This Italian Nonna’s Vegetable Soup Is a Portal to Her Past

How a family recipe for minestra di verdure traveled from Italy to Tunisia to France.


By Rooksana Hossenally

Published on July 12, 2023

Eliane has always been a bit of a black sheep. Early on, she broke the mold by being one of the few women in her family to read up on topics like psychology and science. At a time when most women were relegated to the kitchen, she was busy advocating for freedom of mind, body and spirit. But no matter how heated things got at home because of her rebelliousness, one dish was always a unifier: her mother’s minestra di verdure. 

Eliane, who lives in Paris and is 86 years old, was born in Tunisia to Italian parents who emigrated in hope of finding work and making a better life for themselves. At age five, she and her family moved to France, where she still lives today.  

A kick-scooter-riding, rap-loving feminist—who’s also on Instagram—Eliane has a youthful spirit that belies a rich, long life. A highlight was fighting for women’s rights during France’s legendary May ‘68 protests. “That was a revelation for me. It was a time of sexual liberation … I knew I didn’t want a husband like my father. I saw other people [romantically], so my husband did too.”

Those revolutionary times shook something loose in her. “Before that, I thought: I’m married, I have a child, so that’s it, my life is this. But I was wrong,” she said. At age 40, Eliane decided to go back to university, and a few years later, she began hosting her own culture show on France Culture Radio, providing a platform for the country’s most intelligent women. 

Courtesy of Grandmas Project - Chaï Chaï

Yet amid all those life changes, nostalgic dishes like minestra kept her grounded and in touch with her roots. There was a comfort in the recipe’s simplicity: Always beans, carrots, zucchini, turnips, leeks, green cabbage, celery root, and fennel. Always simmered, not boiled. Always made for loved ones, not for one, as a means to nourish and connect.

These days, Eliane cooks the soup for her granddaughter, Lola, the French filmmaker and actress who made the Grandmas Project mini-documentary about the dish. Like her grandmother, Lola celebrates minestra as a direct link to her Italian heritage. “I don’t speak Italian, and my Italian family doesn’t speak French, so nonna’s soup is really the only link we have left,” she says.

But beyond distant family roots, the soup is a testament to the pair’s deep connection here and now. “She’s my best friend, my idol, my role model,” says Lola. 

Courtesy of Lola Bessis' Family Archive

Each time Lola visits her grandmother, Eliane slips on her sun-yellow jacket, hops on her scooter, and heads to her favorite greengrocer at Aligre market to pick up ingredients for minestra. “She knows I can’t go too long without it,” chuckles Lola. 

Upon her return, the two sit together at the kitchen table, sipping on a glass of red wine as they peel and chop vegetables, talk about their love lives, and belt out Italian songs from Eliane’s childhood. 

That’s Nonna for you. A woman who believes in the plurality of lovers, in the power of psychology and science, and the importance of stepping outside one’s comfort zone. “My aim in life is to be as cultivated as possible by the time I die,” she says.


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