My most favourite of all the cuisines in the world is Italian. This should come as no surprise by now. But if we are to get really specific, my most favourite of all the cuisines in the world is the Italian cucina povera, or Italian ‘peasant’ food. The flavours are earthy and are usually the combination of few very simple and humble ingredients which allow the ‘hero’ ingredient to really take centre stage.
This is the cuisine which comes from the kitchens of the poor (a literal translation of cucina povera) where the cook was struggling to feed their family with what little they had. They had to be resourceful, economical, and find the best way to nourish and fill the stomachs of those who came to the table. They also had to make a few ingredients stretch a very long way… A pasta dish, such as Pappardelle with Italian Sausage and Cima di Rapa, for example, is such a dish that is uncomplicated and makes the most of a few inexpensive ingredients. Cucina povera is all about making something out of nothing, particularly if, back in the day, you farmed your own pigs, made your own sausages, and you had the weed-like cima di rapa (broccoli rabe) just growing wildly close by.
One of my first experiences with ‘real’ Italian food in Italy was in 1997 when I first visited my Nonno’s sister in Rome and met my Great Uncle and Auntie and my second cousins for the first time. My elderly aunt would wake up in the morning and walk down 6 flights of stairs, turn left and walk a block or two to the market to source whatever was the best looking produce and best deal of the day. This was the inspiration for lunch. She would then walk back to the apartment building and carry her groceries up six flights of stairs. Then she would walk back down said stairs, turn right this time to go to the bakery to pick up a fresh loaf of bread; the heady smell of the warm bake would follow her as she walked back up the six flights of stairs for a second time that morning. They had an elevator in the building but she was scared of it, so she always walked. Her daily ritual of going to the mercato and paninoteca to source both ingredients and inspiration for the meal of the day is something that I admired in her. That’s resourcefulness.
I fondly remember her making a really simple pasta alla zucca where she made a simple very thin pumkin soup from pumkpin, water, garlic and the rind of a hard cheese (probably pecorino or gran padano) to flavour the liquid, which she then thickened by cooking broken spaghetti in it – what a time-saver! My Zia Maria’s cooking was rustic and by no means complex, but the joy was definitely in the eating. My Zio Giorgio would clean his and her plates by mopping up any residual sauces with a chunk of crusty bread before heading to the kitchen and returning with the cooking pot and wiping the sides clean with even more bread.
On a later visit, I stayed with my second cousin and his wife. Mario would make the trip to the market on the way home from work to pick up whatever looked good as the inspiration for dinner, and was limited to what he could fit in his backpack given his trip was not made on foot but rather by motorbike. He did, however, preference the elevator! One night, supper consisted of deep purple eggplants with fresh basil, dried chilli and pecorino tossed through spaghetti with some of the pasta cooking water. Another night, a simple soup made by ladelling hot clear chicken or beef broth over slices of cheese that would melt and make the soup cloudy and creamy, ready for dunking in chunks of fresh crusty bread.
Italian food is not, and does not need to be complicated. It is, and always should be, a comfort to eat and a pleasure to cook. Cacio e Pepe, literally meaning cheese and pepper, is the epitome of comfort food and of the Italian cucina povera. Think of it as an Italian ‘Mac & Cheese’, though, unlike the American version, the flavours are lighter and the sauce more subtle. It should always be made with some sort of chitarra pasta, like spaghetti or bucatini, which are more easily coated in the silky sauce. Chitarra means ‘guitar’, so you are looking for long thin pasta noodles that look like guitar strings.
Following this recipe, and using only 4 ingredients, you will be on the couch in comfort food heaven in under 20 minutes.
CACIO E PEPE
Spaghetti with Cheese and Pepper
Serves 2 (or 1, depending on your comfort needs)
- Half a packet (250g) good quality Italian spaghetti or bucatini
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups pecorino cheese, finely grated, lightly packed
- Fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil.
Cook spaghetti according to the packet instructions, or until al dente (good Italian spaghetti usually takes about 11 minutes to cook to perfection)
When the pasta is almost cooked, preheat a frying pan over medium heat. When the pasta is ready, scoop about a ladle and a half to of the cooking water into the frying pan.
Use tongs to transfer the spaghetti from the saucepan to the frying pan – do not drain or rinse the spaghetti as the starchy cooking water that already coats the pasta strands is an essential ingredient!
Tip in 1 cup of the pecorino and toss the cheese, spaghetti and cooking water together with tongs to help melt the cheese. Taste for flavour and add the remaining cheese until you are happy with the flavour.
Season with black pepper to taste and give another mix to evenly coat the seasoning. If your pasta is looking a little dry, add a few more tablespoons of the cooking water. You are after a light and silky sauce that evenly coats the spaghetti.
Adjust the seasoning with more pepper or pecorino as desired.
Divide between two bowls – or tip into one big bowl for yourself if you are after a lot of comfort.
Or just take to the pan with a fork.
I won’t judge you.