Archive for the ‘Italian-Australians’ Category

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Cruising for some codfish

October 25, 2016

Creamed salt cod is one of those dishes that can take me somewhere else.

Known as ‘baccalà mantecato’ in Italian, it’s a specialty of Venice and although complex in flavour, uses minimal ingredients: salt cod, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper and (sometimes) milk. The success lies in adding olive oil slowly as if making mayonnaise while beating the hell out of the cooked fish. A codswallop of sorts.

A recent look through my shoebox of vintage family photos transported me back to a mid 1960s’ shipboard romance.

A family trip back to Italy by boat promised all the fun a gal could dream of if the brochures were to be believed. However, as a kid, my dating prospects were limited so I settled for a relationship with a reconstituted fish.

I was an adventurous eater and looked forward to the daily buffets aboard the Marconi, looking for favourite dishes among butter sculptures guaranteed to make Michelangelo weep. Dinners were dressy affairs and waiters served antipasto selections at our dining tables from oversized stainless steel trays.

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I switched between salami, mortadella and prosciutto, but the one constant was creamed salt cod. From Sydney to Genoa – over 23 days and 10 ports of call in southeast Asia, the middle East and finally Italy – I ate creamed salt cod. I then took a break for a few years, but every time I was downwind of it, our sea voyages came to mind.

The liners SS Guglielmo Marconi and SS Galileo Galilei were purpose-built in 1962 in my hometown Trieste to bring immigrants to Australia. The sister ships were furnished with elegant interiors and collected awards for their innovative design. Shipboard games were simple and included shuffleboard, quoits and horse races with 2-D timber animals that moved along a track on the throw of the dice. Crossing the equator was a big poolside occasion featuring egg and flour initiations of Equator-crossing virgins and wily old King Neptune looking on. Children were encouraged to learn folkdances of the countries visited during stopovers. Our teacher, a heavily accented Eastern European woman, drummed into us an Indian dance routine, because “tomorrow is Bombatom”. I asked my parents if Bombay was a war zone.

Not that I realised it at the time, but what better way is there than enjoying salt cod on a ship, celebrating the important trade of Basque fishermen 500 years ago.

The award-winning Cod: a Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (Mark Kurlansky, 1999) is next in line on my bedside table.

This baccalà mantecato recipe by Emiko Davies is great … try it with polenta or eat it as I did on the ship – on nice toasted bread. Piled high.


Image from ‘The Sea Herald’ – Marconi 1965

 

 

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The Spaghetti Test: a short story

May 15, 2016

It was never going to be a happy marriage: an Italian in strange surroundings, with no knowledge of the local language, dependent on an unknown woman whose cooking probably didn’t measure up to mamma’s.

When I started primary school as a five-year-old, I had about 11 words of English. It was 1960 and we had arrived as Italian migrants a few years earlier, my parents settling in Sydney’s inner-west and mixing with other non-Australians. We spoke Italian at home and we hadn’t yet bought a television, so there were no English distractions.

The first school day was traumatic. My mother cried when she dropped me off at the local public school after the two-kilometre walk from our house, hand-in-hand. She also cried on her way home and again when she collected me in the afternoon.

I can’t remember if I was anxious during those first weeks at school, but if I was, I put all my energies into grappling with the lunches my mother prepared. Mum’s sandwiches were stuffed with either salami or mortadella. If it was dad’s handiwork, it more than likely involved a sharp, smelly Italian cheese partnered with two or three black olives, de-pipped and halved.

There weren’t many other migrant children in my class, but kids being kids, they made rude noises when I reached for my lunch. I soon realised that if I wanted to fit in, the pathway to assimilation would be food. I’d tried to work out what was in my classmates’ sandwiches and learned the pale pink sliced meat was called devon and the dark brown, salty-smelling gloop was Vegemite. But I was more interested in the stubby noodles in the orange-coloured sauce that one girl brought in most days. It was a strange thing to put in a sandwich but I figured if an Australian kid at school could eat what an Italian kid ate at home, we could become soul mates.

SpaghettiEaters

Spaghetti eaters (Naples) by Giorgio Sommer circa 1886.

After a few months, I convinced my mother that I wanted to try something different for lunch and needed to place an order for the spaghetti sandwich. This was my first attempt at befriending the woman behind the tuck shop counter who I assumed cooked the pasta at home. She was very kind and only too pleased to let me try something familiar.

