“More salt,” says Natalie Saitta, as she checks the water in the big pot of pasta bubbling away on a portable burner. Beside her, Mary Ianni nods, as the two of them test whether the penne is al dente yet. Behind them, two more women are slicing bread and chopping onion and tomato for what will become a plate of vibrant bruschetta, decorated with edible flowers from the garden where all of this is taking place.
Nonna Saitta, as she's also known (she tells us later that she has two children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandson), has just finished a pesto-making demonstration, part of the weekly workshop program at a very special community garden in the Sydney suburb of Concord West. Soon, she’s stirring her pesto into the drained pasta – “Always save some of the cooking water,” she says, as she adds some in along with the pesto (the starch in the water helps distribute the pesto, and create a thicker, smoother sauce) – then serving up bowls for the gathered group of 18 women and three men, including her husband, Filippo and her daughter, Maria. Each bowl gets a dusting of parmesan and a small sprig of basil on top, and then everyone sits down at the long communal outdoor table. After the pasta and bruschetta, and plenty of lively conversation, there are homemade sweets; Elsie Tan has come with a lime and lychee cheesecake, while Linda Kendrick, who’s here with her mother Joan Kingston, has made raspberry blondies. “It’s a beautiful morning,” says Joan. “I come often!”
The Monday morning gatherings are sometimes a cooking lesson, sometimes about plants or other topics, but always with a meal to share at the end. Previous sessions have ranged from risotto-making to gardening for good health; coming up, there’s a talk on geraniums and pelargoniums, a Greek-Cypriot feast and a session on Christmas cooking.
It’s both a way for older residents of the area to share their knowledge and for people of all ages and abilities to come together.
It was, in fact, the rich kitchen and garden knowledge held by the older residents of Sydney’s inner west that sparked the idea for the 5 Senses Garden, which is now thriving on the edge of Rhodes Park. The garden, which opened in February with a special day including a smoking ceremony by Uncle Jimmy Smith, is designed to welcome people of all cultures, ages and abilities. The garden is wheelchair, walker and pram accessible. It has raised garden beds, so that those in wheelchairs can access them; plants include fragrant and tactile varieties, for the vision-impaired to enjoy; there’s a colourful path designed by Indigenous artist Joe Hurst, a play area for children and an outdoor cooking area, where the pesto session is taking place.
“I initially approached the [City of Canada Bay] council four or five years ago about coming up with a community space that engaged older people and people with disabilities more, because I was seeing people in their gardens who had this incredible amount of knowledge when it came to growing their own food and gardening,” explains Roman Deguchi, garden projects co-ordinator with Inner West Neighbourhood Aid (IWNA), a federal government-funded organisation that supports older people and people with a disability to stay independent, healthy and connected. Along with innovative services such as a program that matches high school students with local clients who need physical help with their grocery shopping, INWA also helps people maintain their gardens.
“Quite often, I'd be gardening for them, and they'd make me this incredible lunch, and they were so hospitable and so happy to share. We work with so many people from so many different cultures, being in the inner west, that I was getting all these little jewels of knowledge about different recipes, and these new foods that I'd never tasted before.”
Deguchi says his own earlier experience of joining a community garden made his dream of creating something different. “You needed a code to get in. It was all locked up, and everyone had their own plots. They were all working away on their own plots.” And, he says, many community gardens aren't built to be accessible for older people or people with disabilities.
“So, I approached the council. I was just hoping that they'd give us a space... But they loved the idea so much that they not only gave us a site, but they built it for us, so that was a huge, huge thing.”
"It's about allowing opportunities so the wider community can meet these incredible people, and the older people can share their stories"
The workshop program has evolved alongside the growing garden this year.
“The thinking was to create a space where people can share all sorts of different experiences and knowledge, knowing also that food, at the end of the day, is what brings people together.
“It’s about allowing opportunities and opening doors, so the wider community can meet these incredible people, and older people can share their stories… what happens with a lot of community services that focus on older people and people with disabilities, it's often segregated. Often, there's a lot of older people doing things with a lot of other older people, and a lot of people with disabilities accessing services with other people with disabilities.” The Monday sessions, and the inclusion of a playground in the garden, aim to encourage multiple generations to come together.
Some sessions are aimed at helping older residents in the area to lead healthier lives.
“Too Good is an organisation that we work with and they often run sessions [at the garden] around things that are easy to cook at home or healthy foods.
“People that we [IWNA] were working with… a lot of them live alone now. A lot of them are experienced cooks themselves and amazing cooks. But they've gone from cooking for six people or large families to now being on their own. So, they're not really cooking the meals that they can anymore. And we find that they're not eating fresh and healthy, which happens a lot to older people. Because they're on their own, they chuck something in the microwave,” Deguchi explains.
