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One Tuscan village uses wool-insulated cooking boxes to save on energy costs

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across Europe, soaring energy costs are making utility bills more expensive, so some people are getting creative to save money. In one small Tuscan village, environmentalists have rediscovered energy-saving tricks their grandparents used in times of war. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, they are now producing useful, even stylish cooking contraptions that use less gas.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: San Casciano dei Bagni is a small hilltop town surrounded by sloping pastures with grazing sheep. Their wool is poor quality. They're raised for meat. But a local group of environmental activists has found a useful way to recycle the sheared fleece. We're invited to lunch at the home of Gloria Lucchesi, who's pulling steaming hot metal pots out of some very strange contraptions. A few years ago, rummaging among her grandmother's possessions, Lucchesi found a book published in 1941 during World War II. It was filled with tips on saving energy and cooking in times of scarcity.

GLORIA LUCCHESI: (Through interpreter) My grandmother's booklet described what it called a cooking box made of wood and lined with straw. We realized instead of straw, we could use our local wool.

POGGIOLI: Lucchesi is a volunteer with the local group Filo and Fibra - Thread and Fiber. The group is producing and selling cooking boxes. There are two types. One is made from wood, the other from felt. Each has a thick inner lining made from local wool. The boxes are virtual portable ovens that use wool's convection properties as a means of slow cooking. You put your ingredients in a normal pot, metal or terracotta, says Lucchesi, and place it first on your stovetop.

LUCCHESI: (Through interpreter) You let it come to a boil for maybe 10 or 20 minutes, depending on the ingredients. Then you place the hot pot inside the insulated box, and the cooking process begins on its own slowly over several hours. It's fantastic.

POGGIOLI: We sit down to eat in Lucchesi's large kitchen. And we feast on steaming portions of lentils, beans and potatoes. And they're all delicious. Lucchesi's group has projected that a family using a cooking box 20 to 30 hours a month will save up to $52 a year on their gas bills. But there may be a bigger advantage, she says. The boxes allow home cooks much more freedom to work or do other things away from home, since they don't have to be glued to their stovetops.

A new convert to the cooking box is Tiziana Tacchi, a renowned chef in the nearby town of Chiusi. This is the kitchen of her restaurant, Il Grillo E Un Buoncantore (ph), which derives its name from a renaissance song. The restaurant is part of the Slow Food Association, which promotes high food quality and agricultural sustainability. And in 2021, Tacchi was named Slow Food's Best Chef Restaurateur of the Year. When she first tried a cooking box last June, she was skeptical.

TIZIANA TACCHI: (Through interpreter) But on the second try, I was sold. I fell in love with it.

POGGIOLI: Tacchi concedes that the cooking time is longer than on a stovetop, but she says the result is excellent. Instead of a flame on the bottom, the cooking box surrounds the entire pot with a homogeneous heat source. There's no loss of steam, she says, and the food's nutritional properties are sealed in. Tacchi lifts the lid of a large steaming pot. She prepared it in the morning, left it for 3 hours, and now it's ready to be served. She's very proud of the result, a Tuscan specialty, a sauce made with a local product, a particularly pleasant tasting garlic. The chef has two cooking boxes and is eager to buy more.

TACCHI: (Through interpreter) They've totally transformed my life. This is a turning point in terms of quality, saving time and saving energy.

POGGIOLI: Filo and Fibra has a catalog and booklet with instructions and recipes for home cooking. The cooking boxes aren't cheap. They can cost up to $250 for a wood one. But the group says that's about the same as a decent microwave. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, San Casciano dei Bagni. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.