Valerio Muscella for NPR
SAN CASCIANO DEI BAGNI, Italy — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and a decision to limit natural gas exports to Europe — have driven up energy prices and utility bills. Rising costs have forced many households to get creative to save money.
In this Tuscan town, some cooks have rediscovered the energy-saving cooking box, a tool their grandparents used during World War II. Here, an enterprising nonprofit is producing useful and stylish insulated boxes that use less gas than traditional Italian cooking.
Sheep graze in the sloping pastures of the hilltops that surround this village. Animals are raised for meat, as their wool is of poor quality. But Filo & Fibra, a nonprofit cooperative, found a way to use sheared fleece.
Valerio Muscella for NPR
Gloria Lucchesi, co-founder of Filo & Fibra – which means “yarn and fiber” – invited NPR to her large home on the outskirts of town to demonstrate one of the cooking boxes she produces.
As Lucchesi pulls hot metal pots out of strange boxes, she says she found a book full of tips for saving energy and cooking in times of scarcity. The book, published in 1941, belonged to his grandmother.
“My grandmother’s booklet described what she called a wooden, straw-lined kitchen box,” she says. “We realized that instead of straw, we could use our local wool.”
Filo & Fibra manufactures two types of insulating boxes: one in wood, the other in felt. Some have stylish cotton designer patterns on the outside. Each has a thick inner lining made from local wool.
The boxes are virtual portable ovens that use the convection properties of wool as a means of slow cooking.
You put your ingredients in a normal saucepan, says Lucchesi, and place it on a stove top first.
“You let it boil for maybe 10 or 20 minutes, depending on the ingredients. Then you place the pot inside the insulated box and it continues to cook on its own, slowly for several hours. It’s fantastic!” she says.
We sit down to eat in Lucchesi’s large kitchen and feast on steaming servings of delicious lentils, beans and potatoes.
Filo & Fibra predicts that a family using a cookbox 20-30 hours per month will save up to $52 per year on gas bills.
But there may be an even bigger upside, says Lucchesi’s husband, Francesco Asso, who teaches international economics at the University of Palermo. He says the boxes allow home cooks a lot more freedom to work or do other things away from home because they don’t have to be glued to their hobs.
“We tested with friends and relatives, cooking the same things like vegetables or legumes, using gas and using the cooking box,” says Asso. “And the verdict was always in the name of the cooking box because the quality is better.”
A new convert to the kitchen can is Tiziana Tacchi – a renowned chef in the nearby town of Chiusi.
She welcomes NPR to the kitchen of her restaurant, Il Grillo è Buoncantore, which takes its name from a Renaissance song.
When she first tried a cooking box last June, she says she was skeptical.
“But on the second try I was sold,” says Tacchi. “I fell in love with it.”
Cooking times are longer than on a stovetop, but Tacchi says the result is excellent. The cooking box surrounds the entire pan with an even heat source instead of a flame underneath.
“There is no steam loss,” she says. “And the nutritional properties of the food are sealed.”
Tacchi lifts the lid of a large steaming pot. She prepared it in the morning, left it for three hours and now it’s ready to serve. She is very proud of the result: a Tuscan specialty — a sauce made with a local product — garlic with a particularly pleasant taste, which is the basis of salsa all’aglione.
Tacchi owns two cooking boxes and says she will buy more.
“They have completely transformed my life! It’s a game changer — in terms of quality, saving time and saving energy,” she says.
The day ends at another restaurant with a rustic setting: the Hosteria di Villalba, in the middle of a large forest that straddles the regions of Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria.
NPR came to taste the results of chef Adio Provvedi’s first experiment with a cooking box. He prepares a local Tuscan classic, a stew of beef braised in Chianti until tender, with lots of black pepper – hence the name, peposopepper.
Normally, a peposo would sit on the stove for three hours. With the cooking box, Provvedi says he let the ingredients cook slowly for four hours.
It is not sure that the time has come.
The chef and a waiter serve steaming dishes of tender pieces of roast chuck.
The unanimous verdict is “ottimo, perfetto, morbidissimo” — excellent, perfect, very tender.
Fila & Fibra kitchen sets were presented at the Salon du Goût, organized by an association called Slow Food, in Turin in September.
The target market is families concerned about food quality and energy conservation, but several restaurants have also started to place orders. Lucchesi says that to date around 100 units have sold, with a wooden box costing up to $250.
But, as Lucchesi says, it’s about the same price in Italy as a decent microwave.