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Pasta is so important to Italian culture and is loved by so many people all around the world. Pasta Grannies is an inspiring project working with the grannies (nonnas) of Italy who are preserving the traditions of pasta-making and keeping a record of these recipes for future generations. Not only do these women make delicious pasta dishes, but with diverse and fascinating lives, have incredible stories and life lessons to share.
In this episode, we talk to Vicky Bennison, the creator of the highly successful ‘Pasta Grannies’, which has nearly two million followers across YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Her second book, Pasta Grannies: Comfort Cooking – Traditional Family Recipes From Italy’s Best Home Cooks, is out now. She shares with us how this project first came about ten years ago and about what she’s learned along the way from these wonderful women.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- When Vicky moved to Italy ten years ago, she noticed that it was only older women who were making pasta by hand on a daily basis. She thought to herself that someone was really going to have to make a record of these women and it ended up being her that took did so!
- She’d never so much as picked up a video camera before, but she realized that recording it, rather than just writing about it, was key because pasta making is so very physical – there’s a rhythm to it. YouTube was fairly new at the time and she did everything herself and put these videos up and very slowly, through word-of-mouth and friends of friends she found the grandmothers to film. She knew that to publish a book you need to demonstrate an audience, so she began to start taking YouTube seriously and posted every week – no mean feat!
- There are hundreds of different shapes and different names for pasta. The same pasta can have different names and the same name can apply to different pasta, so it can get really confusing. Vicky is not a purist and is just the messenger – there’s no right or wrong way and if one village says it’s this way, that’s just fine
- In her introduction to the latest Pasta Grannies book, made a point to say that these ladies are the nonna, but shouldn’t just be described/thought of as cute. Even if it’s well-meaning, there can be some stereotypes around older Italians that don’t appreciate the depths and variety of their lives and experiences. We need to listen to and we can learn so much from them in many ways – for instance about the importance of not throwing food away. Many of us understand we shouldn’t do this, but it’s not a way of life. The project is not only to draw out the recipes but to draw out these women’s personalities and stories. Pasta has become the vehicle to get to know the women, as Vicky says – people come to the channel for the pasta and stay for the grannies!!
- Food culture is changing in Italy, but they still have traditions and a close connection to the land. In many countries, like the UK/US/Australia, these things were lost a long time ago and many are used to mostly buying things from a supermarket. Where Vicky lives, for instance, the fishmonger comes round in his van twice a week, there are several butchers and a couple of pasta shops. They tend less to do a shop at the supermarket once a week and care about the products that they’re buying – even if they can’t grow their own. Even though there’s huge diversity in the gastronomy across Italy, the ethos tends to be the same
- Pasta Grannies have gone to almost every region of Italy, though they are yet to visit the small regions of Molise and Aosta
- These days, Pasta Grannies has a granny finder. Her name is Livia de Giovanni, she lives in Faenza, and she is Vicky’s wing-woman. She does the research and takes the steps to find the grandmothers. There’s time needed to build up trust with the families and negotiate with the family as well as the grandmother. A grandmother wouldn’t agree to appear on an episode unless her family had agreed and thought it was a good idea
- They try to get ladies to cook in their own homes, as that has turned out the best way to keep them relaxed. In the past, they might have chosen to go to their daughter’s kitchen because they think it looks smarter but then they don’t know where the knives and bits and pieces are and generally get a bit anxious being in someone else’s kitchen. Meeting them in their own homes helps with the conversation, and keeps them feeling spontaneous and relaxed. The cameras are very small, they don’t rehearse – everything is intended not to stress them in any way – which shows in the episodes
- A couple of memorable nonnas were Pina, who did chestnut gnocchi with walnut pesto. She was quite perplexed as to why they would be going there and especially to learn how to make gnocchi. She thought surely they should already know how to make gnocchi. They had to say, “well we do kind of know how to make gnocchi, but we want to know how you make your gnocchi.” All her ingredients come from around her, whether it’s her vegetable garden or the woodlands around her property. Checkout Pina’s chestnut gnocchi with walnut pesto here
- Cicci, who is in a neighboring village to Pina, is another woman that appears in the book. She forages for mushrooms, and they appear in her recipe as well. Seasonality is important, but they’re not averse to modernity at all and will make things to keep in the freezer – so Cicci makes her porcini sauce when they are in season and freezes them for use year-round. They’re not stuck in the past
- When. it comes to pasta, everything is determined by locality and climate and what grows when. The pasta that they make in central northern Italy, is with soft wheat pasta, and in southern Italy, it’s durum wheat pasta. Nowadays, northern cooks are adding a little bit of durum wheat to their pasta dough to give it a little bit more body – but that’s as recent as the last couple of decades
- The dough then determines the kinds of shapes that you can make. The soft wheat pasta is much more extendable and you can make things like all the cappelletti, tortellini, and things where you’re wrapping the dough around small amounts of meat, cheese, etc. The durum wheat flour, however, produces a harder, less elastic dough
