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10th Dec 2022

Feature

Italians employ ancient cooking contraption to deal with rising gas costs

  • Wooden cooking box with pea soup (Photo: Gloria Lucchesi)
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While Italian families grapple with rising energy prices, inhabitants of a Tuscan village have reverted to old cooking techniques used by their ancestors to cut down on costs.

Instead of gas they use wool to prepare succulent meals.

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In San Casciano dei Bagni, where just 1,000 people live amid green rolling hills, ancient Roman baths and sheep-grazing fields, a team of environmentalist ladies have dug through cellars to find their grandparents' tips on how to build and use so-called 'cooking boxes'.

A clever cooking contraption

Popular during the first and second world wars, when energy use in households was down to a minimum, they're simple, portable ovens that exploit the natural heat-trapping properties of wool to slow cook meals.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the consequent spike in energy costs and need to reduce gas and electricity consumption have made these 'eco-friendly' alternative stoves very popular among Italian home cooks — and even some restauranteurs.

The inside of the 'cooking boxes' is stuffed with wool that retains heat and finishes the slow cooking of soups, meat, yogurt and even jams. Stove gas is used just to initiate the heating process.

"You start cooking a ceramic or steel pot of food on the stove for about 10-15 minutes then turn it off, cover the pot with a lid, wrap it in a cloth and place it inside the box", says Gloria Lucchesi, co-founder of the eco-friendly association 'Filo & Fibra' which has brought this clever cooking machine back from the grave.

"The food will keep cooking for several hours thanks to the heat-trapping wool, in the evening you'll have steaming plates ready to savour at dinner".

Trendy cooking object

Together with others from her village, Lucchesi now makes tailored 'cooking boxes' for clients. They've even opened a boutique in San Casciano dei Bagni, selling the gas-use reducing cooking boxes as a trendy cooking object. People from all over Italy call on a daily basis to have them shipped over.

"We have calculated that if you cook for 20-30 hours per month each year in a cooking box you'll save up to €50 in bills and 47 kilograms of CO2, with less than a fourth of water used per dish compared to stove cooking", says Lucchesi.

The artisan cooking boxes come in different shapes, colors and materials. The external shell is made of wood from native forests, felt or cotton while inside it's lined with thick wool.

A few years ago, Lucchesi stumbled upon her grandmother's old recipes book hidden in a family house drawer. It contained instructions on how to use the cooking boxes published by a local paper in 1941, alongside other useful tips on DIY recycling and anti-waste methods.

The tips included wearing old newspapers underneath clothes to keep warm from damp and rain while biking, and shaping newspapers into balls as fuel for the fireplace.

Much-needed energy (and time) savings

Italy's new rightwing government led by premier Giorgia Meloni has yet to define further measures to support ailing families and businesses struck by soaring energy bills. More funds are expected to be earmarked in the upcoming budget plan.

In the meantime, Italian families have adopted energy-aware habits. Many now turn off the stove as soon as the pasta pot water starts boiling, switch off unnecessary lights in the garden, car-share and ration heating in sleeping areas by shutting down parts of the house for winter.

Italian newspapers are also publishing articles with tips on how to curb energy costs, which have more than tripled since February. A medium-large household could end up spending as much as €1,800 per month this winter, according to some consumer lobbies.

"My grandparents were living in times of war, famine and poverty, and in some way the world is facing again similar conditions. Wisdom and teachings from the past are key to a better future", says Lucchesi.

The cooking boxes not only use wool instead of gas to prepare dishes, but also allow home cooks to dedicate time to other daily tasks as they wait for the meal to be ready.

"More tasty and tender"

Chef Tiziana Tacchi, manager of restaurant Il Grillo è Buoncantone in the nearby town of Chiusi, relies on several customised cooking boxes for dishes on the menu.

"I prepare the beans soup on the stove in the morning, then after 10 minutes I switch to the cooking box and leave it there until evening, when I open the restaurant. Food cooked inside the box is much more tasty and tender as there's no vapour dispersion and it retains its nutritive properties", says Tacchi.

Classic-style wooden cooking box (Photo: Gloria Lucchesi)

The heat accumulated during the first cooking phase on the stove is retained by placing the pot in the wood or felt box lined with wool, an insulating material.

The 'thermal inertia' of the wool allows the pot inside the box to contain the initial heat triggered on the stove and create a slow and constant cooking process, explains Lucchesi.

It is also suitable for preserving cold dishes, says Tacchi, and excellent for making yoghurt — which requires hours of incubation at lukewarm temperatures.

Salsa all'aglione

In the past straw, hay or wax was used for the inner lining of the boxes, but Lucchesi's team decided to recycle the leftover wool from sheep shearing in San Casciano dei Bagni's countryside, thus reducing by-products and disposal issues.

Local sheep have a very rough wool which is seldom used to make clothes, which makes it perfect for local artisans to create the cooking boxes.

The boxes are not just for home dishes. In the past, they were also very popular among the bourgeoisie and aristocrats as picnic thermo-insulation cases. Recently, Italians have been rediscovering this application.

During the summer many people bought the cooking boxes for daily boat tours to the Tuscan archipelago and for camper adventures, says Lucchesi.

Tacchi and Lucchesi say they cook just about everything inside, from potatoes to cereals, legumes, tomato sauces, polenta cornmeal mush, bean soups, stews and polpette meat balls.

Tacchi even slow-cooks Tuscany's iconic salsa all'aglione (garlic sauce) with a significant reduction of gas use: just 15 minutes on the stove instead of the usual 3 hours.

Author bio

Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She covers finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of international media.

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