Saturday 10 June 2017

At the warm heart of the Italian family - Michelle Lovric

This week I’ve been lucky enough to meet Vicky Bennison, who happens to be a neighbour of mine in London. Being myself an author of extremely greedy historical novels set in Italy, it was a great pleasure, mixed with just a little mouth-watering jealousy, to interview a writer who has spent the last five years researching culinary and social history in the bel paese.

Except it is much more fun than that. Vicky’s project is called ‘Pasta Grannies’. And you can see the results in over 100 videos online.

For this month’s post, I have talked to Vicky about her fascinating archive and how it came about.

What is your mission with Pasta Grannies?

Pasta Grannies is on a mission to document traditional handmade pastas still being prepared from scratch in the home. I’m interested in women – housewives not chefs – over 65 years old.

I’m a food writer, but I’ve been filming these sessions, as it’s such a visual technique and I think it’s a good way of paying homage to these wonderful, characterful women and the flavours they create. Of course, I am also simultaneously documenting the recipes to turn into a book.

The book is organised regionally, which effectively means according to the ingredients available. In the past, you had no choice about what you ate. You were grateful for what came out of the ground within walking distance or a cart jolt from your home.

 Styles of pasta are also regional. Northern pastas usually include egg. Southern pastas have less variety in their shapes, but the sauces tend to be more interesting. The mother-lode of pastas is the Po Valley, home to fascinating ravioli of all shapes and sizes.

The book has inevitably become a kind of social history as well, as each Granny tells tales of her life – not just of her work in the kitchen.

In a way, the book is a kind of reaction against the cult of celebrity chefs who tend to graft themselves onto a particular cuisine, often not the one they were born to. They rely on a huge team of people behind them. My Pasta Grannies are doing it all for themselves, including raising their own chickens, growing their own tomatoes, foraging for herbs.

Celebrity chefs are often men or beautiful women. These filters of celebrity rule out the very people, like my Pasta Grannies, who occupy the heart of the family kitchen. (Of course, I have a few glamorous Grannies too). Cooking for the Pasta Grannies is about love, not business. I think that’s why so many of them have been proud to take part in this project, and perhaps also why, in front of the camera, they are quite unselfconscious. The food is the thing. Communicating the story of the food is the thing. It is not about them.

And yet, of course, it is.

Do you eat what you film?

Vicky with Giuseppina
who makes zuppa gallurese
Yes, you bet. Pasta, three or four times a day, sometimes. When you’ve watched it being made, your appetite is sharpened by the aromas and the camaraderie that you’re offered. It is extraordinary how the Grannies welcome us into their kitchens. Part of sharing their recipes includes having us taste the finished product. So yes, of course we eat!

What kind of professional/personal background led you to this project?

 I spent many years working in international development in places like Siberia, South Africa, and Turkmenistan. The next decent meal was always on my mind and I began writing about my culinary adventures: like mushroom hunting with the Russian mafia and cooking zebra stew in near Lake Turkana in Kenya.

 I progressed into writing books. 'The Taste of a Place' food guides tell you where to find good cooking and wine in Corfu, Mallorca and Andalucia. They were recommended by the Observer, The Times, and Delia Smith Online, amongst others. I also co-wrote Seasonal Spanish Food with London-based Spanish chef Jose Pizarro.
 My husband, Billy, and I have a home in Le Marche, central Italy, and I divide my time between there and London. I had bought an old school-house in Italy because I wanted a big kitchen and couldn’t afford London house prices. Fortunately, Billy loves it too.

How did you come up with the idea of Pasta Grannies? Was it one particular Granny and one lightbulb moment?
Everyone loves a Granny. Especially an Italian Granny. And everyone loves pasta. But pasta-making skills are dying out domestically. This was something I noticed when I was researching for another book – that there are all these amazing older women getting up at 5am to make pasta but their grandchildren are being brought up on industrially produced pre-packaged pasta, which is often extremely smooth. It quickly turns soggy and its nutrient value is reduced. Proper dried pasta has a rough texture like a cat’s tongue. It gives the jaws and gut something to work on.

The Italian family is changing. Divorce is now a commonplace in Italy. The birth-rate is declining. Women are going out to work. They buy their pasta in the supermarket. They get their sauces in jars. In twenty years’ time, a new generation of Grannies won’t even know how to cook pasta from scratch. We are on the cusp of losing something precious. So I decided to do something about it.

The first Granny I encountered was when I asked a local supermarket manager to bring his grandmother, Maria, along for a session of pasta-making and documentation. Maria is in her 80s; she was a seamstress and cleaner. But in her retirement, she makes pasta for a local restaurant.
The very first Pasta Granny - Nonna Maria with her ravioli stuffed with ricotta
Our filming session was the first time her grandson had ever cooked with her. He loved it. He even got his hands dirty, helping with the sauce. A man who had always been too busy to take an interest, he suddenly stopped taking pasta for granted. He saw how special it was. It was an extraordinary day. There was such an emotional connection between family members and the food.
I was inspired.

