Nicola Cerrone bends down to cut an enormous cauliflower free of its earthy mooring and smiles with satisfaction. His carefully tended vegetable garden is abundantly full and his home is filled with four generations of family, who have come together to share an early summer lunch. “It’s all about nature,” says Nicola, looking around the Bowral property that was bare earth when he bought it 23 years ago. “Happiness comes from what you put into your body.” If the lovingly prepared food and wine that the family enjoys today are anything to go by, the Cerrone clan is very happy, indeed.
As Nicola gathers last-minute ingredients from the garden, his wife, Carmela, his mother, Liberata, and his sisters, Franca, Emilia and Clara, put the finishing touches to the banquet of dishes being served today. Nicola’s family comes from Lanciano in Abruzzo, while Carmela’s grandfather and father were from Lipari in the Aeolian Islands, near Sicily. At today’s lunch, both regions are reflected in the menu.
“We’ve modernised a lot of the old recipes to suit our produce,” says Carmela, as she fills a loaf of bread with anchovy fillets, chilli, olive oil and oregano to make a traditional Sicilian dish, “but I think that’s a shame because we’re losing some of the authenticity. Nicola’s mother is a very traditional cook, but she’s ageing and we realise we need to learn all the recipes before it’s too late.”
Liberata, or Nonna, as she’s affectionately known, may be 83, but she still has the energy to make homemade pasta for fettuccine e ceci (fettuccine and chickpeas) and Abruzzese angel cake (sponge yeast cake).“I’ll never forget the time that Nonna taught me how to make pizza,” recalls Nicola’s daughter, Desirée. “After that, it was all I made for the whole Christmas holidays! The family got completely sick of it. When I was young, my favourite thing to cook with Nonna was gnocchi and ragù – and I loved eating it.”
For Nicola, a jeweller, life wasn’t always so idyllic. “I was 12 when we immigrated to Australia,” he says. “My father wanted a better life for us and, as the head of the family, he ventured to Australia where there was the opportunity to build a fruitful life. He had the choice between Australia and Argentina; he tossed a coin and came to Australia. He came out by himself for four years and then the rest of the family joined him. It was the best decision he ever made and it gave his children opportunities. I love it here – we’re Italian, but we relate to so many different cultures, whereas Italians in Italy tend not to think outside the square.”
Lunch is served and 40 people take plates groaning with food to a long table set up in the sun. “We all know it’s going to be a good feast when Nonna cooks,” says Desirée.While everybody goes back for seconds, all are mindful that dessert is waiting in the wings. Nicola’s nephew, Pino, a trained pastry chef, effortlessly fills fresh cannoli shells with the usual ricotta, as well as the popular chocolate and vanilla custards. The cannoli are joined on the dessert table by Franca’s daughter Lisa’s cassateddi (Sicilian pastries) and Nonna’s angel cake and cicerchiata, an Abruzzese ring cake of fried dough balls and almonds bound together by honey, traditionally served at Christmas and during Carnevale, which is celebrated all over Italy in February every year. It’s a sweet celebration of family and ritual.
As the shadows begin to lengthen, an informal game of bocce starts on the lawn. Shouts go up as the balls are thrown and the dogs and small children run helter-skelter with delight. “I always expected this,” says Nicola, observing the scene. “This is what life is about. For me, the ultimate day is when the whole family gets together.”
Photography by Alan Benson.
As seen in Feast magazine, December 2011, Issue 4. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.