The Real Cucina Povera Is Vegetarian

These are salad greens, which are different from cooking greens.

In almost all cooking or travel shows about Rome, “cucina povera” — the poor kitchen, is featured with the host shown noshing at the offal of some animal. Invariably, they will also mention the fifth quarter, the quinto quarto, which is what is left after the other parts were shared between the nobles, clergy, bourgeoisie, and military.

Borage. I think.

What if you were vegetarian? I’m being facetious, because if you are poor, you eat what you can. Most poor people, through history, have been vegetarian. On a side note, the pig is the only barnyard animal that is worth more when dead. Most animals are worth more for their eggs, milk, wool, etc.

Cooked chicory greens. Available every single day.

Italians have been poor for most of their history (from long before there was a nation called Italy — created in 1861) and their cuisine has grown from necessity. As recently as a few generations ago, there were times of famine. Eating offal such as heart, tripe, and other organ meat, would have been rare. The daily food would have been vegetables, bread, pasta, and legumes, such as wild greens and beans. Even today, there are dishes such as puree of fava beans served with chicory greens. Vegetables that would be considered weeds are normal food in Italy. Dandelion and other wild greens that are now on Michelin star menus have been normal food here for centuries. Things like beet tops/greens which would be animal feed in other countries, is normal human fodder.

Dandelion?

Parmesan cheese has over thirty percent protein so it is considered a good source of protein when meat is not available. It is called “the poor man’s meat” or was, but it certainly is not for the poor anymore. Meat is cheaper. There are even recipes that call for toasted breadcrumbs — this was if you could not even afford cheese.

Broccoli greens.

I recently discovered another frugal use of dairy. Ricotta is made from the whey leftover from the making of cheese. In Puglia, they take the ricotta and let it ferment to become “Ricotta Forte” a strong cream cheese product that is picante because its sourness will bite you in the back of the throat. I have not asked but it’s probably “good for you” which normally means they need to convince you to eat it…

Fortunately, there is olive oil. Even the poor can afford it. Italy was a mostly agricultural society and even today there are many small farmers. Many big city families still own an olive tree orchard and produce their own olive oil each year.

Today is mother’s day in Italy, but really, every day is mother’s day in Italy. While men are often the famous chefs, it’s the mothers who do the majority of the cooking. They can even turn weeds into comfort food.

A Fresh Milk Renaissance in Lima

So far, from a few years ago where “fresh milk” was a childhood memory, or a thing one got in the country, there has been an renaissance of fresh milk here in Lima. I have had a dickens of a time explaining in some places that I was looking for fresh milk — not cold milk. But, Lima is beginning to get milky! There are now four brands of fresh milk… the stuff that expires and goes bad within a few days… you recall? Most milk here is shelf stable UHT and sold in bags or boxes. So far there are four types of fresh milk available (all since that day in 2014, when I saw it for the first time).

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Milk and yogurt. From happy cows.

Vacas Felizes: translates to happy cows. This organic milk can be bought at the bio-feria, farmers’ markets, and a few shops.

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Yogurt, but the bottles are the same for the milk.

Danlac: owned by the mega-company, Gloria, but they have a great publicity campaign. The bottles are old fashioned and I see the bottles being reused all the time.

Plusa: sold in plastic bottles with a red cap.

And then another brand also in a glass bottle with a black and white cow pattern on the bottle. This one is not so good. But, I’m happy it’s here.

Now, I’m just waiting for the arrival of fresh, delicious cream, in liquid form, without sugar added. There is some cream to be had, but it’s not fresh sweet cream. Or clotted cream, Devon cream, or creme fraiche, skyr, actual thick full-fat Greek yogurt, or quark… but I digress.

Milk and Dairy Products in Bogota

Fresh milk!
The Alpina dairy.

Colombia is so green and there are many cows so I expected the dairy products to be amazing. When I first got here, I’d go to Carulla and admire the rows and rows of dairy products. But, then I realized that most of the dairy products were various yogurt drinks. I like yogurt drinks but I really love fresh milk. Carulla does have two brands of fresh milk (and someone, a birdie, told me that on Tuesdays, they carry a third brand) in full-fat, low-fat, and lactose free.

Cows in winter.
Fresh milk?

On one of the weekend adventures, I made a point of visiting the “Alpina Lecheria” in Sopo, as I had been told that this was a good place to visit. As we approached the dairy, there was a traffic jam — all traffic coming out of the dairy! Higher up on the hill, the large steel tanks glinted like giant sized milk containers. Sadly, there was no tour of the dairy, no lines of cows chewing their cud, and no Heidi with braids. The main attraction was the outlet shop selling dairy products, ice cream, sandwiches, and gift baskets of dairy products. In front of the store, hundreds of people sat on the grass enjoying their dairy.

I went in the store. I looked for the fresh milk. I found long life milk. No fresh milk. I asked an employee for the fresh milk. He lead me to the same milk that I had just looked at. Long life milk. Expiration date in April. I told him that I was looking for milk that would go bad in a few days, not in three months. He told me that I needed to go to the countryside if I wanted fresh milk. Not sure if he thought I should find someone milking a cow…

The dairy outlet.
The dairy outlet.