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Cucina Povera Cookbook Review

■ 29 February 2012 by James Martin

Pamela Sheldon Johns has written one of the finest books on the joys of peasant cooking imaginable: Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking isn’t the usual list of recipes you can’t replicate because the ingredients are uber-expensive or not available in your area, it is a fascinating excursion into the mindset of simple country folk in their kitchens, wasting nothing while churning out unimaginably tasty food.

What I’m saying is this: you could cherish this book even if you didn’t cook a single thing from it. It is a book meant to be read, not just propped upon on the kitchen counter and submitted to the indignities of spattering grease. It brims with photos, remembrances, and sound advice. It is nice to hold and thumb through. You’ll come away with an intimate knowledge of the peasant kitchen and the sturdy folks who occupy those kitchens, the most important room in the house.

Cucina Povera will remind you of the lost cleverness in our throw-away world. Imagine the complicated Venn diagram that could come out of the work of processing chestnuts:

Nothing was wasted; it could be considered the symbol of cucina povera. The nut was eaten fresh or dried and ground for flour; the shells were used for the fuel to dry the chestnuts, the dark, pungent honey from the chestnut flowers was eaten with the fresh local ricotta. The best wood of the tree was used for building barrels, furniture, and hand tools. Lesser-quality wood was used for fencing and posts, then shaved pieces became baskets, and the leftover bits of wood were turned into slow-burning charcoal used in the forging of knives and sharp tools. The fresh leaves, along with old chestnuts and acorns, were used for animal feed, and in the autumn the fallen leaves were used to line the stalls in place of hay, which was used in the paper mills.

A friend introduced me to the concept of “hedonistic sustainability” the other day. It occurs to me that cucina povera is just that. You don’t throw shrimp shells away, you use them because they hold more characteristic flavor than the flesh of the shrimp; you use them to impart flavor back into the dish because that way you can derive more pleasure from it. The same way with onion skins; use them in broth, not just to get rid of them, but they, too, impart more flavor than the edible flesh of the onion. Sustainability should have hedonistic benefits; all the gathering of field herbs the Italians still do isn’t because they couldn’t go and spend a load of money for tasteless industrially-grown herbs, but because field herbs and wild asparagus bring them more pleasure—and, as a hidden benefit, those plants come back year after year, sustainably.

This, I think, is why cucina povera has legs. It’s the way to the sustainable future through simple and tasty food. Books like Cucina Povera will provide the link to the past so that we can return to the place where we made the wrong turn and can continue toward a new and more pleasurable future of good eats—or at least a future of considerably less industrial crap food. We’ll see, but good food is worth fighting for. It’s the stuff of life.

Buy this highly recommended book on Amazon, hardcover or for Kindle: Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking

Cucina Povera Cookbook Review originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Feb 29, 2012, © James Martin.

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Quiet Corners of Rome with David Downie

■ 13 May 2011 by James Martin

david downie pictureWe recently spent a pleasant evening at San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Library listening to David Downey speak of his quest to find Quiet Corners of Rome for his book.

Downie and photographer Alison Harris scoured the Eternal City for months to discover places far from the cacophony tourists encounter when they and their buses crowd into the places travel writers send them.

Downie began by demonstrating the sounds commonly heard in the city, playing the noises back on a tiny recorder, as you can see in the picture.

I remember our stay in a fleabag hotel near Stazione Termini many years ago with a particular lack of fondness. When we checked in on a hot day, we were glad to note that outside our flimsy window there appeared to be a large, empty parking lot. At least, we thought, there would be quiet, even with the window cranked open.

david downie at the Mechanics Library in San FranciscoDuring the night, at irregular intervals, the lot filled with city buses. At 5:30 in the morning a driver went out and started a great majority of them. They rattled and belched in the (finally!) cool air of morning while I said to my sleepless self, “how long can it possibly take to warm up a Roman bus?”

Perhaps you know the answer. I don’t. The rattle-belching went on for hours, graying the air and leaving a stink in it that would eventually come to intertwine with the threads in our clothing. I left. At least there are cafes open in Rome at all hours.

In any case, we started the San Francisco evening, appropriately, listening to the noises that define Rome, and then, as Alison Harris’ photos faded in and out in a dreamy sequence on the screen in front of us, our eyes came to rest in a series of parks, wooded gardens, courtyards and ruins uncovered and disclosed by Downie and Harris, places that were accessible to all.

quiet corners of rome book signing pictureThe little square book (“really a picture book,” Downie admitted) is a treasure trove of unexpected pleasures, less a guidebook than a coffee table book for folks like us who live small. Like the places it describes, the book is a miniature pleasure that invites you to get absorbed in it, like a tiny picture, extravagantly matted, that you have to lean forward to see.

I recommend you buy one. Especially if you can’t afford a hotel in Rome with triple-paned glass in the windows.

Buy the book: Quiet Corners of Rome

Martha’s review of Quiet Corners of Rome

David Downie’s Web Site

David Downie Facebook

Quiet Corners of Rome with David Downie originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 13, 2011, © James Martin.

