In an area of northern New South Wales renowned for its surf beaches and lush green landscapes, there exists a heady story of Italian cooking, culture and courage that dates back to the 1880s. Thankfully, as Karen Fittall learns, it’s a history that more and more people are passionate about preserving.
By
Karen Fittall

26 Aug 2012 - 5:55 PM  UPDATED 29 Oct 2013 - 12:50 PM

The hum of the cicadas has stealthily mushroomed. It’s become a near-eardrum-bursting cyclical drone and, peering into the sea of flaking tree trunks that lap at either side of a dirt road in New Italy, coupled with the insect soundtrack, it’s tantalising to imagine what the Italian immigrants who made this place their home 130 years ago might have seen when they first arrived here.

'Here’ is now a relative dot on the map, not much more than a nod to what once was, nestled on the edge of the Pacific Highway in NSW’s Richmond River District, about an hour’s drive south of Byron Bay. Expect to find many remnants of the original settlement, and you’ll be disappointed. 'No darl, except for the odd fence post, there’s not much here from those days," is what I’m told when I ask a cook at the cafe that flanks the quaint New Italy museum, as she whips up what I will later declare to be one of the most delicious plates of ravioli I’ve eaten. 'The original settlers gradually took it all with them when they left back in the early 1900s. They were a pretty thrifty bunch."

And a brave one as it turns out. The 47 Italian families who forged a life for themselves in New Italy, or La Cella Venezia (the Venetian Cell) as it was first dubbed, set sail from Europe in 1880. They had been sold a promise of an escape from Italy’s then-dire economic situation and were dangled a shiny carrot of a better, more prosperous life on the islands that make up what’s now known as Papua New Guinea. It turned out to be a well-oiled scam.

Orchestrated by a young French nobleman called Marquis de Ray Charles Marie du Breil, those who survived the expensive, squalid boat journey found a desolate island at the end of it. Desperate to salvage something of their dream, they eventually organised transport to Sydney some months later. On April 7, 1881, 217 of the 300-plus Italians who set out from Europe arrived in Australia. With permission to stay, it wasn’t long before the desire to carve something for themselves drew them north, to thousands of uninhabited acres.

Spencer Spinaze’s grandparents, Lorenzo and Maria, and his father Giuseppe, or Joseph as he was known, were on board the ship. 'Dad was the youngest to survive the journey," Spencer says when I catch up with him at his farm in Piora, about an hour’s drive west of the New Italy settlement his grandparents helped pioneer in 1882.

Now 88 years old, Spencer has lived around these parts all his life. When I first ring for a chat, his wife Doris tells me he’s out on the tractor – a fitting first impression of a man who, like his ancestors, has a self-declared love for restoring poor land. 'There was nothing there when the first Italians made their way up the coast," he says. 'They slept under sheets of corrugated iron, and set about building mud-brick houses and trying to grow vegetables on land that was deemed barren." Luckily, it wasn’t. Sweet potato crops quickly ran riot, while figs, mulberries, apples and lemons also flourished. And there were grapes. And grapes meant wine. School buildings followed the vineyard, as well as the church where Spencer’s parents married in 1907, just a few years before they, like a lot of the settlement’s younger generation, left New Italy to try their luck at life in surrounding areas.

'Can I speak Italian?" repeats Spencer when I ask. 'No, I never learned. My parents could, but they never did. I didn’t have what you’d call an Italian upbringing. We were encouraged not to let on that we were of Italian descent. We lived in Australia, not Italy, and that was that."

Dr Adele Wessell, a food historian from Southern Cross University, isn’t surprised. 'The school teacher at New Italy wouldn’t let the children speak Italian as part of a vision not to encourage a large community of Italians." Adele is currently in the thick of a project to compile a cookbook celebrating the recipes of Italian migrants to the Richmond River region, and one of the recipes is from the Spinaze family. 'It’s Grandma Spinaze’s garlic soup, which, like a lot of recipes from that time, has a medicinal element to it," she says.

'What’s interesting is how many of the recipes were adapted to incorporate foods they could grow successfully, but which weren’t traditionally Italian – like sweet potato, or using kangaroo to make meat sauces. For a culture where food plays such an important part in family life, cooking was a way of sustaining relationships with each other in a foreign land and continuing that tradition of family, communal eating and sharing with your neighbours."

Perhaps this was more so for the post-New Italy Italians who came to live in and around Lismore in the late 1920s and 30s. 'There was a second group of Italians that settled in the area," says Adele. 'They left Italy for similar reasons, mainly poverty, and many headed for Lismore, where there was an Italian boarding house." With this group very open about speaking Italian, Lismore’s streets in the 30s and 40s were heady with the rich sounds of a foreign language and equally, the waft of Italian cooking. 'Shops selling pasta and olive oil soon sprang up and introduced the locals to the cuisine long before the rest of Australia caught on. It encouraged people to explore beyond 'steak and three veg’ quite early, and that’s very unique for a small town."

A particularly famous recipe around town, and the cookbook’s first addition, was the spaghetti sauce that Lismore local Americo Melchior’s grandmother used to make. He learned its secrets when he was six, just a few years after arriving from Italy in 1950. 'My grandmother was a wonderful cook, and looked after me when I was young. Everyone knew about her sauce, and spending so much time with her, I picked it up at a young age," he says. Eventually learning English when he started school as a nine-year-old, speaking Italian is still ingrained in Americo’s everyday life. 'There is a group of us at the Italian club in town that won’t speak anything but Italian to each other. I’m proud of that."