I could hardly wait for the sandwich to arrive. I salivated. I was finally going to be ‘one of them’. Bag opened, wax paper off, first bite completed.

“This can’t be right.” I tried again. “That woman has made a mistake. I ordered spaghetti.” I took a third, smaller bite of the overcooked pasta in the sickly, sweet, gluggy sauce and almost gagged. Should I be rude and spit it out? I hadn’t swallowed the other two pieces, so there was now a hefty ball of unwanted sandwich in my mouth soon to be deposited in the paper lunch bag.

My Australian classmates looked on and nodded when I asked if this really was spaghetti. Some corrected me and said it really was “psghetti”.

If I’d watched the tuck shop woman make my sandwich I’d have realised the pasta had come out of a tin and was scooped onto the buttered bread with a spoon. ‘Spaghetti’ and ‘spoon’ were never used in the same sentence in our Italian world. Years later I discovered that US miners introduced tinned spaghetti to Australia during the late 19th century gold rush and the nation had been enjoying it ever since, even daring to tip it onto a slice of toast for special occasions.

My mother asked about my new sandwich filling. I had to think fast: if I admitted it was inedible, it would be back to the smelly sandwiches; if I said I liked it, I’d have to keep ordering it.

I can’t remember how we reached a compromise. Maybe I convinced dad my schoolmates thought the black olives looked like cockroaches and it would reflect badly on mum’s housekeeping. Or that the mortadella would fester in a hot school case in the sun and upset my stomach. Either way, they relented and both these offending fillings were omitted from my lunchbox for a long while.

As my English improved, I gained confidence and learned to order sandwiches with egg, salad, raspberry jam and peanut butter.

But not before I was tempted by something called a ‘sausage roll’. I had visions of a crusty Italian roll with German mustard and a genuine continental frankfurter – just like my northern Italian parents, whose cooking was influenced by Austro-Hungarian heritage – served at home.

If testing the spaghetti sandwich had been a disappointment, this second experiment almost sent me running back to mum and dad’s problematic lunches. But soon after, our first television delivered me another challenge in the form of the 1960s’ American sitcom children’s specialty: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was a glutton for punishment.

(The Spaghetti Test was short-listed and commended in the 2015 Life Writing competition held annually by Melaleuca Blue Publishing. It’s included in an anthology of short stories titled Do Nuns Wear Knickers published in print and ebook form).

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Lurking in the Cupboard: Rosso Antico, the Prince of Aperitifs

December 31, 2014

If there’s one thing nicer than an Italian aperitif, it’s a good aperitif glass. Lucky then that the ‘curiosities’ section of my mother’s sideboard was able to deliver the goods.

Neatly hidden from view were two remaining glasses from her original Rosso Antico set of eight. I’d borrowed them long ago to use in an ironic 1960s-70s kind of way, put them back and forgotten about them.

Rosso Antico glasses

Rosso Antico (Ancient red) was invented in Italy in 1962 and soon became the aperitif of choice. It was known as ‘the prince of aperitifs’ and featured heavily in promotional segments of popular Italian TV sketch show Carosello.* Here in Australia, Italian Australians took to it with gusto.

An aromatised wine – with 32 herbs including sage, rosemary and thyme (yes really, but no parsley) – Rosso Antico is deep ruby red and bittersweet, with an aftertaste of peel and spices. In some circles it was considered (cruelly I think) the poor cousin of other Italian aperitifs like Campari or Aperol but was often substituted in drinks where they were used.

Back then, the glasses with the Rosso Antico moniker were nearly always promotional giveaways. One glass was included in a fancy box with each bottle purchase, so depending on how much you entertained, you either built up a set of eight very quickly or never. My parents’ circle of friends loved it at dinner parties served straight up, with a slice of orange or soda water.

I associate the trends of the time with it: wide ties and sideburns for the men, palazzo pants and big hair for the ladies and a look of disdain on our teenage faces. We were, after all, just discovering Harvey Wallbangers.

