• Published in 1937. (Tania Cammarano)Source: Tania Cammarano
Australia's first Italian cookbook was way ahead of its time, but following its recipes today can present some challenges.
Tania Cammarano

6 Apr 2021 - 1:43 PM  UPDATED 6 Apr 2021 - 9:12 PM

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When do you think Australia's first Italian cookbook was published? The 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of Italians came after the Second World War? The 1970s, when Australians began to embrace multiculturalism? Or the 1980s, when focaccia and cappuccino became café staples?

It was 1937. If you're surprised, I don't blame you. Most stories of Italians in Australia feature those who came after the Second World War, but by 1933, Italians were already the biggest non-English speaking minority. That doesn't mean they were always welcomed (spoiler alert: they weren't) or that Australians adopted Italian food (another spoiler alert: they didn't). 

So, what do you do if you and your food aren't welcomed? You write a cookbook!

 While we do not know who wrote the cookbook, we do know they had a clear vision for this country's culinary future.

The First Australian Continental Cookery Book was published by Italian migrants who ran the Cosmopolitan Publishing Company in Melbourne. Unlike the stereotype of unschooled peasant folk migrating for a better life, these men were sophisticated and ambitious, not just for themselves but for their new country. They planned to change Australian attitudes to Italians and this cookbook was a key weapon in their arsenal.

Unfortunately, they were also associated with fascist politics. When World War II broke out most were interned as potential enemy sympathisers.

While we do not know who wrote the cookbook, we do know they had a clear vision for this country's culinary future. They made a strong case for Anglo-Australians to sample all foreign cuisines, but specifically Italian. Among the cookbook's recipes are 'A Neapolitan Recipe' (pizza), 'Genoese Ribbon-Macaroni' (lasagne with pesto) and 'Florentine meat-paste balls' (ravioli).

But how usable are these recipes? My first attempt to cook from the book was a disaster, so I thought I'd go with something more basic this time:

The recipe tells us that mozzarella was available in Australia before mass Italian migration.

If you think this sounds like the Italian dish mozzarella in carrozza, you would be right. It's a simplified version, which is typical of the book's attempt to make dishes accessible to Anglo-Australian housewives. In another recipe, it even allows (with a resigned sigh) cooks to use Kraft cheese if gruyere isn't available.

My recipe calls for mozzarella or Neapolitan cheese "put up in the shape of a bladder". Now, call me crazy, I do not like to think about bladders while I am cooking, but I found something sufficiently bladder-like:

I wanted to choose ingredients that would be recognisable to the cookbook author, so I didn't go for low GI gluten-free crust-less white bread. In the mid-1930s sliced bread did sort of exist, but was not in mass production. I went with a Vienna slice.

The bladder cheese in question (left) and toothpicked sandwiches (right).

I made the sandwiches all the same size (almost!) and was instructed to close them with "little fastenings". I had visions of using tiny stainless steel butterfly clips. Consulting the Italian language edition (released after the English version) led to a simpler suggestion: "stecchini". Toothpicks are sadly not as exciting as butterflies, but I stuck them in and fried the sandwiches in "plenty of butter".

I discovered a problem. Nowhere does it say "turn the sandwiches", but this obviously had to be done. How to do it with giant toothpicks in? Argh, after attempting to flip one and burning my finger, I made the executive decision to remove the toothpicks, which worked much better.

It was not that difficult in the end

The book says to "serve hot". I discovered, however, you should wait a beat or risk adding a scalded mouth to a burnt finger. 

When I could safely bite into the golden-fried sandwich, the cheese was stretchy and the flavour buttery. If I was a 1930s housewife, I would be impressed. I'm not though, but I still put it on Facebook.

The book isn't great to cook from, it has minimal instructions and assumes a lot of knowledge. However, its message was a good 50 years ahead of its time. It told Australians they had world-class produce, but they were hampered from realising its full potential by being "over-faithful to the footsteps of their [British] fathers". By broadening their horizons, they could learn to cook in a way that would lead not just to a better dinner table, but a better life.

"It is time for Australians to realise, in fact, that what one may call Mediterranean cookery has much to offer them."

The cookbook proclaims, "It is time for Australians to realise, in fact, that what one may call Mediterranean cookery has much to offer them.

"Italian cookery, for instance, embodies ideas, aims and methods that have not only been ripening for literally thousands of years, but have been doing so under climatic conditions far more closely resembling those of Australia than do the British."

Impressive stretch was achieved, making the sandwiches Facebook worthy.

This cosmopolitan cookbook also includes dishes from culinary traditions as diverse as Danish to Indian. It was a blueprint for a multicultural culinary future. It didn't make much impact at the time, the war saw to that. However, championing local produce, eating in a way more in tune with the climate and embracing cuisines from across the globe are now very much part of the Australian way of cooking and eating.

If you're looking for a copy of the First Australian Continental Cookery Book, you will find it in the Special Collections of William Angliss Institute, Melbourne. It's also available in the state libraries of NSW, Victoria, South Australia and the National Library of Australia. In the latter, you will also find the Italian translation.

Love the story? Follow the author here: @lamingtonslasag. Dr Tania Cammarano is a lecturer in the Food Studies program at William Angliss Institute in Melbourne.

Photographs of the First Australian Continental Cookery Book are courtesy of William Angliss Institute Special Collections. All other images by Tania Cammarano.

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