'Forever," is how long Ellie Gava says her family has been making their own wine. With a trip planned to forage for suitable grapes the day after I meet her, she laughs that she 'doesn’t even drink the stuff!" but such is the tradition. Born in Lismore nine months after her mother Amabile arrived from Italy to join Ellie’s father, who’d already been in Australia for seven years after arriving as a 21-year-old in 1926, Ellie remembers a childhood of school lunchboxes filled with salami sandwiches and crumbed steaks. 'Of course, most of the other kids had bread and jam. Even when we get together all these years later, we talk about those days and swapping lunches."

With a cooking repertoire that she calculates still weighs heavily in favour of Italian dishes, Ellie has been talking about 'those days’ a lot lately. She’s a driving force behind a project to have a monument established in Lismore that recognises the presence and role of Italian migrants in shaping the area. 'One day I realised that you could walk through town without knowing that there were ever Italians here. Something had to be done." If everything goes to plan, July will see the monument – a beautiful mosaic in Spinks Park crafted by renowned local artist Scott Harrower – unveiled, 11 years after Ellie initially dreamt up the idea.

It’s not the first time she’s made things happen. Twenty-five years ago, Ellie established a weekly get-together for Italian seniors, an event that still happens every Friday. 'I knew a lot of Italian ladies who’d been widowed and, because they’d lived out on the land, had never learned to speak English. They didn’t have transport either, so I came up with a plan to bring them together, driving around every Friday to gather them for a meal and a game of cards. Some of the people who come today were part of that very first get-together."

Spencer is another person who has done more than his bit to shine a light on the area’s Italian heritage. Central to the establishment of the museum that opened in 1989, next to a monument erected decades earlier on the site of New Italy’s original wine shop, he’s received a number of awards for his work, including an MBE. In April each year, he and Doris return for the New Italy Anniversary Day celebrations.

'We still love to go," says Spencer. 'The place has so many memories. I remember visiting the site once when Giacomo Piccoli, New Italy’s last surviving resident, was still living there in the early 50s. I got there at about 9am and he was just getting himself some breakfast. He had an open fire on the go and reached a stick up into a tree to pull down a sugar bag that was full of beef. Turns out he kept meat for a month at a time up in that tree and when I asked him why he said, 'Don’t you know that blowflies won’t go above nine feet?’ like it was common knowledge. It was quite incredible."

I also discovered something remarkable not long after I’d visited New Italy. It turns out that I was closer to spotting a remnant of the original settlement still firmly planted in the ground than I thought. Legend has it that the densely leaved strands of grape vines that drip from the museum’s terrace were sprouted from New Italy’s original stock of vineyard vines. Stand beneath them and you can almost hear a clink of vintage Italian wine glasses, mingled with that ever-present cicada buzz.

The hit list

Eat
Il Postino
An award-winning Italian restaurant housed in the historic original weatherboard post office. Owned by Tim Mulcahy and his Italian wife Monica, the menu was designed by a chef who, after mowing lawns as a child, used to be paid in fresh, handmade pasta. 86 Main St, Alstonville, (02) 6628 3333, ilpostino.com.au.

Italian at the Pacific

Located just a shell’s throw from Byron’s Main Beach, here you’ll find all the refined classics – think ravioli or carpaccio – in a setting that’s decidedly urban beachside. Tip: the cocktail menu is equally as impressive as the food. Bay St, Byron Bay, (02) 6680 7055, italianatthepacific.com.au.

Fire in the Belly
When you’re in the mood for a woodfired pizza, this is the place. Top picks include the roast pumpkin pizza or The Underbelly, which combines local Kalamata olives with locally made salami for something more meaty. 109 Dawson St, Lismore, (02) 6621 4899, fireinthebelly.com.au.

Stay

Atlantic Byron Bay
You can’t beat the Atlantic for location (bang in the centre of Byron) or style: boutique Caribbean hotel meets surf culture. Featuring three restored beach cottages, each contains a range of accommodation options, but if you can, book the Airstream, a high-end caravan stay in a unique American Airstream trailer. 13 Marvel St, Byron Bay, (02) 6685 5118, atlanticbyronbay.com.au.

Bangalow Guesthouse
Your chance to stay in a beautifully restored historic home surrounded by rolling gardens, in the heart of Bangalow, arguably the quaintest town of the Northern Rivers region. Your dilemma will be how to tear yourself away from your chair on the shaded verandahs overlooking Byron Creek, long enough to explore the village. 99 Byron St, Bangalow, (02) 6687 1317, bangalowguesthouse.com.au.

Experience

New Italy museum
This lovingly created homage to the Italian migrants who settled in the area in 1882, features original treasures, trinkets and tools that have been donated by local descendant families. The cafe is also one of the few places to grab a bite to eat on the Pacific Highway, and as well as tasty food, serves a mean coffee. 8275 Pacific Hwy, Woodburn, newitaly.com.au.

Farmers’ markets

Everybody loves a farmers’ market and in the Northern Rivers, they run almost every day – although Thursday and Saturday mornings are your best bet. Sample everything from locally grown fruit and veg, to locally prepared olives. Visit sustainfood.com.au for a list of local farmers’ markets.

Photography by John Laurie.