Book Tuesday: Cucina Povera

We’re starting to settle in to our new life here in Washington State. A kind neighbor dropped by the other day with a plate of homemade cookies, which charmed the heart of this long-time city gal. Turns out there’s a lot to do, too, and my biggest challenge so far is to make sure that I get my work done before going out to play.

Being a lover of all things healthy, I walked downtown to check out a scheduled olive oil tasting. There’s nothing like the taste of fresh olive oil, which leaves a peppery tickle in the back of the throat. The olive oil to be tasted came directly from Tuscany, where author Pamela Sheldon Johns runs an organic farm and bed and breakfast.

58 people showed up at Port Townsend’s Undertown, a coffee and wine bar that is, quite literally, under the town. Johns had set up a long table for sampling the olive oil with fresh crudite and sauteed kale sitting atop bruschetta.

Johns’s olive oil has a more subtle “burn,” or pizzico in Italian. This dazzling flavor comes from the coreggiolo olive or by early harvest of other olives and is highly prized. Johns prefers to wait a bit longer to harvest, though, toning down the intensity of the burn and giving the oil a flavor she prefers. I have to agree that I prefer it to the stronger pizzico of the Texas oils I used to buy.

Johns is on tour promoting her book, Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking. Cucina Povera is a lovely book to behold, complete with full-color photographs of the Tuscan countryside. Johns lives outside of Montepulciano, where Hubby and I once sampled the brilliant Vino Nobile and Brunelo wines that are famous in that region. On this day, for the tasting, I sampled a glass of white wine from the nearby Umbria region of Italy.

Despite Italy’s reputation for great food, poor Italians went through many periods of food scarcity in their history. From this, they learned to “make do,” wasting nothing. The local bread, made without expensive salt, would harden in a day — hence the use of bread in soups that we continue to see today. While Johns’s recipes reflect a greater abundance, they keep the simplicity of the Tuscan diet: a few ingredients, fresh and organic wherever possible. This, along with generous amounts of olive oil, make up what we know as the Mediterranean Diet, one of the healthiest on the planet.

Cucina Povera is more than a cookbook, much more. Johns interviewed many older locals, getting their perspective on life with hard times. She was struck by the fondness with which memories were recalled. Having had my own share of lean years — though I always had plenty to eat — I can relate to the strength of character that comes from having to do without, and I feel a similar affection for those hard times. If you love good stories and good food, take a look at Cucina Povera! It’s the next best thing to going to Tuscany.

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