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Retro recipe: Siennese “Little Horses”, 1937

5 Oct

You may be wondering what’s become of Lamingtons & Lasagna lately, and why she hasn’t managed to blog in nearly five months. Or, more likely, you hadn’t noticed. In any case, I’ve been a busy PhD bee – I went to Italy to present a paper at an Italian food conference in Perugia (yes, really, I know, I can’t believe it either) and then came home to present another paper at the Australian Historical Association conference in Adelaide. Both papers were accepted for publication so I’ve been spending a lot of time in my pyjamas, in my study, writing like a crazy woman…

And yesterday, I finished!

Hooray! To celebrate I thought I’d get out of my pyjamas and cook a retro recipe, like I used to in the blog days of old.

Today’s retro recipe is very special indeed. It was also a disaster, but we’ll get to that shortly.

It comes from the First Australian Continental Cookery Book (FACCB), the subject of my second paper, which is, in my scholarly opinion, Australia’s first Italian cookbook. Btw if you followed the appeal to find the Italian version of the book, I found it thanks to the fabulous Blake Singley at ANU who pointed out that the Italian version was hiding behind the English version at the NLA all along…

First Australian Continental Cookery Book

But I digress. The recipe is from 1937 and is called Siennese “Little Horses”, or, in the Italian version of the same book Cavallucci di Siena. It’s a classic kind of Italian recipe – meaning there’s a version of it in Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well – but this version was meant for Australians of the 1930s to cook. Which is perhaps why it suggests the biscuits be cut into the shape of horses with jockeys atop, despite Artusi pointing out that they should be oval-shaped, not horse-shaped. There’s a sense of whimsy and fun in the FACCB, something not present in most other cookbooks of its day, who would never say, for example, of a lamb dish, “to start with, it must be real lamb, not mutton rejuvenated like ambitious ladies on the wrong side of forty”.

But I digress (again!) What does one need for this recipe? Sugar, walnuts, candied orange peel, fennel seeds, mixed spice, nutmeg, flour and a “mould” of a horse with a jockey on top. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have the latter so I hot-footed it over to the local kitchenware shop and asked the lady for a biscuit cutter in the shape of a horse with a jockey. Unfortunately, this came out as “do you have any “horsey” biscuit cutters with jockeys”. To which she should’ve replied, how old are you? Three? But instead said, yes, we do, but there’s no jockey. Quickly deciding I had the necessary skills to fashion a jockey from dough, though, in hindsight, no hard evidence to support this decision, I parted with $2.50 and took my horsey cookie cutter home.

Now in the kitchen, I was all set to start. First, I read the recipe through because in 36 years of life I have figured out that this is always a good idea. A red flag appeared. The recipe only wanted enough flour to cover a board. Hmmm, I would think you’d need more flour for a biscuit dough? I thought about it for all of a minute and then decided that the walnuts which were to be “finely minced” would replace the flour, like almond meal. So all good. Then I was flummoxed by this sentence “Dissolve in a casserole about one pound of sugar in about a third of its weight in water.” A pound is almost half a kilo, right? So a third of almost half a kilo? My head hurts when a little thing like maths rears its very ugly stupid head, so I decided to change all the measurements  – I’ll use a cup of sugar, and therefore will need a third of a cup of water, and I’ll scale all the measurements accordingly. Maths will not defeat me, I am smart, I am a PhD student, I can do this. This red flag was so big it was like the ones matadors use for bulls. But I ignored it like the beautiful idiot that I am.

Next challenge was the “mincing” of the walnuts. Now, I don’t know how they minced walnuts in 1937, but here’s how I did it:

Mincing the walnuts

And then I was off. In goes the sugar and the water, to which “as soon as it begins to liquefy” I added the minced walnuts, the candied peel, the mixed spice and the fennel seeds:

Sugar and water in saucepan

And out came a watery brown mess. It resembled something which belongs in the bathroom, not the kitchen. But the recipe told me to: “mix well and spread on a board well covered with flour.”