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An Italian Odyssey - Book Review

■ 25 September 2010 by James Martin

Today was one of those days in the Lunigiana. After a night of thunder and pounding rain, the day dawned gloriously, the skies cleared to an impossible blue and immediately we thought of eating lunch outside.

Off we zoom. The skies darken, but it’s still warm; there is hope. We decide upon a restaurant, then think to chance it and go to one that’s a bit further along. But the restaurant in Gabbiano is closed. “Ceasing business” a sign on the ground says. So we’re off again on the Lunigiana’s twisty roads until we come to an agriturismo that doesn’t serve lunch but does have a gaggle of barking guard dogs and finally we end up in Monti, where we know the Ristorante Venelia is reliable.

There we have a great lunch. After, the skies clear and we have a great walk.

The reason I relate this story is that it is typical of our region. The weather seems capricious, the path twisty and unreliable, the maps prone to errors, and there are dogs, horses, bicycle riders and even, gasp, Italian drivers on the road. Any day can be daunting.

And then a miracle happens. You eat well with a gaggle of other people happily eating equally well—and eventually realize the journey has been worth it. Furthermore the dark skies over the Duomo, in retrospect, made the scene maddeningly beautiful…and who makes a stinco di maiale cooked in beer like that anymore.


Canadians Julie Burk and Neville Tencer embarked a while back on a journey from Switzerland to Rome along the ancient Via Francigena. It’s not as popular a walk as the Camino de Santiago, which they had walked earlier. The Via Francigena isn’t, after all, a well-marked freeway trampled by carefree pilgrims and spiritual wannabees; the kinks in its navigation have yet to be worked out. The pair had trouble finding their way. Lots of trouble.

Neville and I had conversed about the via before; it passes through the Lunigiana close to where I live. It’s surprising how many pilgrims can be seen wandering through the villages here.

The result of Julie and Neville’s walk is the recently published book called “An Italian Odyssey: One Couples Culinary & Cultural Pilgrimage.” I was immediately drawn to it. It’s the walking/culinary thing.

And once I got to reading it (cheating by starting with the part about the Lunigiana, then starting the whole thing over again) I was delighted that it wasn’t one of those feel-good books that are all the rage, you know, where a woman of 30, lamenting her advanced age, embarks on a “spiritual quest” which invariably comes to a climax over a heavy shaving of winter white truffle atop a carefully constructed pyramid of scrambled eggs that, when consumed (finally!) soothes the lost soul, in this case a soul held aloft by impossibly high heels. No, indeed, like the “unfinished” via, like our afternoon in search of a restaurant, things don’t always work out on the Via Francigena. There are walks along busy and narrow roads, there are streams to ford, there are hostels without hot water after a long day…

Julie and Neville spare you none of the problems. It is a bittersweet journey; there is no sugar coating, no high fructose corn syrup an editor needed to get into the plot by the third chapter. What you have here is the grubby truth about pilgrimage, the yin and yang of it, the supreme lows interspersed with moments of enlightenment. That’s what makes the book compelling. That’s (probably) what makes pilgrimage compelling. (What was memorable about that lazy and uneventful stroll in the park you took last year?)

Narration toggles between Julie and Neville’s observations of each leg of the journey. Neville gives you the historical facts of the places he’s carefully researched along the way; Julie, thoughtful and reflective, is in quest of the culinary masterpieces Cucina Povera can produce. Together they share the feelings of a couple unable to escape each other’s presence during a difficult journey. Travel for couples is seldom easy.

Along the way Julie and Neville will introduce you to characters that the folks who live here long enough will recognize and love—like the winery owner who will sell them a bottle of wine for 2.5 Euros or a glass of it for 3…

By the time Julie and Neville reach Siena, (“The Good City”) it’s as if a weight has been lifted of your back. The journey has suddenly become a walk in the park. The tension is lifted. Hallelujah! If it doesn’t make you feel good—at least to know that the couple’s endurance has gotten them to a very good place—then you have no feelings. It’s all in the contrast. It’s all downhill from here. The good downhill I mean.

So, if you’re tired of the same old Italian love stories or dopey lists of the TOP 10 PLACES TO VISIT IN ITALY! variety, you might try toning down the sugar level by buying yourself a copy of An Italian Odyssey. It will introduce you to many places way off the beaten track that are all the more compelling because the locals remain pure to their own way of doing things. And that just might be the place you’re looking for. You never know.

And I hope I can convince them to come back to the Lunigiana. I mean, gosh, they had Zeri lamb and didn’t like it as much as they thought they would. Julie and Neville, the lamb deserves another chance!

You can get a copy of An Italian Odyssey: One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage whizzed to your door from Amazon, and I hope you’ll do that.

Where is the Via Francigena? See our Via Francigena Map

An Italian Odyssey - Book Review originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Sep 25, 2010, © James Martin.

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