Peasant to posh: how ‘poor’ food has become a delicacy for the wealthy

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7 min read
AUTHOR: Lee Howard
Italian restaurant on the canal in Venice

Cucina Povera

What we call ‘peasant food’ sounds so much more palatable in its Italian equivalent, ‘cucina povera’ or ‘poor cooking’, centuries-old recipes that have stood the test of time. From the humblest of origins and made with what was once considered the poorest of ingredients, it’s the art, or perhaps alchemy, of making something out of nothing for the plate. Passed down over the years as family favourites, these recipes are still served daily at home and in traditional restaurants. Some are revived with a new twist courtesy of celebrity chefs and, increasingly, are elevated and feted in high-end restaurants.

Take zuppa di pesce, for example, from Naples and other coastal areas of Italy, a stew with the flavour of the sea. Like all good peasant food, necessity was the mother of invention. This seafood stew began from a mixture of what was usually left over unsold at the market from the daily catch. Fisherfolk put these scraps in a pot to simmer and develop flavour, maybe adding some aromatics and white wine, if available. And when tomatoes came over from the Americas, in they went too, for the Neapolitan version, zuppa di pesce alla marinara.

This dish is made in a particular order and takes time, as do similar dishes found in Greece (kakavi), Portugal (caldeirada de peixe) and in Spain (suquet de peix) as well as the spicy Catalan version (romesco de peix), which is sieved to produce a smoother and more refined romesco sauce, justifying its higher price in some restaurants as Rick Stein points out on his travels around Spain. When you travel the Mediterranean, it’s tempting to taste these specialities at their origins, and often you pay a premium for the privilege of authenticity.

Italian fish soup on a table

Zuppa di pesce

Bouillabaisse with a view of Marseille

Bouillabaisse

Left: Zuppa di pesce

Right: Bouillabaisse

Following the coast round to Marseille, the home of bouillabaisse, this famous seafood dish has achieved a kind of protected status locally, and with a price to match. Its name comes from the Provençal dialect word bolhabaissa, a compound of two verbs: bolhir (to boil) and abaissar (to reduce heat or simmer). This hints at a key part of peasant food cooking – often the slowness of preparing and cooking to extract flavour from what was originally considered ‘lesser’ ingredients.

Peasant food and cooking was not, generally speaking, for those who might be termed ‘time-poor’, but nowadays we are exactly that. So it comes as no surprise that labour-intensive slow-cooked food, with today’s more expensive ingredients, comes with a higher price tag when we dine out. To enjoy the Bouille Abaisse at Le Petit Nice, Passedat restaurant in Marseille, in all its three-course glory and with dessert, will cost you 270 euros per head. That’s a far cry from the cost of a dish that began as unwanted bony rockfish fishermen couldn’t sell.

This dining experience somewhat reflects the traditional manner of serving bouillabaisse with the fish in one dish, soup in the other and rouille sauce and croutons on the side. Such was the debate over exactly what constitutes a proper bouillabaisse and how it should be served, a group of local restaurateurs codified the ingredients in the 1980s under the Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter, insisting upon, amongst other ingredients, bony scorpion fish and, of course, saffron.

Paella on dark table

Paella

plate of cassoulet, with meats and white beans

Cassoulet

Left: Paella

Right: Cassoulet

The unmistakable shade of saffron colours another peasant dish, paella, originally cooked with rice grown in drained marshland in Spain’s Valencia region. The large pan was shared by field workers and now it’s enjoyed by tourists dining in Spain and served in Spanish restaurants all over the world. Filled with seafood, sometimes with chicken and even with pork or rabbit, the size of the pan seemingly reflected in the price of the bill when it’s time to pay.

It’s a similar story with cassoulet, made in a large pot, traditionally from southwest France and dating back to medieval times. Legend has it that during a siege of Castelnaudary near Toulouse, the city pooled its leftover food to feed the soldiers. Nourishing beans along with pork, sausages and other meats were simmered slowly together. The dish has evolved over the years and the Toulouse version includes duck or goose confit, jars of which, as a base, would surely stretch the weekly shop.

