The term "Peasant food" or variations like "cucina povera" seems to be a favoured devise for conveying the sense of the simple rustic existence. Lovely. Unfortunately, along with a simple rustic existence most peasants have back-breaking labour, lack of control of their life direction, malnutrition and disease to contend with. If you had the misfortune to be born female then life could be even worse, if you didn't die during giving birth or shortly after, then there was always the possibility of a life of domestic slavery. Basically, the peasants lot in life is a bit rubbish. However, the fact remains that for modern urbanised populations, it is almost impossible not to idealise this "simple rural existance", in fact I find the idea of a small parcel of land with vines, vegetable plot, pig-stye and a few goats impossibly attactive and I am only a generation or so from the basic reality of the situation. Part of the reason for this is that in English we have a term "peasant", but nothing really concrete to attact it to, other then a vague ideal of idealised rural poverty in Europe or historic poor in the UK. Most people seem to be unaware that the Italian "paesani" refers villagers, not to people working on the land. "Contadini" were the people renting small parcels of land and living in impoverished self-sufficiency. An Italian paeasani would have considered themselves well off in comparison to a contadini, however this type of social nuance is lost on most English speakers.
The exact nature of the rural poor lot in life varied hugely both with region and time period, but the basic premise is that a land-owner would rent out a parcel of land to an individual, and this involved mutual obligations by both parties. Unfortunately, this arrangement could be so heavily weighted in favour of the land-owner, that the tenants were virtually selfs, with no ability to improve their living conditions or even leave the property if they felt like it. The inability to move locations if you desired to was in part due to the contractual obligations (in some case you or you children were not allowed to leave a certain defined area), but often simply due to lack of money, finacial obligations mostly being fulfilled through barter or exchange in kind. One such arrangement might be that you gave 50% of all produce to the owner, this includes grain, oil, beans or any other crop. Obviously this allows much room for the tenant to cheat the owner, so in many cases you might be asked to provide a certain amount to labour on the owners lands or have to provide a certain volume of produce. In good years on good land with a sensative land owner this may not have been a problem, but in poor land in a bad year with a grasping owner it could mean death for you and you family. Most people lived somewhere in between these less then idea states.
Below are some images of my paternal grandmother's home in Croatia. This branch of the family was very poor ideed, even by local standards. Below: the weary face of my great-grandmother
Above: My father standing in front of the single room cottage where his mother was born. The slate roof has been partially replaced with modern tiles sometime in the last twenty years. As you can see the cottage is partially subterranean and very small for a large family. The simple life in Tuscany it's not.
Above: The small plot of land at near the cottage. Fruit trees, vines and vegetables, but hardly enough to support a family on.
Above: Interior of the cottage (click to enlarge image). Here you can see the hearth in use.Some escapes through gaps in the roof tiles. Fuel was very valuble, so cooking technology reflects the limitations of the fuel availability. Small sticks are burnt at the back of the hearth, the coals being racked forward to be used under a gridiron ("gradele") in this case, but above the fire can be seen a chain for suspending pots of various sizes and to the right of my cousin can be seen a large baking iron. Large pots/cauldrons could be inverted and used as ovens to bake bread. Not should here is a "Peka" (Bell). This is a metal cover that fits tightly over an inner metal sleeve, ash and charcoal can be piled on and around this vessel to cook the ingredients very efficiently, either in a small amount of liquid or as a braise (in fact the French term is derived from braise "live coals", reflecting the use of similar cooking vessels in France). Food cooked in this way is said to be "cooked under the bell". An example of a Peka in action can be seen here, the image is taken from the excellent Croatian travelog by egullet member Poots. Typical dishes cooked under the bell are octopus, lamb, calamari stuffed with rice and fish stews, obviously not everyday dishes.
One English traveler in the region during the early 19th century made the following observations about these rural Croatian cottages, obviously there was not much change in the lifestyle of the rural poor until very recently in Croatia.
"In the middle, or at one corner, of the room, is a raised hearth, on which a wood fire burns beneath an iron pot, suspended by a chain from the beam above…the room, too, had no chimney; and the smoke, leaving no crevice untried, invaded every nose and eye it could find, so that, despite the cold, I was obliged, every now and then, to fly to the door, and gasp for breath."