- Dried pasta is not second best to fresh pasta, it just has a different role. For the pasta grannies, it was often the case that in the past, they would not have the money to buy the dried pasta. It was quite a middle-class/aspirational thing to be able to get it dried. and pre-made. If you could afford to buy the flour, that would have been cheaper, so if you wanted pasta, you had to make it yourself. It also wasn’t necessarily a daily thing – just on Sundays perhaps – it depends on how poor you were. If you were a farmer and were growing the wheat, that would be fine as the local mill would bring you your flour on a regular basis, so you could make the pasta more regularly
- A lot of women have mentioned to Vicky that the flour now smells really different from when we were young. They could smell the grass and wheat in the flour, and it just doesn’t have that nutty smell anymore. The nature of flour and its production has changed in their lifetimes
- Pasta grannies have 400 episodes under its belt – that’s a lot of pasta, but even when they do a dish or pasta type they’ve done before, it will always be different in some way – the recipe and of course, there’s a different personality. So every episode is unique and every pasta dish is unique
- A couple of favorites for Vicky, from book one, there’s the Pansotti dish, which is these little belly button ravioli stuffed with foraged, wild greens, served with a walnut pesto, which is utterly delicious. It’s somehow full of flavor and very elegant at the same time. From book two, one of the dishes that Vicky makes herself a lot at home is Carla’s Risi e Tochi, which translates from the local dialect to chicken stew risotto. People can get anxious about risotto, and this is a sort of gateway dish that is pretty stress-free. You make a chicken stew, fish out all the meaty bits, take the flesh off the bones and put aside, chuck in the rice and juices – adding just a bit more wine and a bit more water, stir it all up, cook the rice, put the meat back in and voila. The key ingredient in that is the rosemary that goes so well with chicken
- if you’re a beginner with risotto use Carnaroli rice rather than any other, because it’s much more tolerant so cooking too long or not stirring enough is not such an issue
- Katy is keen to try the rich and sophisticated Vincisgrassi dish she has seen on Pasta Grannies, which is a porcini and prosciutto lasagna with a little truffle – invented by a chef in Le Marche province, for the aristocracy
- Pasta making in the way the nonnas do is a tradition that is dying out. Women no longer have to pass it down to their daughters. Their daughters go out to work. The good news is that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, both girls and boys, have realized that they can do both things, go out to work and continue traditions. It might not be to the scale their grandmothers did, – it will be more on their weekends and leisure time
- Of course, if there’s a shop on the corner that produces really good pasta, then you’re going to go and buy it. That’s the other development – the professionalization of pasta. If you’re keen on making pasta, then you can make a living out of it. Running a little shop – you’ll get lots of grateful customers. In Vicky’s Italian home town of Cingoli, there are two pasta shops and they are thriving, so things evolve in different ways
About our guest – Vicky Bennison
Vicky Bennison is the creator of the highly successful ‘Pasta Grannies’, which has nearly two million followers across YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Vicky’s first book, based on its success, has been translated into 6 languages; it won a James Beard Award, the equivalent of the food Oscars in America, for Best Single Subject in 2019; and the German translation was awarded Silver medal by the prestigious Gastronomischen Akadamie Deutschlands. Vicky has made live TV appearances on the Rachael Ray Show in America and BBC Breakfast in the UK, and been profiled in the New York Times, Financial Times and Sunday Times among many others. Disney Pixar asked Vicky to support the global launch of their animation Luca, a story of friendship and shared love of pasta. When not travelling through Italy filming grandmothers, Vicky likes gardening and spending time with her family and grandson, Raff.
The Pasta Grannies cook books
You can find Vicky on these channels:
- Websites: www.pastagrannies.com
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/pastagrannies
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/pastagrannies
- YouTube: www.youtube.com/pastagrannies
Places mentioned in the show
- Aosta Valley – small, mountainous, northern region in Italy
- Molise – small region in central Italy
- Faenza – city in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy
- Le Marche – region in central Italy
- Ascoli Piceno – town in Le Marche that lies on the Tronto River
- Cingoli – town in Marche known as the ‘Balcony of Marche’
Food & Drink
- gnocchi – a type of Italian dumpling, usually made from flour, egg and potato
- cappelletti – cappello in Italian means hat as this pasta resembled a kind of ring shape. Different shape and larger than tortellini
- durum – wheat used for pasta in a number of regions in Italy and often for pass produced pasta. ‘Durum’ in Latin means ‘hard’
- pansotti (Pansoti) – a stuffed pasta from Liguria
- carnaroli – type of rice used for making risotto, differing from the more starchy/firmer arborio
- Vincisgrassi – prosciutto and porcini lasagna
- auguri – congratulations
- James Beard Awards – awards that recognize exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts
- Dan Saladino – journalist and broadcaster who makes programs about food for BBC Radio and wrote the book Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them
Resources from Untold Italy
- Read more about food and eating in Italy in our 40 Delicious Italian food facts and on some regional specialties in Truffles in Italy, Piedmont Food, the Best pizza in Naples, and where to find the Best gelato in Florence
- Listen: to our other foodie episodes in Episode #146 Best food and wine gifts to bring back from Italy, Episode #143 7 delicious local dishes from Abruzzo, Episode #142 Tale of 3 cities – A food tour adventure in Italy, Episode #133 Delicious products to try in Liguria, Episode #115 The art of aperitivo, Episode #94 8 cheeses you need to try in Italy, Episode #34 Lifting the lid on Bolognas food culture, Episode #21 Savoring Sorrento – A food lovers guide to Italy’s city by the sea and Episode #04 Mangia! Mangia! Food and eating in Italy
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.