Energy crisis: The Italians reviving nonna’s traditions to keep costs down

From a technique for perfect pasta to a rustic version of the slow cooker, Silvia Marchetti explores how old solutions are being used in Italian homes to face today's energy crisis.

Energy crisis: The Italians reviving nonna's traditions to keep costs down
Just like nonna used to make: Italian families say they're reviving energy-efficient cooking techniques passed down through the generations. Photo by Frank Zhang on Unsplash

My granny had a saying: wisdom from the past can always be useful in hard times (saggezza vecchia fa buon brodo: literally, ‘old wisdom makes good broth’).

As families across the world grapple with rising energy costs, in Italy some people are saving money by recovering old techniques and adopting eco-friendly behaviors passed down from the older generations. 

Italians have always been a bit spendthrift when it comes to heating homes and enjoying long, relaxing warm showers, but as bills soar attitudes change.

Speaking to medium-income families, I found that some had recently dug into family knowledge handed down across generations to curb energy consumption.

Rosetta Fraire, who hails from a Piedmont peasant family, even has a precious handwritten list of tips written by her grandmother in the 1940s.

“At dinner time once the pasta is boiled and ready to serve we don’t throw away the hot water anymore,” says Fraire, “but keep it hot with the lid on to use for washing the dishes after we’ve eaten.”

READ ALSO: Ten golden rules for cooking pasta like an Italian

“The hot water is full of starch released by boiling the pasta, which cleans away the oils and fats that stick to dishes so we don’t have to use extra running water to wash them, let alone turn on the dishwasher.”

She adds that there’s no need to keep the stove on the entire time the pasta is cooking. Once the water starts to boil, the pasta is thrown in and the stove gas is switched off, the pasta will keep cooking without ever reaching the risky over-cooked point at which it becomes ‘scotta’ (‘inedible’ for Italians).

Families living in the countryside – where temperatures drop sharply at night compared to the city – have already cut down some dying trees to recover firewood, and are rethinking living areas. 

If the house is on several floors, as most country homes are, with more than one heat pump usually running, family members crowd together on one big floor to share just the central heat pump.

Reader question: Why are wood pellets now so expensive in Italy?

Not all techniques are old-fashioned or particular to Italy, but Italians are becoming more aware of the need to save energy.

“Before this energy crisis we kept the garden lights on until we went to bed, now unless we’re out we switch them off at 5.50 pm. Showers are shorter, and washing machines are used only during weekends when energy costs are lower,” says Roberto Guerra, a carpenter living in the province of Rieti.

Photo by Ricardo Prosperi on Unsplash

“Instead of throwing away old newspapers we use them as fuel for fireplaces and to isolate windows panes from wetness and humidity coming from the outside, paper is a great insulator. We’ve also started car sharing with our neighbors and relatives.

He also recycles the water collected from dehumidifiers, using it to clean balconies and patios. 

“It’s just a matter of making small changes to your daily routines and accepting a few sacrifices that can have huge benefits,” he says.

READ ALSO: From coffee to haircuts: How the cost of living varies around Italy

Guerra also recently purchased an old stove-heater online, something which was popular in households in the 1950s, used both to cook food and to warm the house at the same time through heating tubes connected to the cooking stove that funnel heat to other parts of the house. 

In rural Tuscany many locals are also bringing back their ancestors’ cooking techniques. 

A team of home cooks and chefs living in the province of Chiusi have ventured into their cellars and dug out old wooden ‘cooking boxes’, or cassette di cottura, used during the first and second world wars when electricity and gas supplies were down to a minimum. They’ve now become popular trendy kitchen objects that are also helping to boost the local economy. 

These ‘cooking boxes’ are lined with rough wool from local sheep, retaining heat and allowing the slow cooking of soups, meat, yogurt and even jams. The gas is switched on just to start the cooking process. The wool, left over from sheep shearing, also gets recycled this way. 

A traditional Italian cooking box made of felt. Photo: Gloria Lucchesi

Gloria Lucchesi, who found her grandmother’s instructions on how to build and use a cooking box in her family’s attic, says it’s a super easy method which has saved up to 50 euros per month in gas use. 

“Pots full of food are prepared and placed on the stove for just 10-15 minutes to trigger the heating process, then the stove is turned off, the pot is covered with a lid, wrapped in a cloth and placed inside the box,” she explains.

