylish restaurants across the world. Calabrian or Puglian cooks of the early 20th C would laugh to see their humble, eked out dishes of pulses, saltless bread and simple vegetables that they prepared in farmhouse kitchens, often with only the most basic cooking equipment, now studiously replicated by Michelin-starred chefs, in state of the art kitchens but sic transit gloria etc etc.

In taking up the Living Below The Line challenge I want to embrace the verve and creativity that distinguishes "cucina povera". Anyone can exist on bread and water for five days and easily meet the technical requirements of the challenge but I want to see if I can't do it with a bit more creativity and fun. I also want to do it without giving in to buying processed food. It's a sad fact that often processed food is cheaper than food, prepared from scratch, at home. The watchword of "cucina povera" is "cucina buona in tempi brutti" - "good cooking in hard times" - I like that. It feels real and unvarnished but also defiant and courageous. It will define what I buy, cook and eat over the coming days.

My aims are threefold:

Firstly, to donate a generous sum reflecting what I might well otherwise have spent on food and drink to The Hunger Project and my local food-bank, to help people who, unlike me, are genuinely battling the pangs of hunger because there simply isn't enough food to go round.

Secondly, to reevaluate my own approach to cooking, at least in part, and cultivate more permanently less wasteful / indiscriminate kitchen habits, which, I fear, have crept in over the years.

Thirdly, to discover how far ingenuity will stretch against, what has to be said, is a very stringent framework.

Will I feel hungry? Probably - I am a greedy soul! 

Will I feel more self-sufficient? Quite possibly. 

Will I go back, once the challenge is over, to shopping / eating as I did before? Quite possibly not.

Will I appreciate what is on my plate day by day, rather more? Definitely.

Fancy coming along for the ride? Or even giving the challenge a whirl yourself?

I shall post a kind of sporadic kitchen diary over the next while which will include some of my preparations, my meal plans and the recipes that I've used or adapted, as well as some reflections along the way, in case anyone is interested, and because I think I will find it interesting to look back on. I aim to start the challenge in earnest around 28th May, maybe a bit earlier depending on work etc

Wish me luck!

A very frugal basil plant grown from a cutting taken from a supermarket plant bought ages ago.
E x


  1. Thought provoking, I really am going to look at my kitchen, shopping and eating habits. Good luck with the challenge.

    1. Thank you - yes, it really makes you sit up and think, the idea that one might have to survive on so scanty a food budget, doesn't it? E x

  2. Goodness me, what a challenge - this will be hard! I applaud your dedication and will be interested to watch your progress. At the beginning of your post, I thought what an excellent project to join in with, but the further I read the more doubtful I became. This has made me think about the choices we make and how much easier it is to make them (or indeed not to think much at all) from a position of plenty.
    I did silently shout "But you don't like nettle soup!"

    1. You are absolutely right - making choices from a position of plenty is a whole different ball game and the challenge is a bit artificial in that sense but I think the fact that it makes one sit up and think so much is in itself quite a good thing. I thought you might echo D's remark if you read this! Maybe it's just as well the nettles went the way of all flesh - it would have been awful to make the soup and be unable to get it down when one couldn't turn to something else! E x

  3. This is brave! Helen

  4. You are undertaking quite a challenge. Dennis was raised in the rural South at a time when the economy in that part of the US was stagnating. He and his family ate mostly what they raised. Even the ubiquitous Thanksgiving turkey wasn't always served in his home, as chickens were on hand. He still hates to waste one morsel of food, while I spend way too much money at a variety of grocery stores and am always tossing out fresh vegetables or fruits I've neglected to cook or to eat. I am not sure that I will undertake your challenge, but I know that you will make me think about my "First World" habits.

  5. It's certainly the case that the challenge makes you think afresh about eating and cooking habits - i think the days when the relationship between what you could grow or raise yourself was central to what you ate do have quite a lot to teach us. It's so easy to become detached from that in the context of supermarket food supply and all the wonderful choice all year round that it makes possible. I am hoping the challenge will recalibrate the balance a bit in my kitchen and I think it will because it does throw you back on what is in season and what's growing in the garden / hedgerow ... or not! E x


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