“So, a lot of it, too, was bringing back that confidence for people to cook for themselves and to eat well.” The aim, he says, is to have those people come to the cooking classes, feel inspired, take produce home from the garden and then get cooking in their own kitchen.
Since the workshop series started in March, the attendees have begun sharing their favourite dishes, too.
“Every workshop we do, whether it's completely separate from food, it's health-related, or it's horticulture-related, at the end of it, we always have lunch, and what always happens is a client [also] brings something that they've cooked from home,” Deguchi says.
“I was doing a lot of the cooking. I'd make a minestrone for example, and then our Italian clients would say, ‘Oh you make it the same way I would’, or ‘Oh no, I would do it slightly differently.’ And that’s how these [cooking] sessions evolved, organically… I said to Natalie, ‘why don't you run one? You've got so much knowledge’.
“Now we've got clients who are saying, ‘You know what, I want to now run one’, or ‘I want to show people’.”
Natalie Saitta’s pesto-making demonstration followed a session earlier in the year where she shared her risotto.
“I was very nervous – inside,” she tells us with a smile, afterwards, but you’d never know. Wearing an apron that proudly promotes her Sicilian heritage (originally from the town of Librizzi, she came to Australia as at 19), she showed the gathered crowd two ways of making pesto: “my grandmother’s way, and my way”, mortar and pestle or food processor. She remembers making pesto for the first time when she was 11, but says it was when she went to live with her grandmother for three years, at the age of 16, that she “learned all the good things”, from pesto to hand-made gnocchi and bread.
Is pesto different in Sicily to the rest of Italy, we ask? No. “Pesto is pesto, wherever you go!”
Cooking, she says is always better with family and friends. During the pesto session, another regular participant, Christalla Michael, steps up to help grind some pine nuts while Nonna Saitta is talking to the crowd about making pesto in the food processor. Michael will be sharing one her favourite recipes, dolmades, during a Greek and Cypriot-themed session next month.
Each Monday, the sessions attract 20-30 participants. Like Sydney’s inner west, those attending are often a mixed bunch: Italian, Greek, South African, Indian, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and more.
The food and the garden are opening up conversations between workshop participants.
“Usually at the beginning of the workshop, we'll go around and harvest things that we're going to cook with, and then bring that back. So that's another way for them to get gardening again, get active again, using their hands, and discussing different things. You know, often a lot of these plants come from particular parts of the world, so they talk about that,” Deguchi says.
“Basil for example, from all regions of the world. Like Italians have their own variety. Indians have their own. Greeks have their own basil. So, it's a way of opening up that conversation: 'Oh, this is what we use it for', and 'Oh, this is slightly different. The flavour's a little bit different with Greek basil, it's more bitter', or 'The Thai basil was a bit different. It's sweeter and is used this way.' People are talking about the produce we're growing and then relating that back to their experiences that they've had when they were in their original country or cooking for their families.”
The workshops also give families something to do something together.
“We talk about empowering young people when, obviously that's really important, but what's happening too is we're empowering older people once again, to do these things, and bring their family along. Often what happens with community services [for older people], the family's not involved in the things that they're doing. They're going to the community centre to play bingo, and obviously the daughter and the grandchild doesn't want to come to that. So, it's really offering these opportunities where generations of the same family can come along, and see their own grandmother do some cooking, and think ‘Wow I haven't seen Nonna in that light before. She's amazing’,” he explains.
Other Monday gatherings have ranged from a talk on the history of the Kokoda Trail – commemorated in the nearby Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway – to growing native plants (the garden includes a bush food area).
“The aim to make them as diverse as possible is to bring people in that may not necessarily want to come to a cooking class, but they want to hear more about how to prevent Alzheimer's, or they're really interested in plants, so they want to come to learn about geraniums. But at the end, coming together with food is what really brings everyone together,” Deguchi says – which is why there’s always lunch at the garden’s big communal table.
The IWNA team are hoping to expand the program to offer sessions on more days of the week, to meet the growing interest.
“I’m booked for every single one,” says Mary Ianni. “It’s such a beautiful atmosphere, and it brings everyone together.”
Find details of upcoming workshops at the 5 Senses garden here and details about volunteering at garden working bees or helping with the weekly workshops here. You can also see more of the garden and the workshops on Instagram. Find out about INWA’s range of programs here and their volunteer opportunities here.
These light and fluffy scones were traditionally cooked in cast-iron trays – you might spot them in antique stores – but a mini muffin tray will also work.
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