“For the next 7-8 hours, depending on whether it’s meat, soup or tomato sauce, the food will keep slow cooking in a natural way thanks to the thermal inertia of the wool which captures heat and retains it. 

“By evening, the meal will be ready to be taken out of the box and placed on the dinner table”, says Lucchesi. 

Artisanal cooking boxes, made of cotton, felt and elaborately decorated, can be tailor-made, and recently even restaurants around Italy are ordering them.

I think the use of such techniques is only set to increase, with more people adopting eco-conscious behaviors to cut energy use and protect the environment. Just as there’s no going back on climate change, smart new – or old – ideas are taking hold.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Lights out: How Christmas in Italy will be different this year

As the European energy crisis continues, some cities in Italy have chosen to save on electricity by downsizing regular Christmas displays, thus making this year’s festivities a little less flashy.

Lights out: How Christmas in Italy will be different this year

With less than a month to go until the Christmas holidays, many might be rejoicing at the prospect of finally seeing their cities lit up by dazzling Christmas displays.

But, as the European energy crisis shows no sign of abating and many cities across the boot keep struggling to square their accounts in the face of soaring bills, some residents may be disappointed to know that this year’s festive decorations might differ from the norm.

Milan, Italy’s economic capital, was one of the very first Italian cities to announce it would significantly reduce Christmas displays to save on energy.

READ ALSO: Lights off and home working: Milan’s new energy-saving plan for winter 

After reports emerged in early October that the city would end up spending a whopping €130 million on energy bills alone in 2022, Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, was quick to warn residents that Christmas decorations would be “restrained” and operate “for shorter periods of time”.

And, it wasn’t long before Sala made good on his promises. 

Earlier this month, the city’s authorities agreed on putting up decorations and light displays on December 7th (that is over two weeks after the usual date) and taking them down on January 6th instead of late January. 

Christmas lights in the streets of central Milan

Christmas lights in Milan will be switched on on December 7th, that is over two weeks after the usual switch-on date. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Also, while in previous years Milan’s city centre was illuminated overnight, this year’s Christmas lights will be switched on at 4pm and switched off at midnight. 

But, while Milan residents might be slightly dissatisfied with the new arrangements, they sure have little to complain about when compared to Rome residents. 

It’ll be a dark Christmas (literally and, perhaps, even figuratively) for most areas of the Eternal City and not merely because of the current energy crisis. 

READ ALSO: Energy crisis: The Italians reviving ‘nonna’s’ traditions to keep costs down

The city’s tender for this year’s Christmas lights contract received no bids before its deadline on October 27th, which means that, in many neighbourhoods, festive decorations will be largely left to the goodwill and financial means of the residents.

So while the popular Piazza di Spagna, Porta Pia and Via Alessandria will light up over the holiday season thanks to private funding, the San Giovanni and Tuscolano neighbourhoods and Via Cola di Rienzo are currently expected to remain au naturel.

Christmas light in a street in Rome

Many areas of the capital, Rome, will be without lights this year due to lack of funding. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Things will generally be better in Venice and Florence, where local authorities have recently chosen to maintain their usual arrangements, the only exception being the replacement of regular lights with energy-efficient, LED ones. 

So, while the lighting might be a little softer and displays might not be as remarkable as in previous years, both cities should be able to deal with late-December energy bills more comfortably than they would have had to do otherwise.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Italy has avoided a huge hike in gas prices – for now 

Having said that, not all Italian cities have decided to resize their Christmas offerings on the back of eye-watering electricity prices. 

Naples, which has long been known for the extravagance of its Christmas and New Year celebrations, has seemingly chosen to turn a blind eye to the energy crisis and will allocate as much as €1.5 million (that’s €150,000 to each one of the ten local municipalities) to this year’s displays.

Unsurprisingly, the comune’s decision has been drawing widespread criticism, with many local political figures pointing out that part, if not most, of the above-mentioned amount should have been spent elsewhere, perhaps in the form of a one-off ‘Christmas bonus’ for struggling households and businesses.

The available money should have been used to “turn off the crisis and light up people’s hearts”, city councillors Antonio Culiers and Francesco Flores said in a joint statement earlier this month.