The Festival of Nonna celebrates the Italian matriarch, the epicentre of the clan, the recipes that have been handed down verbally by generation, without measurements but by feel, taste and a love of simple and fresh ingredients. The series of dinners, being held in Sydney and Melbourne between 8 October and 26 October, feature Italian chefs and their mothers, Nonna to their children.
This evening we have Luca Ciano, who came to Australia from Milan Michelin starred restaurant Il Luogo, and his delightful mother Nonna Anita, at A Tavola in Sydney’s Darlinghurst. She is full of energy and enthusiasm, in spite of having ended her 20 plus hour journey from Italy that morning, and just adorable. Together they start making Anita’s Bolognese. It begins with a classic “soffritto” of onion, carrot, and celery in olive oil, followed by the addition of mince of veal, pork and meat from an Italian sausage. Red wine, crushed tomatoes, and bay leaves are next. She also adds thyme, I’ll have to give that a try next time. Like me, she does not include garlic, which would probably surprise a lot of people.
Such a sauce would typically slow simmer for hours, and Nonna Anita is a little mortified that we are tasting it before it is fully cooked, served with some fluffy gnocchi that Luca has whipped up in the blink of an eye in the meantime. The gentle ribbing and arguing between them in Italian is very funny and reminds me of my conversations with Mamma Rosa. There’s plenty of opportunity to chat to them both through the evening, as they hand out jars of special Festival of Nonna pasta sauce, and while we enjoy a beautiful and extensive Italian menu, accompanied by very drinkable prosecco and wine. The lighting is not great, so apologies for the photos which don’t do any justice to the food.
It is the nature of these special relationships, often developed in the kitchen, that led the Lubrano family behind Sandhurst Fine Foods to launch the Festival of Nonna last year. Mimmo, his wife and Nonna Geraldine, the Sandhurst Matriarch, are there that evening and I have a wonderful time talking to them. I’ve always wondered why an Italian family company has a name like Sandhurst so it was great to ask them in person. When they bought the farm in the 1960’s – then owned by a Russian, a Pole and an Englishman – it was called Sandhurst Farm and they never changed it. Back then Geraldine and husband Vince ran a deli. Vince was a fisherman in Italy before coming to Australia; neither of them really knew much about farming, manufacturing, and distribution. But like many Italian migrants who came to Australia for a better life, hard work did not scare them and they seized the opportunity. And so it began.
It was all in for the family, with their two sons Mimmo and Ray being embedded in the business from the beginning. I love hearing that the family still sits down to lunch every day, prepared by patriarch Vince who is 86.
Over time, they looked for other family businesses to work with who would provide them with the quality of ingredients they expected. Sitting next to us is a couple from far north Queensland, the Torrisi family, who’ve been supplying them all their basil for twenty years. Similarly, the eggplant they use comes from a family in Mildura. The importance to them of family relationships extends to long lasting business relationships.
I want to adopt Nonna Geraldine, and I’m sure she means it when she gives us an invitation to join them for lunch one day. A few weeks ago I became Nonna-less. I was very blessed in both my Nonnas – kind, strong, selfless and loving women who never breathed a word of complaint about the hardships they endured and the poverty of post war Italy. My Nonna in Italy, who I am named after, had a wicked sense of humour and was remarkably open minded for one of her era. I’ll never forget her laugh.
The Festival of Nonna, October 2017
Napoli Restaurant Alert dined as a guest of Festival of Nonna