Each year, Griffith’s Pioneer Park transforms into a pop-up shrine dedicated to la salsicce for the annual salami festival. Carla Grossetti visits this NSW Riverina town for a taste of the action.
By
Carla Grossetti

20 Aug 2013 - 8:23 PM  UPDATED 25 May 2021 - 1:14 PM

Griffith's Cultural History

In Fruits of Our Labour: The History of Griffith’s Italian Community, historian Jennifer Cornwall traces the history of migration in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA), where the Murrumbidgee River meets the great Riverine Plain. Commissioned by the Migration Heritage Centre, the publication documents the arrival of Italian peasants in the early 1900s to this frontier settlement in search of benessere (prosperity).

“As news of work opportunities circulated, concentrations of Italians from the same villages and towns developed in places such as… the MIA,” writes Jennifer. By the end of 1929, Italians owned 67 farms in the MIA and by 1940, 230 horticultural farms were owned by Italians. “The central role the Italians played in the economic and cultural development of the Griffith area is a source of much local pride,” she adds. Jennifer describes Griffith today as, “A culturally diverse and integrated community, more so than many urban areas in Australia.”

Since the Italians, other prominent migrant groups have also settled in Griffith, including Sikhs, Turks, Fijians, Hindus, Afghans and Pacific Islanders. 

Good food has been woven into the fabric of Griffith for close to a century. And, judging by the size of the crowds at its annual Festa Delle Salsicce (Festival of the Sausage), this town in south-western NSW is well and truly on the map for food-lovers who are passionate about authentic Italian-Australian culture.

The story of how Griffith’s Festa Delle Salsicce began can be distilled into the story of two men – Roy Catanzariti and the late Tony Fattore – who had a friendly disagreement about whether southern or northern Italians produced the superior salami. Even now, 13 years on, it doesn’t take much to unearth the good-natured tension that ignited the debate.

“This all started with a simple bet between two friends about who makes the better salami. My family is from Calabria; the Fattores are from Abruzzi. I won the bet that first year because the winner – Guiseppe Trimboli – was from the south,” explains Roy, now 71.

As for who actually does make the best salami, Roy diplomatically responds by saying, “It’s a matter of personal taste,” before gently reminding me his Calabrian counterparts have trumped it with their track record, “winning best salami about eight times so far”.

Although the amicable bet is the axis around which the festival formed, Roy says it has since evolved into a gathering that extends beyond a celebration of cured meats. 

“The friendly rivalry is just that – friendly. Really, the festival is a celebration of being Italian – no matter which region you are from,” says Roy, who retired from his role as manager of the local Medicare office in 2007 and has organised the event from day dot. 

First impressions of Griffith are that it’s a fairly typical rural Australian town. But scratch the facade, and charm and authenticity abound. This is a place where gardens are mown by sheep, men have hands as gnarled as olive trees and women walk home together from the farmers’ market, laughing and chatting. It’s a taste of country life with a predominantly Italian twist – where food serves as a medium for sharing and says much about the area’s migrant history.

True to the quirky, homely feel of the festival, judging for the Salami Festival takes place in an old Chinese restaurant that has long since closed. While the exterior is rather drab, push open the door and you enter a warm, convivial space full of people huddled around tables, presiding over platters of freshly sliced salami and opining on the efforts of each entry. I’m seated beside TV presenter Paul Mercurio, major festival sponsor Leo Franco, of Leo Franco Motors, and Denis Tagliapietra, a mechanical engineer.

The 24 judges gather in the room to sample some 140 salamis and award a score out of 30, comprised of up to 10 points each for texture, aroma and taste. Roy, whose parents Frank and Mary arrived in Griffith in the 1920s, says the breakdown of entrants in last year’s competition comprised about 65 per cent Calabresi, 20 per cent ‘skips’ (Australians), 15 per cent Venetian, Piedmontese and Abruzzese, and a small percentage of Sicilians.

Keen cook Paul Mercurio says he takes the act of salami-judging very seriously. “I’m not here just to eat salami, I’m here to find Griffith’s best salami,” he says, before inhaling the aroma of Salami Number 44, which all judges agree has a potent kick of pepper.

When the panel of judges – plucked from northern and southern Italian backgrounds – has rated each and every salt-cured submission, the ‘salami statisticians’ collate the scores and declare the top 10 finalists. The regional clash continues the following day when the winner, ‘southerner’ Joe Sergi, is announced at the main festival event held in Pioneer Park, on the town’s outskirts.