Sugar with ingredients mixed

I mixed and mixed and mixed. Nothing changed. I couldn’t see how I could possibly pour this latte-like hot sugar syrup on a board, no matter how well it was floured.  Something had gone drastically wrong. Either I had screwed up the measurements or the recipe was a bit wrong, or both. In any case, I needed a fix. So I grabbed the flour and stirred some in. And then I added more, and more…

Mixing in flour

Mixing in the flour

When the dough resembled playdough, I knew I had gone too far:

Dough

But by then it was too late. I cut out my horses:

Cutting horses from dough

I attempted some jockeys:

Cutting out jockeys

Horses with jockeys

It didn’t work, and I wondered why I ever thought they would. So I scrapped them from the vision. Feeling defeated, I put them in the oven and about 10 minutes later these came out:

Cooked horse biscuits

The hardest, toughest, crunchiest biscuits this side of Siena. Some would say they could break your teeth…

On the other hand, if you dip them in coffee or a sweet liquor, much like the more famous and better known Cantucci di Siena, they are almost ok. I did say almost…

Bibliography

  • Artusi, Pellegrino. Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
  • First Australian Continental Cookery Book. Melbourne: Cosmopolitan Publishing Co. Limited, 1937.
  • La Cucina Continentale. Melbourne: Cosmopolitan Publishing Co. Limited, 1937.

Helmut Newton’s perfect cheese photography

24 Oct

When I think of photographer Helmut Newton I think of fashion. More specifically, I think nudie, rudie Vogue-like fashion. Which is cool, if you like that kind of thing, but I prefer food, in particular cheese.

So I did not expect the man responsible for (potentially not workplace-friendly)  this and this to be taking photos of this:

Perfect Cheese Co Parmigiano

And yet Berlin-born Newton, who served in the Australian army and became a citizen of our fine country in 1946, is credited as the photographer of the 1955/6 Perfect Cheese Co. Silver Anniversary souvenir booklet:

Perfect Cheese Co Souvenir Booklet

You might know the Perfect Cheese Co. better as Perfect Italiano which is what it became in 1996. But, back in the 30s, way before it was part of multi-national Fonterra, the Perfect Cheese Co. was a small family-run operation started by one Natale P Italiano and his lovely wife Maria. Here they are, photographed by Newton:

Natale and Maria Italiano, Perfect Cheese CoBy the time this booklet came out, the Perfect Cheese Co. was known throughout Australia and was doing very well for itself – having increased production from 2,000 pounds in 1930 to 900,000 pounds in 1954. According to Randazzo and Cigler, the company is also credited with pioneering sheep-milk production and producing the first pecorino cheese in the country.

The souvenir booklet – which you’ll find at the State Library of Victoria  – is well worth seeking out. In both English and Italian it shows just how close the Italianos were to the Italian migrant community they primarily, but not exclusively, served. Who else would have a Catholic priest write the dedication to what is essentially a marketing exercise?

At the same time, they weren’t limited by the dairying traditions they knew from the old country. Amongst the mozzarella and the ricotta, you’ll also find fetta in brine, kasseri and grated cheese in little packets. More evidence to support the fact that success in the food industry for Italians in Australia came from adapting to a new market, not exporting food traditions wholesale.

As for Helmut Newton, who knew you could go from fetta to fashion (or pecorino to near-porn) in the span of a single lifetime…

Bibliography

  • Helmut Newton Foundation . “Biography.” Helmut Newton Foundation. <http://www.helmut-newton.com/helmut_newton/biography/> (24th October 2011).
  • Perfect Cheese Co. Perfect Cheese Co. – Silver Anniversary 1956, South Melbourne, Vic. : Freelance Press,1955.
  • Randazzo, Nino & Cigler, Michael. The Italians in Australia, Melbourne : AE Press, 1987. 

Italian or not, I heart Sirena tuna

18 Aug

Today I learnt something that probably everyone else in the entire world knows.

Sirena tuna is not and has never been Italian.