From Root to Shoot and Head to Tail

Cucina povera is a masterclass in not wasting food. In some of the most rustic dishes, nothing was too humble for the pot. The Tuscan stew ribollita mixes beans, cabbage, more greens and leftover stale bread. In French peasant cooking, ratatouille, originating from Nice, was created by poor farmers using up summer vegetables, stewed slowly in the pot.

Today, we champion the zero-waste root-to-shoot cooking trend, making the most of every part of the vegetable, including its skin. And in the same manner, it’s fashionable for chefs to prepare fish and meat dishes having used up every morsel from head-to-tail, sucking the marrow, as it were.

That brings us to offal. The word comes from ‘off-fall’, the bits and bobs that fall from a butchered carcass. They have unsavoury-sounding names such as liver, kidneys, spleen, pancreas, stomach, thymus, tongue and intestine. In 2010, The Telegraph described an “offal revival”.

Add ‘tripe’ to the list, in itself a byword for something poor and worthless, which is unsurprising when you consider that tripe is essentially the stomach lining of farm animals, including cows, sheep, goats and pigs. Yet tripe is proudly served today as a speciality dish on the menu in restaurants across Italy, whether it’s trippa alla fiorentina from Tuscany, trippa alla milanese from Milan or trippa alla romana from Rome.

smoked pig ears cut with Dijon mustard

Pig ears

Crispy sweetbreads on a white plant

Crispy sweetbreads

Left: Pig ears

Right: Crispy sweetbreads

In the UK, chef Fergus Henderson has gone a long way to win hearts and minds – and stomachs – in popularising offal. In 1999, Henderson published his first book, ‘Nose to Tail Eating’ having, a few years before, co-opened St John in a former smokehouse near the historic London meat market, Smithfield. At this Michelin-starred restaurant, you’ll find the likes of crispy pig’s ear, pig’s tongue, ox cheek and rabbit offal on the menu.

“The sad, dull truth about St John is that it’s based on common sense – if you’ve killed the beast, eat it all; it’s not only polite, but delicious to boot. Shall we have sweetbreads for our main course? Why not?”,Henderson told The Guardian in 2008.

Sweetbreads are by far the sweetest sounding of anything offal related. They’re a highly perishable delicacy, either from the thymus gland (throat or neck sweetbread) or the pancreas gland (gut sweetbread) taken from calves or lamb. Waitrose described them as “a forgotten cut of meat” when they teamed up with chef Heston Blumenthal in 2018 to sell a veal chops and sweetbreads dish, noting that in France “le mois des abats”, the month of offal, sees restaurants push signature offal dishes every November.

As well as fashion and trends, abundance versus scarcity plays a part in what was once considered the food of the poor ending up on the plate of the wealthy. Caviar used to be considered a by-catch waste and was mixed in with porridge by hungry fishermen until Russian czars developed a taste for it. Today, beluga sturgeon are critically endangered and, of course, their eggs highly prized.

Caviar on a table

Caviar

A Cape Cod lobster on a plate

Lobster

Left: Caviar

Right: Lobster

Similarly, lobster was once a plentiful catch for the poor with stories of lobster washing up on the shores of Massachusetts and colonists on the East Coast of the USA, having little else to eat, were embarrassed to serve it to visitors. Nowadays, lobster is no longer a necessity or a staple but a choice on high-end dining menus, much in demand and as such over-harvesting and expensive farming have kept prices soaring. On a somewhat lesser scale, the same could be said for snails and also oysters, now an acquired taste, aspirational even, rather than a cheap source of protein for the Victorian poor as it once was.

What goes around, comes around, and goes into the pot. Coming full circle, perhaps even bouillabaisse does not have such humble origins after all. The Phoceans, an Ancient Greek people, founded Marseille in 600 BC and Greek legend has it that Aphrodite invented bouillabaisse to serve to her husband, Hephaestus, lulling him to sleep with its supposedly soporific saffron so she could visit her lover, Ares. Food of the gods, then, albeit for Hephaestus, a blacksmith, though not exactly a peasant.

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