I’ve chosen the Italian term for the cooking of the poor because it conveys a deserved level of respect, and even nostalgia, that is not present in other languages whose equivalent often translates as peasant food. The respect comes from an ability to conjure great flavour from limited ingredients, to know how to bring out the best in food, respect for the food itself and a determination not to waste it. The nostalgia derives from the fact that this approach to food is sadly lacking today but might have been demonstrated by our grandmothers.
I’m writing about it now because we hear so frequently of people that apparently cannot afford to feed themselves. Although I might not have used the phrase Cucina Povera when I first cooked for myself, I have come to realise that the principles behind it were exactly what informed my cooking. Further, although it stemmed from necessity, I actually feel grateful that I learnt these lessons early because they have stood me in good stead throughout my life. Whilst I wouldn’t choose to return to poverty, I wouldn’t feel as scared as people seem to today, I know I could cope. Of course, there are degrees of poverty, so let’s start there.
- Defining Poverty
I was born in 1961, so now old enough to be a grandmother, and certainly having personal experience of poverty. Although there is a measure of absolute poverty, the term poverty is now mainly used relatively. Both measures compare with what is considered essential (normal) in the UK today. So, for example, it is considered normal to eat out or order a takeaway regularly and to have holidays abroad, neither of which were “normal” in the 1970s. Which brings me to a current bugbear – the assertion that people are having to choose between eating and heating. It’s a no-brainer, let me explain why.
- Eating v. Heating
In 1960 only 5% of homes in the UK had central heating. They certainly didn’t have double glazing or the level of insulation of homes built today. Usually only the main living room had a fire or heater, you put off going upstairs (or outside) to use the cold loo for as long as possible. People didn’t wander around in a short-sleeved t-shirt whatever the weather outside. Food was part of the solution to keeping warm, along with socks and woolly jumpers. Of course, because it was the norm, not having heating didn’t constitute poverty. Yes, some people did die from cold living conditions, as the ONS extract below shows, but the majority were elderly and unable to move around to keep warm.
By contrast, although the government felt the need to begin collecting data on hunger in 2019, there are no statistics on deaths available. If you still feel you have to choose between heating and eating, it may help to remember that without food or water you will die within 8-21 days, although with adequate water intake this could be extended up to two months.
- My personal experience of Poverty
As already mentioned, we didn’t consider ourselves poor when I was a child, but as most women didn’t work there was little money to spare. What we did have, which many lack today, is a garden big enough to grow our own fruit and vegetables. Homes “Fit for Heroes” were a promise made by Prime Minister David Lloyd George at the end of the First World War. The programme of rebuilding, including social housing, was interrupted by the Second World War, but building to the same standards recommenced soon afterwards. The ratio of garden to property seen in the houses built during this period is rarely matched in new builds today. Nor, much as this would be my biggest wish for improving our food today, would it be possible to recreate that space for the U.K.s current population without building over large areas of the agricultural and green belt land.
Most people of my generation will have some experience of outside toilets, even if they no longer served for that purpose. I have strong memories of having to use the pot under the bed during the night when staying with my great-aunt as a child and then the outside privy during the day, with the walkway to neighbouring houses in the terrace passing just feet away! The house did have electricity, and an electric cooker, but no hot water and no bathroom. A jug of hot water, which had been boiled in the kitchen, was brought up to the bedroom for washing each morning, although I never used the iron bath that hung on the wall outside! Food was simple, but delicious, and a salad from the garden was a usual accompaniment.
In the homes of my parents and maternal grandmother, home grown fruit and vegetables were also a regular part of meals, although it was noticeable that my mother began to embrace the convenience foods that started to appear after the end of rationing. A typical meal at my grandmother’s might have been a baked potato topped with cheese followed by a baked apple stuffed with dried fruit (making the most of the oven whilst it was on).
Fast forward to 1980, at which time I left home, married and we bought our first house. There were still many houses which, although not needing to be demolished as had by now happened with most slums, were nonetheless lacking in what by then we considered the basic amenities. Thankfully the Thatcher government was passionate about encouraging home ownership, and grants of between 50 and 90% of the cost, were available for these essential improvements. The house we had bought had an inside toilet, but no kitchen, save for a sink unit, both housed in a lean-to addition to the original property. My neighbour recalls that she could sit on the toilet whilst she cooked the supper when they first moved in! So, a new kitchen was to be installed in one of the two downstairs rooms, and the second bedroom divided into two to create an upstairs bathroom. Loft insulation and central heating were also planned to be part of the subsidised improvements. The process was slow, you had to submit quotations for each job, get approval before starting, and then apply for the funds to be released after the work was completed. This usually meant having saved enough to pay for the work before starting the process again for the next job. We hit an early problem when, in removing the old stairs, we found that what we had been advised was a small corner of dry rot had in fact rampaged throughout the house behind the plasterwork. We had to strip everything out, and then move out whilst the dry rot treatment did its work. We moved back to a shell, with only a ladder to access the second floor. Cooking was in the lean-to addition that contained just the sink and our two-ring camping gas stove. I cooked like this for a year before the new kitchen was obtained.
In December 1981, severe cold set in followed by heavy snows which lasted until mid-January. It was one of the coldest winters recorded in Britain. We had the new upstairs bathroom by then, but the water was frozen in the pipes and was solid in the toilet bowl. We went to bed fully clothed, including coat and hat. I developed chilblains on my fingers and feet, which still occasionally flare up, although chilblain ointment, common at that time, is now very hard to find.