Its bright yellow and red tin, cute little fish and modest retro mermaid might all evoke 1950s Vespa-Lollobrigida Italy but the product is the invention of a canny migrant from the Veneto whose family is now worth  some $327 million, according to BRW’s rich list.

Can of Sirena Tuna

A true Italo-Australian: Sirena tuna, since 1956.

Carlo Valmorbida saw a gap in the market in 1950s Melbourne for tuna preserved in olive oil. Instead of importing it, he decided to service the increasing “continental” market by getting it made to his own Italian recipe. And so Sirena tuna was born.

Not imported from Italy like I thought, but made in Australia by Italians. Kind of like me.

According to a report by GJ Crough on the development of the Australian tuna industry (now there’s a thrilling read!), Sirena tuna was originally canned in Port Lincoln, from tuna fished off NSW. Later it came to be canned in Melbourne, which meant it was “located in the city where Sirena brand was most popular“.   Now,  like every other major  Australian brand, the tuna comes from Thailand, but it still tastes pretty damn alright.

As a kid, it was the only tuna my parents would buy. I remember it best on Fridays for school lunch. As good Catholics, it was always in my grease-paper wrapped sandwich along with fine strips of preserved eggplant.  Delicious.

Dieting made me try tuna in brine and springwater. This was a mistake. Cat vomit comes to mind.

Good sense brought me back to Sirena.  So cheers to Carlo Valmorbida, who died just last year, for being entrepreneurial enough to make it.  Below is my favourite Sirena tuna stand-by recipe – simple, but good, like all the best stuff.

Quick tuna sauce for pasta

  • Olive oil
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 clove of garlic, squashed
  • 1 big tin of Sirena tuna
  • 2 cans of peeled diced tomatoes
  • Salt to season
  • A pinch of sugar (if it needs it)
  • Pasta to serve
  1. Heat the olive oil in a frypan over medium heat. Fry the onions and garlic till they are soft.
  2. Drain the tuna and then toss it in the pan. Break it up with a spoon and stir.
  3. Throw in the peeled tomatoes. Stir and let simmer till the sauce thickens a bit.
  4.  Season with salt, add a bit of sugar if it needs it and serve with pasta.

Bibliography

  • Crough, G.J. The Development of the Australian Tuna Industry. Sydney:Transnational Corporations Research Project University of Sydney, 1987.
  • “Families.” BRW Rich 200, May 26  June 29, 2011, pages132-143.

Dago tucker

21 Feb
Pasta

Aussie diggers wanted mutton over this...

In 1941, here’s how The Mail in South Australia saw Italian food and, as an extension of that, Italians themselves:

Dago Tucker

Australian troops in Libya have been solving the mysteries of Italian cuisine, and making queer dishes of Parmesan cheese, spaghetti, tomato extract, and olive oil from captured enemy stores. Because of water shortage, a soldier was seen bathing in Italian mineral water. —Cable.

In Libya da Aussies still pusha ahead,
Dey play a so well in da ruck,
Dey racea da transport like fasta da ped’
So turn to da Itala tuck’.
Spa water dey usea to hava da wash,
Da soap mixa up wid da fizz,
But somea dem maka da faces, by gosh,
When come to da catering biz.
Dey try on da tummy such queera da dish,
For mum’s kinda cooking dey certainly wish.

Dey gobble up yardsa da finest spaghett’,
When food in da dixie dey boil,
But people afraida dat some of dem get
Too mucha da oliva oil.
It might make ’em slippy, like Itala chaps,
If plenta da loota dey seize,
And breatha da digger it smella, perhaps,
Too mucha of Parmesan cheese,
Dey chew up da menus of Naples or Rome,
Bat rather have grub from da kitchen at home.
ANTONIO DI SEEBEE

In 2009, The Age reported the results of the BIS Shrapnel report Fast Food in Australia:

Italian was the most preferred cuisine in Victoria and South Australia. Thai food was No. 1 in NSW. For all other states and territories, Chinese was either top or equal top. Australian, English or traditional food came in fifth at 13 per cent, after Indian, Sri Lankan or Pakistani food at 17 per cent.