Rosso AnticoRossoAnticoHead

After its initial popularity, it was withdrawn from sale in the late 1970s due to one of the ingredient’s perceived carcinogenic qualities. It re-surfaced, but I lost touch with it until I spied some recently in a Sydney bottle shop. It’s had a design makeover (I’m guessing) to entice people to substitute it for Campari in their Negronis. I’m pretty sure there are new, bigger promotional glasses too, but I prefer the originals. All related advertising at the time carried the words: ‘‘Rosso Antico’ – l’aperitivo che si beve in coppa” meaning the aperitif should be drunk in ‘coupe” glasses, similar in shape to the saucer glasses preferred for champagne during the swinging ’60s. The glasses, with their shallow bowls on top of slender stems are now only used for cocktails, so the Rosso Antico marketers will have had to come up with a new tagline.

Aperitifs done and dusted, I’ve also put the glasses to good use for the leftover Christmas cherry granita.

CherryGranita2

The Gelato Messina Cookbook published in late 2013 includes a recipe for Rosso Antico and Marmalade gelato. So it’s definitely trending.

PS – For Italian speakers, you might enjoy this 1974 Rosso Antico animated advertisement inspired by the fairytale ‘The Princess in the Well’.  
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Coffee, Brioche and the Beautiful Game

July 31, 2014

BAR SPORT in Sydney’s inner-west was my family’s regular Saturday morning haunt from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Before Italian migrant families left the area for the outer suburbs and bigger homes, the café – established in Norton Street Leichhardt in 1956 as Caffé Sport – was the place to catchup with the week’s news and drink coffee. (See earlier post).

BarSportStreet2

 

I’d abandoned it for 20 years, moving on to cafes frequented by art school students and my extended circle of friends in the inner city. But last month, I needed a place to watch the 2014 World Cup: somewhere that attracted football (soccer) folk who were just as confused as me about supporting either Italy or Australia.

The Team Sheet

The players don’t change all that much: elderly men talking illnesses, ailments and soccer; middle-aged men in business meetings; a family with a couple of kids and the odd blow-in. Owners Joe and Frank Napoliello do a fantastic job keeping soccer fans happy all year, showing Euro matches on the large screen TV. But they really take it up a couple of notches during World Cups when they throw open the doors until ungodly hours, especially for the Italy and Australia matches.

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Pre-match Entertainment

The merchandise stall is interesting, but I’m not tempted by the t-shirts, instead finding myself a spot in the unreserved area near the coffee machine.

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Kick-off

There’s just enough time during the warm-up to inspect the footy food. On offer there’s assorted panini, focacce and dolci on display for breakfast and I decide on a mini brioche with fior di latte (mozzarella) and leg ham to go with my macchiato. They’re both perfect. The sweetness of the soft bun marries well with the filling, reminding me of the traditional sweet Easter bread (Pinza) from northeastern Italy that we’d eat with sliced leg ham.

BarSportFood

 

Half-time

While the spectators dash in various directions, I reflect on what’s brought me here. Regular father-daughter outings in the 1960s to see the local Italian soccer team (APIA) play in the 1960s fuelled my interest in soccer. We’d take bread rolls filled with mortadella and provolone cheese. But in my mid teens I could no longer hide my secret soccer life to school friends and foolishly embraced the oval ball game just to fit in. I also started eating sausage rolls.

Second half

The players have ramped up their diving and writhing on the pitch and I can afford to turn away for a minute and order more brioche and coffee. This carb-fest continues for a few weeks and I wish the referee would give me a caution or show me a red card.

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Full time

That’s it. Time for the café brothers to snip the losing team’s national flag from the row of bunting strung overhead. And also time to dissect the game and for strangers to become friends.

Post match commentary

I don’t know when Bar Sport became a house of worship to the beautiful game. The only sports fever I remember 30 years ago was the corner table with a chess and draughts set on offer.

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I gather my things and wonder if these visits would only be four-yearly World Cup affairs. Or if making the place a regular haunt might be too nostalgic. I also think about the bad coffee I’ve been drinking at nearby cafes for years and I opt for the latter. I’ve come full circle.

(*I’ve used ‘soccer’ throughout rather than ‘football’ to save confusion for U.S. – and other – readers).

This is not a sponsored post/review. No fee or caffeine supplies were accepted by the writer.

 

 

 

 

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Working Out for our Mussels

October 30, 2013

The current widespread interest in foraging for food took me back to my family’s attempts at the hunter/gatherer lifestyle.

Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour was a hub of industrial activity when we lived in nearby Balmain in the mid 1960s. Soon there was talk among the Italian community that the action on the island’s shipbuilding facilities was easily matched by what was happening underwater.

The Italian dockyard workers on the island discovered the enormous wooden pylons under the piers were bursting with mussels. My parents had always eaten mussels in their Adriatic seaside hometown but were missing them in Sydney. They’d only eaten them once at Beppi’s Italian restaurant in Sydney after they heard the restaurant owner, Beppi Polese – also a forager- was rowing out to Middle Harbour’s Spit Bridge in a rubber boat for his supply.  

Mussels in Pot

With apologies to Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (The Triumph of Mussels, 1965). I couldn’t resist

 

Determined not to let this opportunity pass, my father was soon making plans to explore this bounty and mild sunny days in autumn or spring would be perfect for the trip. In a small wooden rowboat hired from a nearby boatshed, my dad, mum and I started making our 20-minute trips across the Parramatta River to mussel HQ. I was only seven or eight, but insisted on helping with the rowing. My skinny arms worked hard, but the heavy timber oars soon had me struggling. We wore no lifejackets, sunscreen or hats – and carried no water – just hessian sacks for the haul and the special mussel harvester invented by my handyman dad.

My father had fashioned a piece of fine wire mesh into a bucket shape and attached it to the bottom of a metal garden rake. When we reached the island, my mother and I stood at one end of the boat, steadying it with our arms wrapped around a pylon while my father, balancing at the other end, lowered the hand-crafted contraption deep into the water. A few upward scrapes against the timber pylon and the mesh collected all the loosened mussels.

Molluscs produce an amino acid that helps them cling tenaciously to piers, rocks and boat hulls, so this was tough work.  Dad was always careful to harvest them deep in the water as he thought they were less likely to be contaminated by fuel spills. This determination to deliver us from food poisoning had him leaning so far out of the boat we always anticipated a man overboard situation. 

Three or four sackfuls (about 30 kilos) later, we’d head home, with my father doing most of the rowing while we nursed our scratches and bruises from hugging the pylons too tightly while he foraged. The homeward journey seemed to take forever and was uncomfortable and cramped with the haul taking up precious leg space. The boat was heavier than it had been during the outward journey, but my father rowed on, dodging passing motorboats and welcoming the occasional splashes of cold water on his white Bonds singlet. 

The trip finished, we unloaded the boat on the beach while the Anglo-Australian fishermen shook their heads, yelling to us that the mussels were not fit for human consumption. My parents told me not to worry about ‘gli Australiani’ and reassured me it was their loss.

Back at our house, the crowds started gathering. Our family friends had all come round to collect their share, some staying for lunch or dinner. After cold beers, it was time for rinsing off, scrubbing and de-bearding – of the mussels, not the crew. We cooked up a feast and ate them stuffed, steamed, crumbed and fried, added to a risotto, tossed into a pot of pasta. With plenty of leftovers, we were in mussel heaven for days.

These days I buy mussels wrapped in plastic and paper from a trusted fishmonger but I miss the days of bringing them home in wet hessian sacks, with their distinctive sea-salt smell.

One of my favourite ways to eat them is as the Venetians do – stuffed and baked in the oven and called Muscoli or ‘pedoci’ al Pangrattato.

 

Fried mussels

For four people:

2 kgs medium sized mussels ….. 1 cup breadcrumbs ….. 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley ….. 1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped ….. pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper ….. 1/4 cup olive oil ….. lemon juice to taste
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Combine breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Scrub mussels well and using a small knife inserted between the shells, open each one and remove beard.  Scrape mussel flesh and its water into one shell only and discard other shell. Arrange mussel-filled shells onto baking tray and pile a small amount of breadcrumb mixture onto each, just covering the flesh. Drizzle with olive oil and bake for approximately 10 minutes or until browned. Serve hot with a squeeze of lemon.

(Working out for our Mussels was short-listed in the 2014 Life Writing competition held annually by Melaleuca Blue Publishing. It’s included in an anthology of short stories titled You’ll Eat Worse than that Before You Die published in print and ebook form).