While there is a great deal of sentimentalisation of lives of the rural poor, there is a big difference between this idealising the past and being interested in the past. I think that as people that are interested in regional food cultures we are very lucky as we have the luxury of looking at the cuisines of societies that are either undergoing social changes that are acceptable to us, or cusines of cultures that have undergone this change in the near past. The oppertunity to examin these types of cuisines in flux is not something that lasts forever, so I feel pretty privileged to be able to do so. These types of social transitions often occur before anybody bothers to record any information about these people. Sometimes in reading historic documents will come across a paragraph or a line that brings these ghosts into the light, but for the most part every moment of the dasy of the rural poor is lost. I think that this is one of the greatest of human tragedies. So while there is a lot of un-thinking middle-class sentimentalising of many poverty culture cuisines, it is worth considering that exactly these same cuisines and cultures are deserving of being recognised, rather then loosing them forever.
In terms of my families recent rural poverty and for families like them, the oppertunity to move to New Lands and re-invent their lives has always been and continues to be a very attractive proposition. My father's family were part of the massive wave of immigration to Australia from Southern and Eastern Europe during the early 1950's. Like many New Australians, this meant massive family stress and upheaval, both good and bad, but for 2nd generation decendents like me it means the oppertunity to make whatever I wish of my life, not something that my ancestors with their simple rustic peasant cusines ever had access to.
New lands and new oppertunities obviously impact on cuisines. Ingredients differ, recipes are lost, new influences creep in, family structures differ and economic costs make a difference. In Australia possibly the greatest difference of all for my family was the availability of cheap, year round meat and fuel. Dishes that were once made for special occasions and festivals, become part of the normal weekly rotation of meals. The New Land becomes a magical place where the special dishes of Christmas and Easter are eaten all the time. In effect Australia had become Boccaccio's peasant's dream country of Bengodi where vines are bound with sausages, rivers run with wine and ravioli tumble down mountains of grated cheese - a peasant's paradise indeed. Does it matter then if the sausages are not quite as savoury as the ones back home, the types of vegetables and fruit are not the same and that while there is a lake of Shiraz and Cabernet, nobody has heard of Plavac mali?
Oddly enough these things do matter, even to ex-peasants and their children. My Baka (grandmother) is a stellar cook - as all grandmothers are. I rememer sweet bread stuffed with poppy seeds, cakes oozing with nuts, spice and sweet honey, chicken soup before every meal, fresh bread made daily, roast pork which is still my bench mark, and delicate shortbread biscuits. But for all the pasta, polenta, fresh bread, cakes, pastries, meats and fish dishes, I think that my family would agree that the one dish made by my grandmother that they think of most of all as "her's" is simply bean soup. Plain, ugly brown, savoury, delicious, perfect, peasant bean soup.
Bean soup: Simple to make, but is shows several techniques for extracting maximum flavour from limited ingredients. For example the flour is browned and added not so much as a thickening agent, but to add another layer of depth to the flavour of the soup.
The raw ingredients: 500 gm beans (borlotti or red kidney) soaked over night, one sheet smoke pork ribs, one medium white onion, six cloves of garlic, one Tablespoon of paprika and plain flour each. A smoked ham hock can be used if you are feeling wealthy.
Raw onion is chopped and added to the ribs and beans. This is covered with water and brought to boil. At this point the liquid is drained of and discarded. New water is added and the soup brought to a gentle simmer.
The garlic is gentle fried until golden (not brown as they will make the soup bitter) in either fresh lard or olive oil. Garlic is then removed and the flour is added to the hot fat. This is carefully stirred until a red-brown roux is created.
Off the heat both the garlic and paprika are added. This takes out the raw flavour of the paprika (something that no amount of boiling will do). This roux mixture is added to the beans which are cooked until the beans are soft, but not falling apart. The ribs are removed and discarded, their job is done (if I was a true peasant I would obviously eat them). Either pasta or cubes of potato are added in the last 15 minutes of cooking normally.