Archive for the ‘Retro household items’ Category


The Moka: a classic until the end

February 28, 2016

Two weeks ago, the son of the man who invented the Moka coffee pot died in Switzerland aged 93 and received a fitting send-off.

As a tribute to his gift to coffee lovers, Renato Bialetti’s ashes were placed in an over-sized replica of the famous coffee pot at his funeral near Milan. His father Alfonso invented the aluminium, eight-faceted stovetop coffee pot in 1933 and Renato took over the business in 1946. Soon afterwards, he mounted a marketing campaign so successful it took the Moka from the markets in Piedmont to kitchens throughout Italy.

The result? Nine out of ten Italian households own a Moka and over 300 million have been sold worldwide.

Screen shot 2016-02-27 at 6.53.54 PM
Up until then, coffee drinking in Italy took place in cafes or other public places before the Napoletana (drip) stovetop coffee pot was invented in the late 19th century for home use. I love the Napoletana (see my previous blog post for an explosive memoir) and it does a fine job but for those who like their coffee espresso-strong, nothing beats the Moka.

I applaud the use of ashes contained in something special associated with the deceased. I wonder if the Italian inventor of Nutella, Pietro Ferrero ended up in a large, branded jar of the chocolate hazelnut spread when he died in 1949, but it would have been a fitting send-off too.

This is so much more creative than a cardboard shoebox. Except possibly in the case of the late Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo.

I’m not sure if Renato Bialetti requested the funeral-sized coffee pot or if it was his children’s idea, but for the record, I’m liking the idea of a large marmalade jar for my remains. The label should read ‘Ambrajambra’ Mandarin Marmalade Queen.

But back to coffee. I’m raising a cup to signor Bialetti with my current drink of choice – a Caffe Shakerato (iced, strong, sweet black coffee) – to beat this hot humid Sydney summer weather.




Lurking in the Cupboard #8: Bomboniera with Bite

February 17, 2014

A decommissioned ashtray turns out to be anything but …

It’s been a while since I attended a wedding where bomboniere were given to guests. Even so, I doubt they’d look anything like this vintage gem once used as an ashtray by my father.  retro bomboniera

My late aunt and uncle’s choice of a German short-haired pointer* for their late 1950s’ wedding bomboniere is intruiging. Maybe handsome hunting dogs that are bold, boisterous, intelligent, affectionate and trainable were more fashionable in Italy than pastel tulle and ribbons. Perhaps it was their take on the sentiment attached to the traditional five sugared almonds in bomboniere: fertility, long life, health, wealth and happiness.

The giving of bomboniere (or ‘favours’) dates back to early European history when honey-coated almonds, dried fruits, aromatic seeds or pine nuts were given to guests by wealthy aristocrats to celebrate marriages, birthdays and christenings. Almonds later became the nuts of choice and sugarcoating them symbolized the bitterness of life and sweetness of love.

On the sightseeing list for my next trip to Italy is the Museum of Sugared Almond Art and Technology in Sulmona, the birthplace of sugared almonds. The town, 160 kms east of Rome, has been producing them since the 15th century.  Now popular at all manner of celebrations, they’re ‘confetti’ in Italian, ‘Jordan Almonds’ in the US, ‘koufeta’ in Greece and ‘mlabas’ in the Middle-East.  sugared almonds

How coincidental then that prior to Christmas I bought a sizeable bag of sugared almonds. I have no idea why. I threw them into the shopping trolley in the pre-Christmas madness just in case somebody dropped by. What? Who ‘drops by’ in the 21st century? Or was I expecting to conduct a mini wedding ceremony or impromptu christening at my place?

Really, I just fancied the pastel colours that reminded me of a recent post about tutti frutti.  

There’s really not much you can do with sugared almonds except suck the sugar off and bite into the nut. The inventors must have had a Plan B, but if so, it’s a secret. Why does covering a nut with pastel-coloured sugar render it unusable in cooking?

But something called Candy Cane Chocolate Bark turned up everywhere last Christmas and I was keen to try my version of this thin layer of chocolate covered with crushed candy canes.

I used this How to Make Chocolate Bark without a Recipe recipe and added a slurp of Amaretto …  Sugared Almond Liqueur Chocolate Bark was born.

Almond Liqueur Chocolate Bark

*Thanks to Twitter pal Rom @smartdoggus for dog breed identification


Lurking in the Cupboard: Wooden Pestle, No Vessel

October 8, 2013

I found my mother’s wooden pestle for making tomato passata just after I heard Marcella Hazan died last month.

