How to best translate this phrase into English? "Poor Food" or "Poor Cooking" sound terrible in our language because 'poor’ also means 'bad quality'. In the US, 'poor' invokes squalor, misery, and oblivion. After all, isn't the whole point of going to America to get rich? So that you can have all the lobster, steak, caviar and champagne that you want?
But in the fabled South of Italy, and all over the country, these words are immediately understood as something quite positive. Of course they recall the strenuous periods when the nation did indeed have to struggle to survive; but Cucina Povera is definitely not about painful recollections. Lovingly mixed together with those memories are the brilliant solutions created to meet the challenge of not only surviving, but living exuberantly. And if you can pull it off without spending much money - by using the accumulated wisdom of centuries of refinement: techniques, tricks, a trained eye for shopping and bartering for the best 'materie prima' (primary ingredient) that your particular area can provide at a particular moment - then so much the better, so much deeper the satisfaction. Even the rich in Italy salute the cuisine of the poor!
Pasta made by toasting leftover flour, because after the precious first grade stuff had been sold to the rich families, that's all that remained for the peasants to scrounge for on the floors of the granaries. Pasta itself was a luxury for four-fifths of Italians until the prosperity that came after World War II. As it happens, the slightly smoked flavour of spaghetti di grano arso, a Pugliese specialty, goes especially well with clams.
Or stale bread, toasted then ground to crumbs and used to top pasta, because cheese was too expensive. As it turns out, the wheat, water, salt and breadmaking expertise are of such high quality that the humble-looking substitute actually intensifies the flavor of certain sauces and other ingredients and makes the whole dish sing like a soprano.
Or how about leftover cooked and seasoned pasta used to make a focaccia di patata the next day that tastes so good, you want it as your main course for lunch!
For me Cucina Povera is a phenomenon of ubiquitous talent. A Zen-like simplicity and a devotion to quality. So I would translate: "Poor folks' food" - the food of poor folk, but a folk whose long and deep social history has always been intertwined with an equally deep culinary history. For clarity, I add a phrase: collective culinary genius. It’s a tribute to untold numbers of home cooks: mothers, grandmothers, and yes, quite a few men cooks too. Almost everybody gets into the act. Children too naturally learn the enthusiasm that surrounds cooking in Italy, and so a great number of home cooks abound. Home cooking is as delightful, perhaps more so, than what many restaurants and trained chefs can hold forth.
Because bread is a “poor folks food” par excellence, there is a lot of it in Italian culture, especially in the South, and it's very, very good! Just as the great Midwest plains have been the US's primary area of grain production, or as the Ukraine was to the Russian Empire, Puglia is Italy’s “bread basket". One very special type of bread common in the South is called frisa. Pronounced FREE zuh, exactly the way you might say "freezer" in Afro-American dialect (more on dialects later). Frisa is actually a dried bread. It is made of wheat flour or a mix of wheat and barley flour, shaped like a bagel, cut roughly in half, and then baked hard. In ancient times these rock-hard 'bagels' could be made by the hundreds in a communal oven once a month, or even less frequently, because the dryness allows for excellent conservation. Think of 'hard tack' - something sailors could take on long excursions that would keep for months. All you have to do is reconstitute it with some water (sea water was often used, to give a natural - and free! - saltiness), and top it, usually with vegetables. Today you are most often served frisa topped with chopped tomatoes, olive oil and maybe a few leaves of arugula or basil.
Bread that's hard as a rock, then soaked, watery?
You call that 'brilliant'?
Are you crazy?!?!
That's probably the typical American's reaction, who can't imagine a great food that doesn't have some kind of meat or at least poultry or fish as the main ingredient. Let me now clarify something. When I say 'American', I mean it in the true, geographically accurate sense - all Americans, not just the USA, BOTH of the continents named after Amerigo Vespucci. I know many Latin Americans, like my friend from Mexico City, whose reaction to Mediterranean food was "Well Ok, it's nice, but there's no MEAT." (Her mouth frowned, her eyes looked sad and lost)
First consider that the region of Puglia’s is a sun-drenched land. One lovely way to think of the local cuisine is as cucina di sole - “cuisine from the sun”. Rather like the traditional cooking in Provence, France, the scalding sun yields a bounty of exceptionally tasty vegetables. In addition to wine and olive oil, Puglia supplies tomatoes to all of Italy. The most commonly used canned variety are from San Marzano. These pomodori pelati set a very high standard of quality in a nation noted for its tomato addiction. They are a staple in almost every cook's kitchen. In fall one of the greatest Southern Italian traditions is the preparation of conserva (sauce) to be stored up for winter. It’s a messy, bloody-looking, and very practical rite that fewer and fewer families practice. Many other varieties, eaten perfectly ripe, are often better than meat. In fact, I and many others believe the meat sold in the South is not of high quality. The same conditions that make Mediterranean food so healthy and low in fat, have also kept a true meat culture - as exists in the North or in France, for example - from taking root here, though local tastes have been changing. (Oh, by the way, many people down here love horse meat. But let’s leave that aside for now.)
Secondly, you only reconstitute the frisa, not soak it. Remove the 'bagels' from their bath after only ten or fifteen seconds, maybe thirty if the grain is dark and hardy. Then you set them aside for a couple of minutes to stabilize. Once you learn the correct timing, the super dry frise should absorb the moisture and become soft, but not watery. The very best frisa in my opinion is of whole wheat or better yet the dark whole grain barley type - the flavour and texture is denser, earthier, more substantial. To me the white kind is insipid and overprocessed, though very popular.
The most common way to eat frisa is with your hands - no utensils. But a few years ago an intrepid chef who now lives and teaches in Lecce discovered a recipe that uses the frisa in a type of salad. I now prefer to eat them this way, with a big spoon. Crumbled and mixed more uniformly with the other ingredients, each bite is perfect, balanced with the other flavours, and more likely to end up in my mouth and not on my clothes.