If you’ve ever Googled a homemade pasta recipe, you’ve surely stumbled upon Pasta Grannies. Created by Vicky Bennison, this mouthwatering cookbook and popular YouTube channel reveals the secrets of Italy’s best home cooks and puts Italian nonne front and center for the first time ever. Through creative mediums and across multiple channels, Pasta Grannies captures the nuances of Italian life through its cuisine and serves as an archive of a dying generation of women in Italy’s small towns. Pasta Grannies is more than a compendium of dishes – it’s a collection of stories about the grandmothers who have spent a lifetime cooking for love, not a living.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you end up in Italy?
I came to Italy in 2005. You see, I had a flat in London and I wanted a big kitchen – and the only way I could afford it was by moving out of the city. If you’re going to move out of London, you may as well move somewhere sunny. I ended up in Italy, specifically in Le Marche, because my family has a home in Corfu so we passed through on our way to Greece several times and I got to know Italy’s Adriatic Coastline well. I bought a schoolhouse there with a big kitchen, met my husband and we began renovating it.
What gave you the idea to create Pasta Grannies?
I started to notice that only the older women were making pasta by hand on a daily basis, while the younger women were busy with work outside the home. I though: this is the passing of an era and someone needs to make a record of this. Italy has a generation of women that are venerated but never seen, and I wanted to put them center-stage. The project wasn’t about finding a vehicle for me – it was about placing these women in front of the camera and saying “this is who they are”. Older women aren’t seen in the media very often and I felt there was a space in the food media for ordinary women cooks of a certain age.
What gave you the idea to film the grannies?
When I first came up with Pasta Grannies, I thought “It’s a book”. But there’s a physicality to pasta making and even a thousand words don’t do it justice. There’s a rhythmic, meditative aspect that needs to be captured on film; that’s why I picked up a camera and that’s why Pasta Grannies became a series of videos. Inevitably that meant uploading them on YouTube and that’s how the channel was born. It just started off as just me picking up a camera to film Maria, my first granny – I never thought that I would build such a big audience. But pasta is universal: everyone loves it and there are so many variations around the world.
Was the reception to the videos fast?
No. I remember being excited at having 63 subscribers and wondering how I was ever going to get to 1,000. Three years down the line, I was very pleased because I had 5,000 subscribers and I thought that was a huge number. Then Pasta Grannies went viral and everything really started to take off. Business Insider posted a video of 93-year-old Cesaria making lorighittas in Sardinia and that had a snowball effect. Ordinary newspapers started picking up the videos, then the New York Times published a story on me and suddenly I had an agent. That was 2018. That was the year it all really took off.
Today, Pasta Grannies has 720,000 subscribers on YouTube, 482,000 followers on Instagram and 550,000 followers on Facebook. The videos are now also available with subtitles on the Chinese video sharing website Bilibili.
How do you find the grannies? And are they happy to participate?
I find my grannies through word of mouth, through the local mayors and sometimes people write to me. I also have a granny finder, Livia De Giovanni, who is incredibly charming and tenacious – we’ve been working together for nearly five years and she does a great job of persuading the grannies to agree to be filmed. The process looks straightforward but it can be quite complex. Andrea Savorani Neri, my cameraman is also terrific with the grandmothers and that’s really important to me. They should have a great time when we strangers turn up in their kitchen!
Some women really enjoy the attention and have created their own cookery schools and video channels, but most of them don’t give a damn and life goes on as normal. It really depends on their personality and where they’re at in their lives.
How old are the grannies you film??
Most of the women we film are over 65 – though saying 85 would be more precise. We’ve had a lot of women in their 90s from Calabria and Cilento recently. We even filmed a woman who was 102 in Calabria. Meeting these women really makes you realize how much attitudes have changed in the past century. The youngest grandmother was 44. We’ve also filmed a few pasta grandpas, but the nature of the work is usually carried out by women.
And you mostly explore Italy’s small towns, right?
Yes, we get to know all the backroads of Italy and we rarely end up in cosmopolitan centers. We spend a lot of time in the mountains looking for a particular pasta, though we’ve also filmed risotto and polenta in the Veneto region. There’s always a strong focus on seasonability, and the dishes are much more than just the pasta – the other ingredients are crucial elements of each recipe, too.
What have you learned from the Pasta Grannies project?
Persistence. This isn’t the kind of project you pursue because of the money or the fame; you do it because you believe in it and you love it. I learned to really think about my content and the best medium for this type of storytelling – you have to consider if your subject is most suited to video, or the written word, or photography. You really need to find the best media for each subject. For Pasta Grannies, it has been video and then the book came along after and it’s complementary to the videos.
And what have you learned from the grandmothers themselves?
It’s very interesting to see how busy they are – they’re very physically active. Most of them haven’t learned to read, they left school when they were young, so their lives are low-tech and they stay busy in other ways. They are very connected and there’s always family, community, the church, people around them. That’s incredibly important for keeping them going. It doesn’t have to be tight relationships, just the general people popping in and keeping in touch with the whole community.
But we shouldn’t romanticize their lives, as they were very hard. People get very obsessed about food but the recipes are more about frugality and being grateful for what you have, rather than focusing on what exactly it is that you’re eating. The women are naturally mostly plant-based, but they eat anything that is available. The important thing is to be modest with your food. Everything in moderation.
What does the future hold for Pasta Grannies?
There’s a second Pasta Grannies cookbook coming out as well in autumn 2022. It’ll be a continuation of the first, with more stories because they’re very important and profiles of the women’s lives. Personally, I’d love to film some Greek yiayias making pita and pasta, it would be fun to have a diversion into the broader Mediterranean.
But we haven’t done all of Italy yet. The wonder of Italian gastronomy is that it’s so localized. You can go just over the hill and it’s different. It’s always fun to discover an entirely new shape. Sometimes these ladies don’t understand my intrigue and excitement – to them, their rare dish is the equivalent of putting baked beans on toast. So, Italy will keep us busy. It’s always a joy, I never stop being fascinated by these wonderful women. Everyone is unique and everyone’s got their own story.