No longer used since my mother graduated to tinned Romas long ago, it had remained in her cupboard looking for a purpose. That trusty pestle had crushed thousands of cooked tomatoes through a sieve since my father had crafted it in the early 1960s. I wondered if it had ever doubled as something you slipped a sock over just before you were about to darn* it.  Utensil for making tomato passata

Tributes continue to flow for the 89-year-old revered author of six Italian cookbooks, including my favourite The Classic Italian Cookbook (1973). Marcella is credited with introducing the public in the U.S. and Britain to the techniques of traditional Italian cooking.

With an incredible repertoire to her name, it was a recipe for her simple Tomato Sauce 111 (sugo di pomodoro) that made her fans swoon. Maybe it was the unusual addition of butter rather than olive oil. Or that it’s so easy to make and the onion doesn’t require chopping and weeping.

I flicked through all my vintage and contemporary Italian cookbooks and none of the tomato sauces take butter during the cooking, just olive oil, so I’m curious to know how Marcella came to include it. And as I hadn’t made this sugo di pomodoro for a while I was interested to see if it was as buttery as I remembered.

I rarely make my own tomato passata these days but felt I had to make a batch for the sauce in honour of Marcella’s passing. And anyway, the wooden pestle was winking at me.

Four ingredients and three-quarters of an hour later we sat down to a satisfying – and buttery – penne al pomodoro. But I confess I added some torn basil leaves to the finished product.

I’m looking forward to next February’s Tomato Festival at the Botanic Gardens in Sydney as I hear they’ll be running a Tomato Sauce Challenge. Have pestle will crush!

[* In case any young folk are reading this, the Oxford Dictionary defines ‘darn’ as a verb meaning to mend (a hole in knitted material) by interweaving yarn with a needle.]

Related post:  ‘As the Tomato said to the Actress’ 

You might also like this tomato sauce recipe on the Italian Language Blog


Lurking in the Cupboard #5: Napoletana coffee pot

June 16, 2013

While not strictly a hidden treasure, this object deserves a place in my occasional Lurking in the Cupboard series as a cultural curiosity alone.

The Napoletana is a flip-over coffee pot invented in France in 1819, but so named because of its popularity in Naples. The reason it’s no longer lurking in my kitchen is because I use one regularly, as does my mother.  Italian stovetop coffee maker

A stovetop Moka user from way back, my mother was converted to the Napoletana after a scary incident years ago. At a family lunch in the eat-in kitchen, an explosion with an impressive B-grade disaster movie geyser interrupted the chat. My mother was making coffee when the malfunctioning Moka vented its fury on our guests, rendering the crisp white men’s shirts (it was the 1950s after all!) murky brown. The pale walls were given a quick coffee coloured makeover. I hid under the table. Enter the caffettiera Napoletana. 

Italian film aficionados will know the scene in playwright Eduardo di Filippo’s 1946 work Questi Fantasmi where he discusses making a perfect mid afternoon coffee in a Napoletana, subsequently turning this coffee pot into a Neapolitan original.

Eduardo di Filippo and Napoletana coffee pot

Eduardo di Filippo explains the importance of the spout cover

The play was filmed as the 1967 farce Ghosts, Italian Style with Sofia Loren and Vittorio Gassman with that particular scene unfaithfully recreated. Loren’s explanation to a male admirer of ‘putting a paper cone over the spout to keep aromas from escaping’ gives double entendres a bad name.

This type of coffee pot is not used much now, with a Moka the preferred stovetop choice. But for me, it produces a rounded, full-bodied coffee without the bitterness. As di Filippo says in the film “this is not coffee – it’s chocolate!” And that’s good enough for me.

The Alessi version

The Alessi version

In Sydney, you can buy a Napoletana coffee pot at any good Italian kitchenware shop. One day I might upgrade to the Alessi version, commissioned in 1979 and completed after eight years’ research and design by architect Riccardo Dalisi.

 Instructions for using a Napoletana coffee pot via the informative Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino blog.


Lurking in the Cupboard #4: Metal Food Tins

January 23, 2013

I like attractive food packaging almost as much as I like good food and I’m a sucker for a well-designed metal canister. There’s something about the coloured, patterned enamel I find irresistible. It all started many years ago with my parents buying 3-litre Italian olive oil cans – the KING of tins – and my collection keeps growing. 

