When the world is in chaos, there is nothing we we’d love more than to be welcomed into Maria’s home and fed some tortelli. I don’t think we’d ever leave.
Others must feel the same, as Pasta Grannies, the book that won a James Beard Award in 2019, has been translated into six languages and sold 170k copies. It was originally written as an accompaniment to a YouTube channel, which was set up in 2015 and has an incredible 887k subscribers.
Now there’s a second volume, Pasta Grannies: Comfort Cooking, which features another 60 nonne in their Italian homes, offering up instructions on how to create their authentic dishes.
Its author, Vicky Bennison, lives in-between London and rural Italy, though when I speak to her she’s taking her 90-year-old mum out for a birthday lunch while they’re on holiday in Kelso.
Pasta Grannies has become such a runaway phenomenon that she now has to employ a dedicated “granny finder” who seeks out potential candidates for the channel and book.
“She's almost like a social worker and works with the families. If you look at the back of the book, you'll see a picture of the team,” says Bennison, who worked in international development before setting up this project. “We don't audition them. We're just grateful when someone says yes”.
According to the author, it’s sometimes difficult to leave whenever they’re filming at one of the stars’ homes. Their hosting skills are such that there are usually endless courses, many of which feature home grown produce.
“They don't make the food for YouTube or for an audience. They make it for you,” says Bennison. “You come into their home and they're very generous and hospitable. And of course they're incapable of making just one plate. It has to be enough for six people and we all have to sit down. When we’re on location we're eating like this three or four times a day”.
Among others, the newest book features 91-year-old Pina, who lives in the mountains behind Genova in Liguria, and her comforting chestnut gnocchi with walnut pesto, and there’s a page dedicated to Bettina’s stranguggi, or cortale bean and pasta soup from Calabria. There’s also 80-year-old Teresa and her maccheroni with green olives. She lives in Bivongo in Calabria, which the book says has the highest number of over 90-year-olds in the whole of Italy.
There have also been a few grandpas. They include Checco, who features in the new book. This cook, who is also talented in the art of crochet and is pictured wearing a hat he’s made, demonstrates how to make dirty moustaches from Romagna (sbruffa baffi o maltagliati alla Romagnola).
“His dad died very young and left his mum with four boys to bring up, so one of his tasks was making pasta”, says Bennison. “That's how he learnt at a young age, which is quite unusual. We've filmed about 10 grandpas. And I think they come to pasta-making via different routes, rather than our women who were encouraged to make pasta from about the age of five. For them, it was considered a life skill and you were told that you wouldn't get married unless you actually could make pasta so you can get a decent husband”.
Each of the recipes is accompanied by pictures of the women in their homes, as well as a QR code that takes you to their matching demonstration on their YouTube channel. Some of the nonne are quite quiet, while others have natural charisma and pizzazz. The videos are the opposite of quick fire TikTok recipes. They lead you through the ritual of cooking, and are considered and soothing.
“Lots of people write in and say that when they're stressed, they really help them,” says Bennison. “And it helped them through the lockdown. I've had lovely emails from people. And I have to be honest, I didn't set out to do that. Now I have a responsibility to everyone, not just the grandmothers”.
When you read the book, just don’t say “aw” at the nonne’s portraits.
One thing that Bennison, 63, who is a grandmother herself, wants to get straight is; “They are not cute”. As the book explains, many of these cooks lived through WWII, are widowed, have done manual labour from an early age, and some have had tough lives. They’re not to be patronised and Bennison is very protective.
“They're survivors,” she says. “There's nothing pink and fluffy about them”.
They're also probably the last generation to have these skills and know the recipes by heart. As Bennison says, most of their daughters and granddaughters didn’t want to live the same lifestyle, which is fair enough. However, she does think that there is a renewed interest in making pasta by hand and cooking from scratch.
As these nonne are quite elderly, not all of the original subjects from the first book or the early years of the channel are still around.
“I'm afraid when you're filming women of this age, they're definitely in the last sort of quarter of their lives. It's always a great sadness, but we don't always tell everybody when it happens, it depends on the family, whether they want everyone to know”, says Bennison. “ We do lose several every year but they managed to keep going through the pandemic very well. They were cocooned by their families”.
Pasta Grannies: Comfort Cooking by Vicky Bennison, with photography by Lizzie Mayson, £22, Hardie Grant, out now