When I was a kid growing up in Sydney, my Greek-Cypriot parents owned a small business on a bustling suburban shopping strip. It was one of those old-style delis that lure you in with the heady aroma of charcuterie and cheese.
Our shop was called Jack’s Delicatessen, but my dad isn’t Jack. He’s Mick, my mum is Chloe, my brother is Sam and my sister is Stephanie.
Somehow, I ended up with Menios, a name fit for a Greek goat herder.
Mum had worked at delis and milk bars since arriving in Australia in the 1970s, so when she bought the business, she knew exactly what it took to make it successful. This wouldn’t be a Cypriot deli or even a Greek one - it would cater to everyone.
Mum had worked at delis and milk bars since arriving in Australia in the 1970s, so when she bought the business, she knew exactly what it took to make it successful.
We fermented barrels of sauerkraut for the Germans and Poles, kept the shelves stocked with spices for the Indians and Sri Lankans, and yerba-maté for the Argentines, and always had fresh ham and Devon for the Aussies.
Sometimes, stern Italian customers would come in for prosciutto and mortadella - all to be sliced tissue-thin. There was one signora who would only be served by me, because I’d endure her complaints long enough to slice her prosciutto to perfection.
“No, nooo!” she would yell, as I hunched over the meat slicer. “Is too thick! Is too thick! Show me, show me.”
I’d turn around and show her an immaculately sliced portion of salt-cured pork.
“Okay, is good, is good,” she’d say. “Perfetto, perfetto.”
I remember one time, during school holidays, signora came in when the shop was packed to the rafters.
“Prosciutto, prosciutto, per favore,” she said, waving her hands.
Mum had been whizzing around the shop, serving five customers in the time that I served one. She looked at me sternly, as if to say, make it quick.
When I started slicing the prosciutto, signora yelled out, like she always did. I turned towards her without stopping, cleanly cropping the tip of my right thumb.
Blood spurted on the floor as I trudged towards my mum, thumb tucked inside my fist.
“Show me,” Mum said quietly, her face deadpan.
“I can’t Ma, it’s gonna squirt.”
“Okay. Go to the medical centre. Run.”
“What about signora?”
“I’ll serve her. Go. And keep your arm up to stop the bleeding.”
By the time I got to the doctor, my hand was throbbing, like my heart had somehow squeezed itself into the tip of my thumb. My head spun as the doc needled anaesthetic straight into the wound.
It was a while before I used the slicer again.
We had plenty of regulars, but our favourites were John and Colleen, who came in every other day for six slices of Devon and a pair of Portuguese rolls. Colleen had bright eyes, rosy cheeks and a button nose. John had sparkly white teeth and wore a perma-smile.
We had plenty of regulars, but our favourites were John and Colleen, who came in every other day for six slices of Devon and a pair of Portuguese rolls.
They’d walk in late in the day, after a beer and a slap of the pokies at the pub across the road. You could tell when John had enjoyed one too many; his head would turn red and his face was an open book.
They’d ask questions about Cyprus. What was it like? Were the beaches nice? The people friendly?
“You ever been there, Man-yos?” John asked.
“Yeah, we went for a visit when I was two.”
“Two? That’s young. You remember it?
“A bit. It’s just a little island. Boring.”
“Your mum says it’s beautiful.”
“Yeah, but what would she know.”
John widened his smile and shook his head, his face a crimson road map.
“She knows how to run a business, that’s for sure, mate. Your mum owns the best deli this side of Sydney, I reckon.”
Hearing Aussie John say that made me feel warm inside. To this day, I cannot walk past a delicatessen without thinking fondly of the man.
The shopping strip had no shortage of characters, but the one I remember most was Paul, the bespectacled Greek newsagent who had a rare talent for folding unwieldy broadsheet newspapers.
I spent a lot of time in his shop flicking through magazines, and Paul was fine with it. He encouraged it.
One day, Paul saw me picking up a tabloid newspaper and waved me over.
“Listen, Menio,” he whispered, kneeling to my level. “The smarter people, they always read the bigger newspapers. Okay?”
Next day, I walked in, picked up The Sydney Morning Herald and took it to the counter. Paul cracked a smile and said, “Bravo, Menio!”
I was studying at university when Mum and Dad sold the shop. We’d been in business for more than a decade and it was still doing well, but Mum was tired. Dad went back to working for the council and Mum got a job with a local welfare centre, caring for old Greek ladies in their homes.
These days, when I see a delicatessen, sometimes I walk in just so I can close my eyes and take in a sniff of my past. The salty smell of a freshly cracked tin of olives. The sweet stinkiness of salami and aged European cheese.
The scents of an old-style deli are the scents of my childhood.