How do you track down your Grannies?
I work with Livia de Giovanni, my Granny-Finder in Italy, who persuades friends and friends of friends to introduce us to their elderly female relatives. Connections are what matter in Italy. So naturally I found Livia herself through friends of friends.

We record the pasta making in live-time in one session, and I prepare a voice-over afterwards with the help of an editor. This is necessary so that the recipes can be followed by someone at home. Grannies tend not to work in scientific recipe-book quantities. When you ask, ‘How much flour?’, they usually say, ‘Quanto basta’ – as much as you need.

 Naturally, we retain a lot of Granny chat and their stories. The Grannies often talk about their own childhoods, and in many cases about the food privations they endured.

 Can you describe a few Pasta Grannies?

Vanda is 88 years old and continues to work in her family’s restaurant. This was the family home and it gradually evolved, becoming a village shop where you could mend your bikes, have a haircut and buy a snack – each of these services being provided by a different member of the family. I like that there are three generations of women working in the kitchen – her daughter, Maria Grazia and granddaughter Elettra. Vanda’s recipe is for Tagliolini with a local shrimp.

While we were filming her gnocchi-making, gentle Selvina suddenly started talking about her experiences of being a ‘mondina’, a female rice paddy worker. She found it hugely traumatic, working in bare feet with the rats and snakes in the mud, having to go outside the dormitory to go to the loo. The pay was terrible too, and was always partly in rice. This experience contrasted with an interview I’d done a couple of years previously with a rice producer who recalled his father thinking the influx of thousands of women to their tiny village as a kind of heaven. Automation and pesticides has consigned the role of the ‘mondina’ to the past – but a 1949 film called Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro) by director Giuseppe de Santis dramatises it well.
Nonna Selvina and her family
Nonne Maria and Peppina with Su Succu
One time I teamed up with a whole group of women who were willing to share their pasta skills. It became a kind of ‘food as theatre’ afternoon. We met Maria and Peppina in a little town called Busachi. Here around 80 women continue to wear traditional costume made in exactly the same way as the clothes displayed in the town’s museum. Busachi’s speciality dish is called ‘Su Succu’ – a pasta cooked in a saffron flavoured mutton stock. And the women put on a show for us.

Concetta is 93 years old, a widow, and still making pasta, although we filmed her making a typical flatbread from Modena called crescente. She doesn’t go shopping. Instead, she operates a kind of barter system where she makes pasta and mends clothes. In return, neighbours supply company and cooking ingredients. Her home was once the local post office and an osteria – the phone that was once the only one in the village is still on her dining room wall. Her husband, with whom she ran the osteria, was in the Resistance during WW2 and their home is just below the site of the old German line. Montese, the area, was eventually liberated by the Brazilians. It’s a fascinating part of Italy where what happened during the war still looms large.

It’s not just Grannies. You have some Pasta Grandpas too, don’t you?

Yes. Traditionally, men have not been the cooks in the Italian family. But I have met a number of widowed men who have taken over in the kitchen. And they are included in this project. For example, there is Roberto Ferretti who makes ‘Tajuli Pelusi’, Hairy Tagliatelle with foraged wild herbs.

Occasionally, we have also filmed Future Grannies, young women – who have been taught their skills by their grandmother, and who have developed a fierce enthusiasm of their own. If nothing else, I hope that Pasta Grannies fosters more of this handing down of kitchen secrets, not just in Italy but in the Italian diaspora. I have filmed Italian Grannies in the UK and other places. I have recently been told of a Pasta Granny in Australia who has a special dish to share.

 What is the place of pasta in the Italian home? Can you give a little of the history of pasta?

Today even dogs eat pasta for lunch in Italy, but it’s only in the last 70 years or so that pasta has become properly Italian in a national sense. The notion of Italian food was popularised by cookery writers like Ada Boni, but food on the peninsular was and remains very regional. So, traditionally in the north of Italy, polenta (made from maize) and rice are staple carbohydrates. Dried pasta has now joined them at the table, thanks in part to workers from the south coming to work in the northern cities.

The origins of pasta remain a mystery. A Greek writer called Athenaeus in the second century AD described a first century recipe for ‘lagana’, which involved thin layers of dough made with wheat flour, lettuce juice and spices and then deep fried in oil; so it was a forebear of lasagna. Then it’s another 400 years before an early archbishop, Isidore of Seville, in the early seventh century mentions boiling sheets of dough in water.