Red Amaretti bicuit tin

One of my favourite metal tins holds my favourite sweet treats: Amaretti di Saronno almond-flavoured macaroons wrapped in coloured paper. Sadly, the Lazzaroni brand is now hard to find in Australia outside of Easter or Christmas. Delicious with coffee, liqueur or as a cheesecake crust, they have a nice folksy legend around their creation – involving a Milanese bishop, a young couple and crushed apricot kernels.


This elegant orange embossed canister appeals to me more than the Frangelico bottle inside. The dark bottle, shaped like a monk’s habit, has a few too many elements I think. My fashion advice to the designers would have been “Before you head out the door, take one thing off.” (Coco Chanel). I like the hazelnut flavoured liqueur On the Rocks or in this flourless chocolate Frangelico cake

anchovies in tin

If you don’t like hairy fish, turn away now. I like to eat anchovies the way my father did: on a slice of crusty Italian bread spread with a layer of rock-hard unsalted butter (has to be thick, no namby-pamby scrapings) then with anchovies laid on top. Heaven. The Rizzoli brand is my favourite as they’re packed in good virgin olive oil.

Tinned mackeral

I can’t find the Mackeral brand I used to buy in the bright yellow tins anymore, so have settled for something less colourful. My serving suggestion for a quick snack: tip mackeral fillets onto a plate with some roasted garlic pieces, chopped continental parsley and cracked pepper. Eat with toast. Don’t breathe.

Italian sweets in tin

How do you counter mackeral breath? Try these Bianconeri ‘Confetti alla Liquirizia’ (sugar-coated, mint-flavoured liquorice lollies). The packaging is gorgeous, with the white pebble-shaped sweets under a layer of delicate paper in the hinged tin. Don’t let the cute frolicking children on the lid fool you – these are seriously strong sweets.

And the best part is they make great storage containers for kitchen utensils, spare coins, dry food, nuts ‘n bolts. Upcycling at its best. Metal canisters – TAKE A BOW!

Metal food canisters



Lurking in the Cupboard #3: Nutcracker (the utensil, not the ballet)

December 11, 2012

I used to be able to name every nut that there was…”

Ah, yes, the deadpan boast from actor/director Christopher Guest in the mockumentary Best in Show* came to mind when looking for our nutcracker. 

It’s that time of year when nuts in shells are available – a nice change from those annoying gusseted packets mostly containing small rancid crumbs.

With a nutcracker required for the Northern Italian sweets and cakes on our Christmas menu, third drawer down in mother’s kitchen cabinets is usually a good bet. It belonged to my great-grandfather in Italy and crushes walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts. Flip it over and it takes care of the smaller almonds. Brilliant. And it’s not the plier shaped type used for cracking lobsters and crabs. Let’s keep the traces of nuts away from shellfish in case of allergies.

I love the texture of nutshells. I like the sound of cracking them open. And I’m amused by the word ‘nuts’ itself. Silver engraved nutcracker

So many good linguistic expressions too:

Drives me nuts

. Nuts to you

. I’m nuts about you

. You’re a hard nut to crack

. I’m a history nut

. In a nutshell

My mother often tells the childhood story of climbing her grandmother’s huge backyard walnut tree with her cousins, dropping heavy nuts onto the table below where old folks had gathered for a serious game of dominoes. Splat!

Walnuts are my favourites – as they were with the early Romans, who considered them food for Gods. What else can boast being a health food, growing on a tree with prized wood and is a magician’s prop in the ‘Three Shell and Pea’ game?

Having assorted nuts at the Christmas dinner table is great for conversations when passing round the nutcracker. If you don’t have a nutcracker, use a hammer. Or with macadamias, get a cockatoo to attack the hard shell.  On second thought, a parrot hopping around the dinner table is not terribly elegant.

Walnut Sauce for pastaOne of my favourite pasta sauces is made from walnuts and originated in the Liguria region of north-western Italy – the home of pesto. Here’s Nigella’s recipe for the walnut sauce Salsa di Noci.

One of my unfavourite things however is pickled walnuts. The English love them, but has anyone else tasted those squishy black blobs floating in brine? If you must tamper with green walnuts, make a liqueur like Nocino and drizzle it on gelato.

*And the last word on nuts – from this scene in Best in Show (2000) 


Lurking in the Cupboard #2: Toothpick Holders

October 4, 2012

An occasional post about long-forgotten household gems in my mother’s kitchen

The two swans are finally getting some attention. I hear they can get a bit haughty, so I’m extra careful before I shoot photograph them.

