Vicky Bennison’s ‘Pasta Grannies’ Celebrates the Stories, the Land, and the Nonne of Regional Italy

Biggina was the youngest of nine children raised on her parents’ farm outside of Ischia, and her main life lessons were tending to the land and trading in the local market. Now retired, the elderly Italian still lives on Italy’s stunningly beautiful coast, selling trays of grapes, herbs and capers to meet people and keep social. Her story and coveted recipe for Fettuccine con Coniglio All’Ischitana (Ischia Braised Rabbit Fettuccine) is included in Vicky Bennison’s book Pasta Grannies: Comfort Cooking.

For her Pasta Grannies YouTube channel, Bennison captured the lives and recipes of 60 popular nuns (grannies) whom she met while traveling around Italy and met and interviewed Italian grandmothers. While one could google gnocchi, this denies food the essential quality of being a language of diet, culture, tradition and nuance. Take Pina’s chestnut gnocchi with walnut pesto, for example. The 91-year-old Nonna’s recipe is characterized by the fact that she sources ingredients from her homeland in Liguria. Sharing grannies with the world is one of the delicious reasons for Bennison’s daily indulgence in duty.

“I eat pasta four times a day when I’m filming because our ladies don’t cook for YouTube; They cook for us, so of course we have to sit down to eat,” says Bennison.

Her genuine delight in covering her hands in flour, tomato paste, herbs and spices is evident in videos of her with each nun she interviews, with the camera capturing her big smiles and easy laughs. It’s no wonder Pasta Grannies has amassed 2 million social media followers, a handful of accolades (including a James Beard Award, no less, the Oscars of Food in America), and has been translated into six languages.

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Bennison is based in London when we connect via Zoom, but her tone brightens when she speaks of her second home in Cingoli, Italy. “I would live more in Italy if I didn’t have a husband working in London,” she admits. “We bought a house in Italy in 2005 but my first visit to Italy was when I was 5 years old. My parents came back [to England] by boat from Africa. That was the only way back then, and we ended up in Venice. I remember that very clearly, and it was then that my love affair with Italy began.”

Bennison’s father worked in agricultural development, so the family spent much of their childhood on a farm in Kenya in the early 1960s. Travelling, exploring and learning about food and how it is grown is obviously in her blood. In fact, Bennison has spent most of her career as an international development management consultant, which involved a constant journey through places, faces and novelty. Food was both a comfort and their journey to a common language in distant places: “Food was the unifying theme. The first thing I would do when arriving in a country [that was new to me] would be to go to the markets and see what’s on offer and how people are eating.”

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Pasta Grannies was the glorious consequence of Bennison’s move to Cingoli, Marche, northeast of Rome, on the Adriatic Sea opposite Croatia. Finding a home there between the mountains and the sea allowed her to travel the regional and rural towns, meeting with grandmothers and filming them telling their stories and sharing their recipes for Bennison’s YouTube channel . “We drive all over Italy with Pasta Grannies, but we don’t end up in the tourist areas because you don’t find old-fashioned cuisine there,” she explains.

“When we bought the house in 2005, I immediately started looking at what was being made, food traditions, and what struck me was that making pasta by hand was something only older women did, so I wanted to record that . At first I thought it was a book, but words cannot describe the physicality of making pasta by hand.”

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Bennison’s husband is a television producer, so at his encouragement, she took up the camera and started her YouTube channel, a novelty at the time. It had the dual benefit of being a beautiful document of the women Bennison met and the very physical process of preparing food, but it also allowed publishers to attest to the popularity of the concept and the marketability of a book.

“Pasta soon became a vehicle for celebrating women of a certain age,” she says. “I firmly believe that food is not just for the young. Women over 65 were underrepresented in the food media and I wanted to celebrate their experience. No classic TV broadcaster would commission something without risk, without macho pan-throwing.”

The nun in Bennison’s book Pasta grandmas: home cooking stand for the many places and traditions that she and her team discovered on their journey through Italy. Bennison credits her six-year-old “granny finder,” chef Livia De Giovanni, with discovering her talent. De Giovanni works with Bennison to reach out to mayors and community organizations in regional areas, then discusses the book and YouTube concept with the families to ensure everyone agrees the nun should be a part of the filming . It’s a team of four, including cameramen Andrea and Luis.

