How is it the sparkling kitchens of many Italian houses never seem to show signs of having cooked up huge pots of sauce or baking feasts for 20 at a time. The secret is the garage... usually a double garage.
The garage is where the working kitchen is usually found. There will either be a stove or a large gas ring or both. There’ll be an extra fridge, some bench space to be able to chop artichokes or other vegetables; the “tomato day” equipment to deseed and skin the tomatoes; and loads of preserving jars. The garage can also double as the repository for some of the gardening equipment too, as there has never been an Italian house we’ve visited that didn’t have most of the available garden given over to fruit trees, herbs, tomatoes, salad vegies and sometimes more.
The garage can also contain a load of wood used for wood-fired ovens if the family has one. It may have some specialist equipment for fishing or hunting as well. It may also store some of the many vegetables or fish or meats that have been preserved when they’re at their best.
One man who followed his passion for preserving, and who’s been a pioneer in promoting some of the secrets passed on through Italian families, is an inspiring Melbourne GP named Pietro Demaio. He was born in Australia, his parents were from Calabria, and he believed that many of the skills of being able to preserve produce in season were in danger of being lost. So he collected the wisdom of many Italians and Italian-Australians into a book called Preserving the Italian Way.
He published the book himself and has sold thousands and thousands of copies – at time of writing, 13,000 – in Australian terms, a bestseller. It's full of the simple wisdom of the Italian, like how to build a wood-fired oven, or the simpler task of how to preserve artichokes, cure your own pancetta, or bottle mushrooms. There are even recipes for soap – like one of those Country Women’s Association books, Italian style.
All very inspiring. We spent a day with Pietro and his wife, Lynn, and I tasted some of the best tuna I’ve ever eaten. A few weeks earlier, Pietro had bought an 8 kg tuna, sliced it into large rounds and put it into a huge pot with a fair bit of salt to cook for an hour or so. Once it had cooled, he put the tuna into sterilised jars and added some herbs, chilli and olive oil. This was what I ate the day we filmed. It tasted so fresh, with no metallic edge to it, and the difference between that and what I’d had before was the same difference between fresh and tinned asparagus - no comparison!
The good news is that as well as having a wonderful taste, the tuna actually costs less than what you’d buy in the shops. Inspiring! In fact, everything we ate that day Pietro had cured and preserved – finely sliced prosciutto, pancetta, artichokes, wine, olives. Delicious.
Similarly inspiring are Lina and Pat D'Onofrio, who star in our olive preserving story. They grow many different types of olives on their farm on the rich plains outside Adelaide and harvest and preserve them for sale in local farmers markets where they have an adoring public. They were generous enough to have us in and show us how they painstakingly removed the seeds – either sitting round with the girls cracking them with glass bottles, or one by one on the special olive pitting machine. It was great fun.
We saw how to soak olives to remove the bitterness and then learnt how to preserve them in brine or oil. We later ate delicious salads made with olives and tasted the many varieties and flavour combinations they were clever enough to put together. It was olive heaven and made me realise how much fun can be had doing things yourself and what great flavours are the result.
That joy in creating your own flavours really comes through when families make their own salami. It’s a huge job and two or three days are set aside in the depths of winter – we were lucky enough to join the Momesso family – chef Riccardo Momesso’s extended family who have carried this age-old tradition since they arrived in Australia from Calabria. Firstly the pig is broken down into many different cuts which have a range of uses. Nothing is wasted. It really brings you back to basics to see this process from start to finish. The meat for the salami is put through a coarse mincer, with an eye to keeping enough fat in the mix so the salami has enough moisture. And then the salt – too much will dry out the salami; too little won’t cure the meat. The other great enemy of good salami is air pockets – as the mince is fed into the natural casings, great care is taken to massage out any air bubbles. And the result once it's hung and dried? Capolavoro – a masterpiece!
One of the beauties of filming this series was being given the opportunity to access all seasons. So, in the still heat of summer with the sounds of cicadas all around us, we filmed the charming restaurateur Lucio Galetto picking the best tender basil leaves from the basil he grows at home and showing the technique for making pesto, which originated in his home region of Liguria. I can almost smell that wonderful aroma now, and loved how he used the good ol' mortar and pestle.
Finally, the dolce – this episode featuring a pastry I have always adored. Its called sfogliatelle – delicate layers of overlapping fine pastry shaped like a lobster tail and filled with lemony sweet ricotta; you die and go to heaven at the first bite as you get an incredibly crunchy outside and luscious filling.
I was delighted to meet pastry chef Claudio Ferraro who whipped up a batch. It's great spending time with people who are masters of their art and just love what they do. Claudio is a partner in the chain of Adelaide cafes called Cibo and is surrounded by a young Italo-Australian, food-loving gang who treasure much of the wisdom of previous generations. I think our future is in good hands.
Happy food adventures one and all,