Bernalda is a small hilltop town in Basilicata, in the south of Italy, the old centre of which even now (squint just a bit) makes you think of early Fellini: La Strada, say, or – my favourite – Il Bidone. The streets gleam white in the intense summer heat, every other building seems to be a tiny church, and after lunch absolutely everyone disappears, only reemerging at 7pm at the very earliest. And the food! Its inhabitants love to eat. In the late afternoon, from tiny windows there comes the smell of delicious sauces and soups. Turning a corner, we found two women in old-fashioned aprons, perched on a doorstep. The air was heavy with the scent of basil as they tore leaves from stems, tossed them into an old bucket, and talked tirelessly of their children.
Until last month, I’d never been to the south of Italy, and on the plane I wondered if the cucina povera (“poor cooking”) people write about so romantically still exists. But yes, it really does, I think. In a trattoria in Matera, we ate “meatballs” made entirely of stale bread and herbs that were delicious to an almost puzzling degree (if I tell you that we mopped up the tomato sauce that covered them with slices of the crusty, saffron-coloured bread that is special to Matera, you’ll have an idea of how wonderfully well disguised they were). Meanwhile, on the next table, some locals were eating, by way of a main course, huge plates of bitter greens, stewed until they were soft and dark, and doused with grassy olive oil – a sight that brought instantly to mind Patience Gray’s great Mediterranean cookbook, Honey From a Weed.
For obvious reasons, I always think a lot about food if I’m lucky enough to be in Italy (yeah, yeah, you go for the art and architecture). But in the south, I found I was nosier than ever, thoughts of the cost of living on my mind; and when I landed at Gatwick – to tabloid headlines about £7 tubs of Lurpak in our supermarkets – I found that I was still worrying away at what I’d seen, and smelled, and eaten; wondering what ideas a person might usefully nick.
In southern Italy, even edible fripperies seem to be on the inexpensive side. Order an aperitivo, and it will likely come, not with olives or nuts, but with taralli, those small, hard, rather dry, ring-shaped biscuits that are (in my eyes) no kind of substitute for a cheese straw, or some anchovy butter on toast.
The broke do not necessarily always feel much like cooking. I understand this. But sometimes, cooking can also make a person feel less hard up: eat like a king, and for a while you’ll feel like one. The Italians, I think, know this – or perhaps I mean that they haven’t yet forgotten it, as many of us seem to have done. Back at home, I pulled from my shelves a few of the books that seem to me to speak to this situation, and spent a happy hour or so contemplating what I might make in the coming weeks and months, if I have the time and the energy.
A couple of recommendations. The Art of the Larder by Claire Thomson is really good when it comes to using up stuff that is sitting, half-used and half-forgotten, in your cupboards. I love her semolina gnocchi with sage butter, which is comforting and cheap to make; her egg, turmeric and coconut curry is good health in bowl. But this is quite a recent, modish book. Perhaps, like me, you are in the mood for something a bit more knit-your-own-pastry – the mood is very 1970s, after all – in which case, I send you in the direction of Jocasta Innes’s 1971 classic, The Pauper’s Cookbook, a smeary copy of which my stepmother owned when I was growing up, and which is even now still in print.
Innes has many ways with what used to known as savoury rice, and she devotes a whole chapter to “padding”. But it’s not all pulses and carbs. Who could possibly argue with the notion of an upside-down pudding made from a simple batter and – yes! – a tin of peaches? Not me. Call it a clafoutis, and no one will know you’re on a budget at all.
July 16, 2022 at 08:54PM Rachel Cooke