As novelty toothpick holders go, these little beauties are very covetable, but sadly have sat untouched in the china cabinet for many years.  Once regular stars at my parents’ dinner parties, they were for a while surpassed by a newer model – a square ‘80s timber veneer Port Macquarie souvenir, but it too sits abandoned.

Swan-shaped toothpick holders

It used to be perfectly acceptable to wield toothpicks after a meal, one hand over the mouth while the digging and poking took place with the other. They’re said to be the oldest instrument for dental cleaning, with skulls of Neanderthals showing clear signs of having teeth picked with a tool, but if they’re so useful, when was the last time you put toothpicks out for a dinner party? And when did you last see them on a restaurant table?

Every neighbourhood Italian eatery we frequented in Sydney’s inner-west in the ’60s and ’70s set their tables with toothpicks. The Tre Venezie, Moro and Miramare restaurants in Stanmore and (I’m sure) Beppi’s in East Sydney offered them beside the salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar.

Sally Galletto, manager of one of my favourite restaurants – Lucio’s in Paddington – tells me they still have them, but at the waiters’ stations, not on tables.

If the demise of the toothpick as dental accessory is complete, let’s at least pay homage to its other uses. Here’s my Top 10:

.            stabbed through cubed cheese with red pickled onions as 1960s party food

.            decorating a hotel Club Sandwich (topped with curly cellophane)

.            as a fastener for Devils on Horseback and Italian veal involtini

.            holding together a cocktail orange slice and a Maraschino cherry

.            speared through the heart of two green olives in a classic Martini

.            poked vertically on everything in an antipasto platter, creating a mini forest

.            Ray’s (Dustin Hoffman) preferred utensil for eating pancakes in Rain Man

.            as a character nickname in Some Like it Hot: ‘Toothpick Charlie’

.            as a mouth prop for cinema mobsters and cowboys

.            Ryan Gosling chewing one in 2011’s Drive to emulate James Dean              

Have I forgotten any?

But back to the beginning. In case you’re keen to start using toothpicks, I recommend honing your skills with actor/cabaret star Paul Capsis’s chance conversation webisodes ‘Toothpick Etiquette’ 101, 102 and 103.

Related posts on retro household items:

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Lurking in the Cupboard: Manual Coffee Grinder

August 29, 2012

An occasional post about long-forgotten household gems in my mother’s kitchen

I could feel it doing me good. Core muscles engaged and arms clenching the machine would produce great results. Am I in a gym? Hardly. I’m grinding coffee beans at the kitchen bench on my new obscure object of desire (apologies to filmmaker Luis Buñuel).

I’ve located our long-forgotten hand coffee grinder in my mother’s kitchen cupboard and it’s been getting a good workout at my house. I thought it had been donated to charity, but there it was, over 40 years old and looking at me with a downcast bottom drawer. Last used in 1989 by my dear late dad – and sometimes me  (see older blogpost) it deserved to be rescued after I developed my hankering for a fresh daily grind.

Vintage manual coffee grinderMade in Holland, it’s a wooden “burr” grinder and still works like a dream. I love the soft crunching sound of the beans being crushed between the mechanisms. Much nicer than the  screeching noise of an electric blade grinder that has me imagining a dentist’s weapon. And the aroma of the oils released by the ground beans is nothing short of heady.

I’m guessing my mother found it too much effort to use (my father being chief coffee bean crusher) and stored it away. Interestingly, she planted a coffee tree in the back garden about 15 years ago and it’s making a brave comeback after her indiscriminate pruning festival two years ago. Prior to that, we’d harvested its crimson beans and roasted them as an experiment. Then threw them away. Now, with the hand coffee grinder resurrected, we’re ready for the next stage of the ‘torrefazione’ (such a nice Italian word) process. Illycaffe – watch your back.

I’m liking the idea of calling our future crop Fairtrade coffee: if my mother promises not to go near the tree with any sort of hacking implement, I promise not to call her a terrible gardener. Fair trade.

But back to the workout. It’s quite a job turning the coffee grinder handle and keeping it steady on the bench. Multiply that by four caffeine fixes per day and hello rock-hard biceps. Ta-ta tuckshop arms.

More about manual coffee grinders

And for manual coffee grinder freaks, here’s a museum

Have also just found these many uses for leftover coffee grounds. Brilliant.

♦ I welcome your thoughts or retorts. The Comments button is only a click away…

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