In fact, Sicily is probably birthplace of handmade dried pasta as we know it today. An Arab geographer called Idrisi in the 12th century was impressed by the ‘great quantities made and exported to other Muslim and Christian lands’

pasta making in the 15th century
Dried pasta used to be sold loose, by weight, and it was something only the middle classes could afford to eat regularly. You needed the disposable income to buy it.

To make fresh pasta, housewives needed access wheat flour. But, if you were a farmer, then most of your crop went to your landlord, or else you had to have the money to buy it. Hence the local pasta was often made with other cheaper or more easily found flours like barley in southern Italy. In central Italy, an essential ingredient is eggs to mix with the lower gluten, soft wheat flours found there. But frugal housewives sold their eggs if they could. So pasta for centuries was a high days and holidays food for working class folk – not an everyday staple as it is today.

The reality is that, for everyday sustenance, the really poor people relied on pulses and foraged greens.

What is the origin of the popularity of Italian food in Britain?

Italians have been coming to live in Britain since the Ancient Romans invaded. Ever since then, there have been waves of immigration. Glasgow has an Italian community partly thanks to the Italians from Lucca selling plaster figurines of saints to the local Catholics in the 19th century. The mining boom in Wales attracted large numbers – mostly from a single village called Bardi in Emilia Romagna. The London Brick Company in Bedford even had a recruitment office in Naples to encourage workers over to the UK after the war.

 But most Italians settled in Clerkenwell in London (St Peters is the Italian church) and, apart from producing musical instruments and spectacles, often went into the catering and hospitality – delivering blocks of ice to restaurants is one example I’ve come across. So when Brits started eating out, it was often at Italian-run cafes and restaurants.

Why do Brits still love pasta? It is quick, easy and the ultimate comfort food. It also plays into a general assumption that Italian really know how to live, and how to eat, and how to enjoy family life. Don’t we all want to be like Italians?

What are the pastas and the Grannies that remain elusive?
 Bigoli are a kind of thick spaghetti made domestically using a bigolaro – a pasta extruder which looks like a pump. There must be someone in the Veneto region still using one … I’d love to film it.

 Vincisgrassi is a lasagne special to Le Marche. These days cooks do not differentiate between this one and the lasagne al ragù in the style of Emilia Romagna. But a true vincisgrassi is ‘al bianco’ – it doesn’t use tomatoes, and the ragù includes chicken livers. This dish used to be served to harvest workers. It’s on my list.

Lorighittas are a Sardinian pasta in the shape of braided hoops. They’re jolly difficult to make. Sardinians are wonderfully hospitable but wary in the first instance. We haven’t been successful in persuading someone to let us into their kitchen - so far.

I love the strange names of some pastas, like strozzapreti (priest strangler). You must have collected some amusing ones in your researches? 
There’s Filindeu – from Sardinia. That’s dialect for ‘the yarns of God’. They are in fact fiendishly difficult to make.

And Creste di Galli – ruffled semicircular pasta like a chicken’s crest.

The one that always raises a laugh is Minchiedereddi – which means male sexual organs, on the small side. Beatrice and her daughter Antonella made them for me in Puglia.

 How many recipes have you filmed and compiled?
I am close to 120 now, and I have been nearly all over Italy. I still have a few places to do, including Calabria and Piedmont. Of course, I have been documenting the recipes as I go along, so the manuscript of my book is keeping pace with the videos.

Thank you so much, Vicky. And please remember that anyone can be a Granny-Finder! So, if anyone knows any Italian Pasta Grannies they’d be willing to share with Vicky, please do contact her via the website:

Michelle Lovric's website
And here's a post she wrote about pasta for another place.


Mary Hoffman said...

I love the idea of having a "granny finder"! And the whole project sounds wonderful. I just wish I could make and eat more of these. Perhaps she could do a companion volume of GF pasta grannies?

Lucy Coats said...

This sounds wonderful, Michelle. And so important to document these things before they get lost in the modern world of fast food and houses without kitchens. Off to have a look, as I love making my own pasta and always need tips for new recipes.

Unknown said...

I love this idea and I love this interview! When I get off my stupid phone and onto a reliable computer I am going to indulge in the videos. I have just fired off an email to a swimming friend in Sardinia. He is Roman, but spends several months a year in Sardinia, ingratiating himself into people's homes and eating enthusiastically. He has to have some Granny Finding skills!

Unknown said...

Mary, Lucy, Kate - what lovely comments, thank you. Mary you can find a gluten free pasta recipe on blog section of - Katie (a friend of mine) came up with the recipe when her husband Giancarlo was found to be gluten intolerant. Kate, I hope your Roman charmer has Granny-Finding skills! best wishes, Vicky

Unknown said...

You got the lorighittas already with the most cute granny Cesaria!!!

Clare TaKeShiatsu Yoga Sicily UK said...

such a wonderful project, very inspiring, thank you <3