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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

Linda Lappin reviews Pamela Sheldon Johns CUCINA POVERA

Review by Linda Lappin
Title: Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking
Author: Pamela Sheldon Johns
Publisher: Andrew McMeel Publishing, LLC
185 pages (in English)
Hardback. 185 pages Price $21.99
ISBN-13: 978-1-4494-0238-9

During my thirty year romance with Italy, I have caught a few glimpses of the rustic life as it must have been lived once, not so long ago, before the sharecropping system was disbanded in the Italian countryside and the massive migrations to the cities began in the nineteen sixties. Decades later in most rural areas, old traditions lingered, and still linger today: old ways of doing things, old remedies and recipes, handmade tools passed down from generation to generation, along with an even older wisdom of survival that comes from living off the land. Stepping into an old house in Tuscany, Umbria, or Tuscia today is still like stepping into a story book. You are likely to find a sink hewn from stone, a pan of castagnaccio –pudding cake made from chestnut flour -- steaming on the hearth, tarnished copper pots hanging on the wall by a wood stove, or fragrant bunches of dried fennel or lavender suspended from the ceiling beams. In any Tuscan village, you’ll still find someone who can tell you what herbs will soothe a burn or a fever, what phase of moon you need to plant, prune, bottle wine or cut your hair. You’ll be offered the best red wine, olive oil, cheese, bread, bean soups, pasta, and prosciutto you’ll ever taste, and maybe some porcini mushrooms and truffles as well, prepared according to some grandma’s recipe which she in turn got from her granny’s granny, dating way before the Napoleonic wars, and maybe as far back as the Etruscans. And of course every recipe has its own story, history, and secrets. ,
When we travel, most of us want to take home souvenirs, those talismans that encapsulate the genius loci of the places we have been. Before I moved abroad, on my return trips from Italy to the US, my suitcase would be crammed with every edible allowed into the country by US customs: terracotta dishes, old copper pudding molds, pepper grinders, long narrow rolling pins for pasta, ancient-looking cheese graters and colanders picked up at the markets of Florence or Siena. With these castoffs which had once inhabited old country houses, I dreamed of creating my own Italian kitchen at home.
Cucina Povera, Tuscan Peasant Cooking, by Pamela Sheldon Johns, helps you do just that. This handsomely- produced volume is more than just a cookbook dedicated to Tuscan country- style cuisine. It is a gastronomical travel essay on Tuscany, beautifully illustrated with photographs by Andrea Wyner; a culinary-anthropological study of the vanishing traditions of peasant life, and a historical report of how Tuscans survived famine during the Second World War. But above all, it is a door opening into the archetypal Tuscan kitchen where you can pull up a chair, sit down to a plank table and enjoy a hearty, frugal, and delicious meal. Through the stories, photographs, and recipes collected in this book, the author transports you to a Tuscan farmhouse while giving you the means to conjure up authentic Tuscan flavors in your own modern kitchen. Most of the ingredients you will need can be found at your local supermarket, but you may be surprised to find a few others growing wild in your backyard.
Tuscany, which many people consider to be an earthly paradise, has in recent history seen some very dire periods. Perhaps one of the worst was the Nazi occupation which reached its peak of horrors in the summer of 1944, when hundreds of civilians were executed. Food was scarce, yet families survived thanks to their natural parsimoniousness and their knowledge of the territory. They knew how to make a meal out of nothing, how to forage for dinner, how not to waste a single crumb of bread, how to extract the savor of every wild herb and how to turn the toughest scrap of meat into a delectable meal. If you are game, you can that learn that too, from this book.

Read the complete review on Alimentum Literary Journal http://www.alimentumjournal.com/review-of-cucina-povera/#.UQ_joxxUwrg
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