“Making salami is a ritual. It’s a get-together day with family and friends. The focus of the festival is on the occasion as much as the salami,” explains Joe, who has won first prize three times. “A few weeks before the festival, the northerners and southerners stir each other up – but it’s all good fun,” he says.

Joe, a third-generation winemaker and managing director of Warburn Estate, says the secret to his salami recipes is that he makes everything from scratch. Joe’s grandparents, Giuseppe and Mary, migrated to Australia from Calabria in the 1950s, where they followed the age-old Italian custom of planting grape vines. Despite being born and bred in Griffith, the 49-year-old says he is happy the traditions of his forefathers have been firmly transplanted in Australian soil.

“This festival ensures that authentic Italian life – the music, the food, the language – continues with generations to come,” says Joe, whose wife Mary, 43, and four children (Angela, 22, Christina, 20, Tony, 19, and Melissa, 15) all help to produce his award-winning salami.

“Nothing goes to waste. To make the salami, we slaughter the pig, mince various parts and mix it with spices and hang it. It’s the ritual that makes it so special,” says Joe, who has won $1000 and a salami-making machine for his efforts.

The fact that the salami festival is not as commercial in character as big-city festivals is, Roy believes, what makes it such a success. He also says it’s a very positive event for the people of Griffith, and not just for those who have Italian backgrounds. “In 12 years, we’ve gone from 12 salamis and 75 people to 138 salamis and 800 people. The festival brings a lot of visitors to the town and boosts our economy, which is needed after all the issues challenging the farmers in the region.”

In between guiding guests – half of whom are out-of-towners – to tables, Roy wanders around the marquee to ensure the red wine is flowing. As more and more people pour in, Annalisa Surian is kept busy in the kitchen mixing large trays of polenta alongside an army of apron-clad women. The 63-year-old is secretary of the Griffith Italian Museum and author of Cavasott in Australia. The book details the many stories of settlement from the northern Italian region of Cavasa del Tomba, where many of the town’s migrants were born. 

Annalisa arrived in Australia in 1950 with her parents, Ernesto and Catinetta, at the age of nine months. Annalisa says her parents – both of whom have since passed away – maintained the old Cavasott way of life because such a large proportion of the Griffith community were from the same area. “The other day, I found a photo of me aged three standing in front of a skinned pig ready for salami-making. The picture is a bit fuzzy now, but shows I have a long-held affiliation with salami and other good old-fashioned Italian traditions,” she says.

Annalisa met her husband Dante, now a 69-year-old retired grape farmer also of northern-Italian descent, at a dance organised by the Yoogali Italian Club in the mid-1960s. Fast-forward a few decades and the Yoogali Club is still at the centre of most cultural events in Griffith. Today, Yoogali board member John Sergi, 52, is in charge of catering the Festa Delle Salsicce festival and is conducting the proceedings with military-like precision.

When lunch is served, Annalisa and her offsiders direct traffic into the dining room, toward tables bent under the weight of 80 kilos of polenta, 900 pieces of chicken cacciatore, 900 pieces of veal scallopini, 60 kilos of rice, 100 kilos of peperonata, chillies, potatoes and onion, 90 loaves of crusty Italian bread and a mountain of salads.

Back outside, underneath the marquee, Sam Mancini has managed to marshal a few of the tables for family and friends. Sam is a second- generation farmer whose late parents, Alberto and Vanda, were post-war migrants who arrived in Griffith in the early 1950s. In 2000, Sam steered the family farm away from growing rice and wheat to cultivating olives and, since 2005, has produced his own award-winning brand of extra virgin olive oil, dubbed The Little General. He is joined at the table by his Australian-born wife Liz, and their adult children, Alexandra, Luke and Xavier, and about 20 friends from Sydney.

“Food and the sharing of food is important to Italians and that’s what this day is about,” says Sam. “Griffith is like Australia’s ‘Little Italy’. We’re all about hospitality, generosity, family and traditions, and that’s what is at the heart of Griffith’s salami festival. It’s a coming together of a diverse cross-section of the community and has given us an identity that’s now unique to this region,” he adds. “My children all have a foot in both cultures, but they also share my passion to build on my family’s farming heritage, which began in Italy and has continued in the Riverina region of NSW.”

By mid-afternoon, the atmosphere in the marquee becomes even more jovial and raucous: pockets of people are eating, drinking and chatting, games of bocce (bowls) are under way and a large clump of the crowd is now clapping, twirling and stomping along to the beat of the accordion-driven folk band. As the sun starts to set, Roy looks happy and relaxed as he surveys the remains of the day. “Salute salami! Che gioia vivere! (The joy of living),” he exclaims.

 

Photography Katie Kaars