As if the cold wasn’t enough, Britain also entered the most severe recession since World War 2 as the government tried to control inflation. The recession had begun in 1980 and was at its most severe in 1981, with unemployment topping 3 million. Having only just moved to the area in order to afford to buy a house, taking up new jobs, my husband was made redundant. In fact, I was the only one left working out of the four adults in our house and our neighbours. Having turned to them for help so much already, I felt the pressure to return this help now. My husband decided to retrain as a hairdresser, having previously been an electrician. This involved borrowing money for a 7-month course in London, plus a season ticket for travel. Even when he qualified, he didn’t exactly earn much, and with loans to repay he was unable to contribute to household expenditure for some years. It was the final straw for our marriage, although it took me another 5 years working my way up the career ladder until I earnt enough to buy a property on my own. So, I had plenty of opportunity in which to practice Cucina Povera.
- Comparisons with current cost of living crisis
For many people now will be their first experience of inflation, whilst in the 1980’s we experienced mortgage rates of 15%. Inflation has its flip side – you earn interest on any savings you may have but debts are more quickly reduced in real terms, so if you can ride the situation for a while you will find yourself in a stronger financial position.
One critical difference between the current financial situation and that of the early 1980s is the availability of jobs. Today there are jobs for anyone who wants one, in fact currently many businesses are held back by a lack of staff, keeping wages in these sectors buoyant. Whilst some businesses might go under, there are likely to still be others looking for workers. Currently, at the start of this economic downturn, we have bounced back from Covid without the expected unemployment and there are a substantial portion of people affluent enough to choose not to work more than 3 days a week. The hospitality sector is much larger now than it was in the 1980s, when people still ate out only for special occasions. It provides the possibility for a second job, which gives social contact and perhaps even a hot meal, to help make ends meet.
Whilst the world we are living in has changed since the 80s, some things are not that different. People experience poverty for a variety of reasons and most live through it for a period in their youth – there are plenty of cookery books written with students in mind. When times are hard the challenges are often complex, but rarely unique. Reading Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter (first published in 1970 but now reissued) I am reminded that two rings on my gas stove were a luxury she would have envied as she struggled with just one ring, and that lack of storage or preparation space were par for the course in a bedsit. Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray is another inspirational read, about living and cooking in various remote locations around the Mediterranean.
I have tried to remember these constraints whilst compiling my list, below, of those elements of Cucina Povera that I think remain essential no matter where or when we are living. There are many recipes on this website that meet my criteria to be described as Cucina Povera. I have noticed them particularly during the UKs “hungry gap”, and realised that, rather than turn to more plentiful imports, I have instinctively drawn on Cucina Povera at a time when the raw ingredients themselves are in short supply. Links to some of these recipes are included below.
- The essential elements of Cucina Povera
Nothing is wasted in Cucina Povera. The leftovers of one day are frequently rolled over into the next. A deep-freeze was one of my first “luxury” purchases, as they expand the options for saving and re-using tremendously. Homemade meat stock is always available from my freezer.
- Foraging for wild foods
Not the occasional pick of wild garlic but an eye that sees food everywhere. It is not restricted to the countryside – are the leaves of that tree edible? Those weeds? Every border has dandelions and hairy bittercress growing in them. Initially I mainly picked berries to make homemade wine – thankfully no longer necessary. However, foraging has become a passion and your knowledge expands so that there become few walks that wouldn’t yield something to eat.
- Growing your own
The 1975 TV series The Good Life made self-sufficiency a dream for many but at the very least you should grow some herbs and a couple of pots of salad leaves. I managed this even when I lived in a flat. Buying herbs is a ridiculous waste of money. I have planted them alongside the public footpath running beside our property to create a community herb garden, but they are perfect for guerilla gardening on any waste land if you don’t have your own space.
- Core Ingredients: Eggs, Milk, Bread
Cucina Povera depends heavily on a few staple ingredients. Bread is pretty universal, but in some locations other carbohydrates predominate e.g. pasta, rice or potatoes. Carbohydrates are cheap and filling, but some are more nutritious than others so be careful not to rely too heavily on white bread. Beans and pulses are good healthy options.
A fortnightly tray of eggs was a mainstay of my diet in difficult financial times. Now that I keep my own hens, I am always aware of those customers for whom they are similarly important. As Delia Smith said, if everyone from the age of 9 to 90 could cook an omelette they would always have on nutritious dish to sit down to in no time. Similarly, remember that our first food was mother’s milk and that the full milk from cows or goats provides pretty much all of our nutritional requirements. Never substitute it with skimmed or semi-skimmed as you lose the nutrients this way. Start the day with the classic warming dish of porridge made with full milk.
- Uses ingredients to hand
This goes further than just using up leftovers. Start planning your meal around what you already have in your garden or in the wild and think about what is produced locally. Work with the seasons, they will tell you what is best and cheapest at any time. See the Food In Season recommendations for each month.
- Eschew food fashions & fads
Many foods that were once the food of the poor, e.g. oysters, later became fashionable and therefore expensive. Unfortunately, no sooner does a TV chef recommend a “cheap cut” of meat than it becomes expensive. By eating the opposite of whatever is currently in fashion you can save money and eat well. Relying as it does on highly processed and often imported foods, fads like veganism have no place in Cucina Povera.
- Cooked from scratch
Cucina Povera means cooking from scratch, from raw ingredients. Yes, it takes time, but remember you are paying for someone else’s time whenever you buy takeaways or ready meals, leaving little over for the cost of the ingredients.