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In Search of the Real Russian Salad

July 30, 2013

As an Italian-Australian kid, I liked to keep my exotic food preferences to myself. But I’m now happy to share.

Russian Salad (insalata russa) featured on our dinner table in Australia each New Year’s Eve and on special occasions from the late 1950s onwards. When we returned to Italy in 1964 on the ocean liner SS Marconi, I was bereft at leaving my friends in Sydney, but found solace in having access to that dish daily. Twenty six days at sea with buffet table bliss!  I loved the stuff and piled my plate high, and didn’t have to hide my passion for it from my school friends.

insalataRussa

Image: Marco Salvo/NonnaPeppa.com

It’s thought the dish was invented in Russia in the late 1880s by Belgian chef Lucien Olivier. Or was it? France* also has claims on salade russe. Whatever its origins, it made its way to Italy (perhaps through the Piemonte region) and later Spain (where it’s known as ensaladilla rusa and served in tapas and pintxos bars). Add to that Iran, Israel, Serbia, Poland, Greece, Turkey and South America and you’ve pretty much got a universal dish.

When we made insalata russa, my mother looked after the cooking and my father was assigned mayo making and assembling duties. Not for him the dumping of assorted vegetables in mayonnaise into a salad bowl. No, he’d slap the prepared mixture into a round cake shape, coat it with extra mayonnaise and decorate it with sliced hard-boiled eggs, gherkins (cornichons), black olives, capers and tomatoes.

There are many takes on insalata russa and the dish has been adapted to reflect national cuisines, and varies considerably. There’s no disputing the most popular ingredients are potatoes, carrots, peas and home-made mayonnaise with good extra virgin olive oil.

I asked Sydney chef/restaurateur Stefano Manfredi for his thoughts on the dish and he suggested zucchini, celery, capsicum (red & yellow), beans. The influential Italian cookbook The Silver Spoon includes one cooked beet, as does our household bible Cucina Triestina.

LiberaceCooks

Image: Doubleday

I also consulted someone who brings considerable gravitas to the table. Liberace, the late American pianist/entertainer, has Italian as well as Polish roots (Italian father, Polish mother). ‘Mr Showmanship’ was a dab hand in the kitchen and his book Liberace Cooks! (published 1970) includes a Russian Salad recipe – and he has everything but the candelabra in it … including beets.

*In France, the dish is also known as salade piémontaise (after the Piedmont region in Italy) adding to the confusion about its origins.

So why is it difficult to find this universal dish in restaurants in Australia – Russian dinner dances notwithstanding. Unfashionably retro? Too hard to deconstruct? At the very least it should be sold in delis, so that I won’t have to wait for my next trip back to Italy to buy a take-away scoopful.

If you’re ready for showtime, here’s Liberace’s Russian Salad recipe.

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It’s all about The Cup of Cino

February 9, 2013

It’s never too early to plan for your dotage.

With this in mind, I’ve gathered my disparate collection of ceramic coffee cups in anticipation of the day I breathe a sigh of relief at not having to compete with younger, louder café patrons and just entertain my friends and their Zimmer frames at home.

This frenzied stocktake was brought on by a guest blog post I contributed last week to the Italian Language Blog where I reminisced about my family’s in-house afternoon coffee catchups.

I also tut-tuted at the increasing use of the disposable cup – sometimes seen in the popular ‘bucket size’, rushing down the street with a human sucking from its plastic lid. That can’t be pleasant, surely, and not only diminishes the coffee drinking experience but also contributes to ever-increasing landfill. (In Australia alone, 500 million disposable cups are thrown away every year – each one taking up to 50 years to biodegrade.)

If I save only ONE person from ever drinking good coffee from a paper cup again my job here is done. Would you really drink a good wine from a plastic tumbler? No. You’d take Danny Kaye’s advice and admit that “the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true” (The Court Jester, 1955).

orangecupvittoriacatscubitaflowermuggreendinnerset70Stripesporcelainpersiantwocupsbrown

Read fullLanguage of Coffee’ post: http://blogs.transparent.com/italian/the-language-of-coffee-2/

Related posts about coffee: 

https://ambradambra.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/lurking-in-the-cupboard-manual-coffee-grinder/

https://ambradambra.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/hold-the-traffic-i-have-another-coffee-story-to-write/

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