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“I don’t interrogate the women we meet. With YouTube, you don’t need lights and cameras; there is no sample. It’s a conversation, and the stories are what women tell us. …Some ladies don’t talk much about themselves, and that’s perfectly fine, while others want to. You have to have respect for that. We also work with families; We don’t go straight to a grandmother. There are always other family members who are okay with that,” explains Bennison.

Pasta Grannies: Comfort Cooking: Traditional Family Recipes from Italy’s Best Home Cooking

Of the nun’s selection and the recipes to be included in it comfort foodshe says it was a puzzle to combine recipes that are mostly easy enough for home cooks while throwing in a few challenging recipes for enthusiasts.

“I [also] wanted a cross section of stories from all over Italy so it’s all about putting it all together. I didn’t want to stick to just pasta because pasta isn’t the only carb for Italy. There’s rice, there’s pizza and a classic pudding or two, because that’s what comfort cooking is all about.”

As for the appeal of pasta grannies, Bennison is succinct: “People come for the pasta but stay for the grandmothers.”

There is a lot of variation in pasta from region to region simply because the soil and wheat types are so different. Tagliatelle, fettuccini, ravioli – each has a specific profile based on the softness or hardness of the flour used and the way it is treated. Bennison winces when asked to pick a favorite place or food. It is, she says, like being asked about a favorite child.

She chooses Liguria.

“I love the use of herbs, pesto and pansoti, a walnut salsa served with raviolo pansoti filled with harvested wild vegetables so you get that bitterness along with the walnuts. We also have very good cakes from Liguria.”

Many of the nuns featured in the book and on YouTube are not wealthy women. In their approach of using local produce, not wasting any part of animal or plant, and not coveting what they don’t have, there is a sense that their lifestyle is a gentle education for us all. “People are right in saying that we shouldn’t eat so much meat,” Bennison timidly admits. She doesn’t want to sound holier than you or condescending. She has the utmost respect for the women she has met and it is evident in every word she says. She emphasizes that healthy and sustainable nutrition is less a matter of conscience than a necessity.

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“When you’re poor, eating meat is a great luxury that you can’t turn down. Many of these women ate meat twice a year, but they don’t identify as vegetarians,” she says. “Everything mattered to these women growing up. They were the labor force of the family, working in the fields and preparing food from scratch from a young age. Everything is needed. Excess pasta is turned into a frittata or soup, and you eat modestly. If you value food, appreciate it. It’s a way of bringing the family together.”

I remember a conversation I had with my neighbor earlier that day with Bennison, where I was raving about a cookbook I loved.

“I only have Google recipes,” my neighbor replied cheerfully.

But, I say to Bennison, there’s something magical about the texture, the aesthetic, and the weight of a cookbook that remains so enticing, a quality that a search-engine-generated recipe lacks.

“A cookbook gives you context,” explains Bennison. “There’s something about the feel of a book when you sit down with it, how you think about it. We’re in the fast food age, but when you sit down with a book and live with the grannies and their recipes, you have time to think about that recipe, which is nice. It’s about being mindful.”

It’s a retired dairy farmer Cicci from Liguria who, for Bennison, embodies the strength, resilience and grace of pasta grannies.

“She lived in a very remote, rural part of Liguria in the mountains and there are so many villages that have been depopulated and people have moved to the cities. The resilience of these women was expressed in many stories. The fact is that in a poor society, the currency is not money, but work. Society works by helping each other.”

Bennison firmly believes that anyone, anywhere, can make these recipes with a pinch of creative spirit.

“The whole point of recipes is that you make them your own. Publishers like it when I bring in a lot of detail [the book], but trust yourself. Of course you can replace. Follow the recipes, but if your taste buds tell you otherwise, or if you can’t find something, swap it out. They will make something wonderful out of it.”

Cat Woods is a Melbourne, Australia-based freelance writer and yoga and Pilates teacher The Sydney Morning Herald, Marie Claireand The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @catty_tweeter.

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