Published 18 November 2021
Article by Nadia Fragnito. Nadia is a cookbook author, recipe creator, presenter and vegan Italian expert.
Historically, the south of Italy was always less economically wealthy than the north. When poverty struck, families often had to forgo the ‘luxury’ of meat, dairy and eggs – these foods were simply unaffordable. Instead, they focused on seasonal vegetables, grains and legumes that were grown and harvested at home or within the community. Grains could feed a multitude and were often paired with beans or vegetables to create hearty and nutritious dishes. When my dad was growing up in Italy, his family enjoyed simple meals and ate a largely vegetarian diet. Dishes were jam-packed with nutritional value and were a thrifty way to feed large families.
Out of times of hardship arose a plethora of traditionally vegan dishes from the south. Fresh pasta was made without eggs, sauces were meat free and made with the creative use of vegetables and legumes. Italians are great lovers of tradition. So when it comes to food, tradition is paramount. If your nonna cooks a pasta dish with beans, then she will always cook it with beans. If the orecchiette pasta is made senza ouva it will always be without eggs. When fried breadcrumbs are used to garnish the chilli pasta of Matera, then you ditch the cheese. If you have an abundance of harvested vegetables, these become the stars of your meals. Growing up, my nonna would make large pots of garlicky potatoes and capsicums for lunch or a basic yet flavourful potato and spinach soup. To this day, thanks to the value of tradition, there is a wealth of ‘accidentally’ vegan recipes from the south for us to enjoy.
The farmland regions of the south provide the ideal natural environment for plant-based produce. Fruit and vegetables grow abundantly in volcanic soil. Olives thrive in groves of rich-red soil. Instead of butter, the south favours olive oil in cooking. Here, they adhere to a more traditional ‘Mediterranean diet’ rather than a rich meat and dairy one, where you will find a cuisine that heavily features grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Each region, as well as each town, is proud of its produce. Lemons grow bigger and sweeter on the Amalfi Coast, San Marzano tomatoes carry the lava of Mount Vesuvius in their veins, Puglian olive oil is akin to liquid gold, the Bronte pistachio of Sicily is the envy of all pistachios. The ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ – a special certification from the European Union – ensures that produce is locally grown and follows traditional farming methods. This is how Italy honours its fruit and vegetables.
Let’s delve into the plant-based superstars of four southern Italian regions:
The region of Campania ranges from the glittering Amalfi Coast, to bustling Naples and to the quiet countryside province of Benevento. The cuisine is often hearty and uncomplex. Vegetables come to life in a hefty glug of olive oil and rise to great heights when stuffed and baked. The street food of Naples is pure comfort food. The fruit of the gods are worshipped in simple dishes. And naturally, there is an abundance of pizza and pasta.
What to taste:
Spaghetti al pomodoro (Spaghetti with tomato sauce)
Granita al limone (Lemon granita)
Cicatelli pasta (Fingerprint pasta)
Taralli al finocchietto (Taralli with fennel seeds)
Peperoni ripieni di pane (Stuffed capsicums)
Vegetables play a big role in Puglia, and in the summertime their kaleidoscope of colours and flavours creates the canvas for a gallery of recipes. Pasta and bread make the ideal base for sauces and toppings, showcasing the rich produce of the region. There is no need for extravagance or complexity; the dishes truly shine with fewer ingredients.
What to taste:
Focaccia Barese (Focaccia Bari style)
Rigatoni con crema di peperoni gialli (Rigatoni with yellow capsicum cream)
Orecchiette con cime di rapa (Orecchiette with broccoli rabe)
Ciceri e tria (Chickpea and tria pasta)
Cafe Leccese (Iced almond milk coffee)
One of the curiosities of Sicilian cuisine is in how it differs from the rest of southern Italy. You will experience a melting pot of flavours and discover its Arabic influences of spices, grains, nuts and dried fruits in both sweet and savoury dishes.
What to taste:
Caponata (Sweet and sour eggplant stew)
Pane e panelle (Chickpea fritters in bread)
Busiate alla Trapanese (Corkscrew pasta with tomato and basil pesto)
Granita alla Mandorla (Almond granita)
Indulge your appetite for the hearty, rustic and earthy. Grains and beans grow abundantly in the Basilicata region, culminating in an offering of semola pasta, sourdough bread, stews and soups.
What to taste:
Fave e cicoria (Fava bean puree with sauteed chicory)
Ciambotta (Summer vegetable stew)
Strascinati con mollica e peperoni cruschi (Strascinati pasta with chilli and breadcrumbs)
Look no further than southern Italian cuisine for an abundance of vegan-friendly dishes. Get cooking and summon the spirit of the south in your own home.
To get your copy of A Vegan Summer in Southern Italy: recipes and culinary adventures go to theveganitaliankitchen.com/vegan-in-southern-italian
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