Italians feast on traditional 'granny' food

Assortment of food, including bread, olive oil, cheese, meat and grapes

It's arrivederci to fast food, as Italians return to traditional recipes and homemade food in an effort to save money in hard times.

As the scorching heat of the day subsides, a vast dusty market place outside the southern Italian town of Giovinazzo becomes a bustle of frenetic activity.

An army of 200 red-shirted volunteers starts piling huge armfuls of bread rolls and baguettes onto trestle tables - 11,000 bread rolls to be precise. Jars and trays of sandwich fillings are lined up on each table with military precision, and the teams of sandwich-makers discuss tactics - who passes, who cuts, who fills, who serves.

This is Giovinazzo's annual "festival of grandmother's sandwiches". The idea was first cooked up 17 years ago by a group of teenagers who worried that the simple honest lunches made by their dear "nonnas" were being eclipsed by fast food and supermarket snacks.

Back then, they couldn't have predicted that in 2012 the economic crisis would bring an unprecedented surge of interest from cash-strapped Italians.

Images from the "festival of grandmother's sandwiches" in south Italy The 'festival of grandmother's sandwiches' is an occasion to sample simple food

"We're living a difficult time, not many people can stretch to a meal out in a restaurant right now, but they can afford to come here, spend a couple of euros on a sandwich and feel equal to other people", says organiser Gianfranco Stufano, who is now in his 30s.

"It's a chance to reconnect with the philosophy of how people used to make the most of local produce, waste nothing and still eat well."

Start Quote

I think that this crisis means we really need to return to peasant food, simpler eating and more intelligent use of local produce”

End Quote Mariano Lettini

It's poignant that many of the traditional recipes for these panini were perfected during the decades of poverty that characterised much of southern Italy's history. Gianfranco still remembers his own grandparents meticulously drying tomatoes, artichokes and peppers in the sun and then preserving them in oil to last throughout winter as sandwich fillings. Leftovers were precious and protected.

At the festival, the most popular sandwich filling is parmigiana, layers of aubergine and mozzarella in a basil-fragranced tomato sauce. More familiar to many as a main meal, but the message here is that a little kept aside can fill a bread roll the next day and save buying lunch. This is an approach many families are now embracing as the recession bites.

"I'm definitely having to cook more at home to save us cash. I'm even making my own bread now, although I don't have much time with kids and work," says Angela, a mum of two.

She represents the new fast-growing trend of Italians taking up home bread-baking to save money.

"We have less and less money each week to spend in supermarkets," she says, "so often we have to compare prices looking for the best bargains."

Girl eating sandwich (Image: Tamsin Smith) Could young people benefit from eating more traditional Italian food?

Figures recently released by Italy's National Institute of Statistics confirm that over a third of Italians have had to cut spending on food. Italians are returning to the "waste not want not" recipes due to hard-nosed economic necessity, although there's also a sprinkling of nostalgia.

Local newsagents say their bestselling cookery magazines are no longer the glossies, but titles including Cucina Economica (Economic Cooking) and Cucina della Nonna (Grandmother's Cooking).

"I think that this crisis means we really need to return to peasant food, simpler eating and more intelligent use of local produce," says Mariano Lettini, nodding at his two daughters clutching enormous panini.

"My girls have tried new things tonight, recipes we'd forgotten existed. We're really inspired and will definitely be trying some of the recipes we've tasted here at home."

No bad thing, according to paediatric nutritionist Dr Domenico Caccavo.

Traditional panini fillings

Aubergine, tomato and mozzarella
  • Sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil (pomodori sott'olio)
  • Aubergine in olive oil (melanzane sott'olio)
  • Spicy ricotta (ricotta forte)
  • Artichokes in oil (carciofi sott'olio)
  • Grape hyacinth (Leopoldia comosum) bulbs in oil (lampascioni sott'oglio)

"Until the financial crisis, modern parents had no reason to think about the culinary spendthrift methods used by their ancestors," he says.

"Many got used to buying easy ready-made supermarket snacks for kids to take to school. They never even considered making the traditional snack of bread, olive oil and tomato, which by comparison is a much better source of carbohydrate and nutrition."

He believes that the climate of austerity could have a silver lining.

"If the current crisis forces more parents to embrace the old cooking traditions, then actually the result could be really positive for the fight against childhood obesity."

The panini party continues well into the night - 15,000 people fill Giovinazzo's market place, singing along to a 70s band with distinctly retro beards. Couples dance, their hands still holding half-eaten sandwiches now draped around each others waists. Children with oily tomatoey faces snooze in pushchairs full of crumbs.

But at midnight, crisis strikes. The 11,000 bread rolls are finished. People are still queueing up with their orders. Frustrated hand waving and apologetic shrugs follow and somehow any dissent is appeased.

"They'll be back next year, and it looks like we'll need to order thousands more bread rolls if interest keeps growing like this," sighs Gianfranco, surveying the rows of empty sandwich-filling jars

It might just be possible that when it comes to handing traditional recipes like these down the generations, the economic crisis may turn out to be more effective than any gastronomic campaign against fast food.

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