I was born in Australia to Italian parents, from Calabria in 1949. In the 1950s and 1960s, as I was growing up, it wasn’t particularly cool to be Italian. There was a lot of racism and barriers to people from other countries continuing their culture.
Over the years, it seems that there’s always been a group of new immigrants being hounded and picked on. Back then it was Italians. So it goes without saying that it was very difficult to access Italian produce in Australia.
This was an issue on many levels because traditional foods provide so much more than just nutrition. They offer a link to your culture and history. If you lose your cuisine or the skills used to make traditional foods, there's a risk that you will start to lose some of your culture.
Preserving the Italian way
There was [not a lot of Italian produce] sold at the supermarkets in the 1950s.
Quality olive oil was extremely difficult to get because olive oil, used for massages, was really only available at the pharmacy. If didn’t produce your own salami or sardines, you didn’t eat salami or sardines. You could easily find cheese for sale, but if you wanted a sharp cheese like parmesan, you would have to make it yourself.
Italian immigrants usually grew their own fruit and vegetables or bought them fresh when they were in season, and preserved them to make traditional foods – like passata, artichokes, olives and capers – just as generations before them used to do back in Italy before refrigeration existed. The recipes for these preserved foods originated in Italy when families had to stock up on food in summer or spring for winter or they wouldn’t eat. All that was at their disposal was seasonal produce, salt, olive oil and sun.
...Italian immigrants living in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s ended up preserving food, according to the old ways. Consequently, they also ended up preserving their heritage.
So, just as Italians living in Italy once preserved foods out of necessity, Italian immigrants living in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s ended up preserving food, according to the old ways. Consequently, they also ended up preserving their heritage.
Reconnecting generations of Australian-Italians with food traditions
As time went on, successive generations of Italian-Australians were able to buy traditional produce at the shops, all year round. They didn’t have to learn the skills needed to make their own passata, olives, sardines and salamis in order to enjoy these foods. So we slowly starting to lose our culture.
In 2008, I published a collection of traditional family recipes, handed down through the generations, detailing how to preserve vegetables and fish in oil, vinegar or salt; how to make cheese, cured meats and dry herbs; and traditional methods for making bread, wine and liqueurs.
My book was intended for generations of Australian-Italians who were desperate to learn about their culture because their grandparents or parents had died, and they had lost their connection to the old country, the stories and traditional food skills.
Over the years, I’ve had hundreds of emails from first-generation immigrant Italians and non-Italians alike, who have all wanted to become part of the food journey and discover Italian food traditions. People have told me how the recipes reminded them of their grandmother’s cooking, a time in their youth, or a past trip to Italy when they had a particular eggplant, cheese or tomato dish.
So, it seems, we're starting to relate food to people and culture once again. I think that’s because food is more than just nutrition. Food is history. It’s family. It’s heritage. When we eat dishes made with ingredients picked when they’re in season, food is what is offered to you from the land at a particular time. The flavours completely transform your cooking.
Making food using traditional recipes is an excellent way to remind you of your origins. It requires a lot of work and time. But the result is always fantastic. It's a completely different product from what you would buy from the shop. You can always taste the difference.
Preserving The Italian Way by Pietro Demaio, published by Plum. RRP $39.99.