It did take 68 years, a World War and an immigration boom, but Australians these days, in the words of  eloquent poet Antonio di Seebee, no longer “rather have grub from da kitchen at home”.

“Dago Tucker.” The Mail, 8 February, 1941, 7.
Cauchi,
Stephen, “Italian fare to the fore in time of fiscal crisis.” The Age,  April 26, 2009, 13.

Pasta al dente

10 Feb
pasta

Pasta as we know it... but not in the 15th century.

“Tania, this pasta… it’s not good!”

My father gently picked up a strand of the spaghetti I had cooked him and dangled it in the air over his plate.  It quickly joined its tomato sauce-covered cousins below.  

“See? Too soft. Too soft is not good. It is like the spaghetti in the can like the Australiani eat. We are Italians. We eat our spaghetti a little bit hard in the middle. We have always eaten it that way and we always will. Understand?”

“Si, yes, ok, I understand. Sorry dad.”

I was only eight-years-old and the lesson about al dente pasta was to stick in my mind like dough to unfloured hands. Still, I wish I’d known then what I know now. Then I could’ve replied to my father’s lecture with:

“Actually no dad, you’re wrong. Italians, or at least the people who lived in the country that was to become Italy, haven’t always eaten their pasta al dente. In fact, in the 15th century they ate it so overcooked it was like porridge. So when you say we have always eaten it that way, well, you’re just wrong, wrong, wrong.”

I would’ve delivered this in the “tone” my parents were always warning me about.  It might’ve earnt me a slap and perhaps I would’ve deserved it, but slap or no slap, it doesn’t change the truth.

John Dickie, in Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and their Food, draws our attention to a few pasta recipes written by the eminent Maestro Martino de Rossi, sometimes called Martino di Milano and other times Martino di Como.  We will call him Marty for short. Marty was a chef and the author of The Art of Cooking in around 1465 – a book generally considered important in the development of Italian gastronomy.

What’s clear from this book is that Marty and his contemporaries liked their pasta soft, super soft in fact. The recommended cooking time for vermicelli is an hour and for macaroni two hours. Dickie points out that even if you take into consideration that Marty’s dough contained egg white and probably needed a little longer to cook than our pasta today, we’re still talking super mushy pasta.

So see dad? You were wrong and I was right… even if it did take me 27 years to prove it.

The fattest women in normal times?

8 Feb

Poor Mrs Hegarty! As she tells the “Medico” in an Australian Women’s Weekly article from 18 August 1945, her husband has been in New Guinea for eighteen months and he’s due back next week. She’s put on nearly three stone and she’s “just afraid of what he’ll say!”

Never fear Mrs Hegarty! Medico is here! With plenty of questionable dietary advice for everyone! But why just share nutrition advice when you can include racial stereotypes too?

While Medico praises the Scots, English and Irish for their “winsome” figures, as well as the Chinese and Hollywood stars for their ability to stay trim, the Italians are tarred with the fatty bombah brush:

“What country produces the fattest women in normal times?” I [Medico] asked.”

“”I suppose it would be the Italians.” [Mrs Hegarty]

“The Italian national food is pasta (macaroni and spaghetti), white bread, and olive oil. The macaroni is made from white flour.”

“Australians eat a lot of white flour as bread and jam, cakes and biscuits, don’t they?” said Mrs. Hegarty, “and many seem to have bother with their figures.”

“I’m afraid they do,” I replied.

If this was true, and I do doubt it was, it is certainly no longer the case. A study from The Lancet reported a few days ago found that the BMI for Italian women has fallen from 25.2 in 1980 to 24.8 in 2008, making the average Italian woman of “normal” weight.

In Britain, on the other hand, the average BMI for women has risen from 24.2 in 1980 to 26.9 in 2008, putting them in the “overweight” category.

So take that Mr Medico.

Medico.  “Eat and Grow Slim.” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 18 August 1945, 28.