'This is much more than a recipe book. It is a gastronomic tour of Italy, from the Alpine beauty of Trentino-Alto Adige to Arab-influenced Sicilia (Sicily), and from the prehistoric Italici — the first people to occupy the peninsula -- to the people who make up the rich culinary tapestry of the present day. It is a long and absorbing history, and an introduction to the landscape and produce of each of Italy's 20 provinces. I hope you enjoy travelling and tasting with me across time, and through the varied and beguiling regions of Italy.'
Stefano Manfredi is a name synonymous with introducing Italian cuisine to Australians — through his award winning restaurants; his love of cooking with fresh, seasonal produce; and his inspiring cookery books and newspaper columns. In November 2013, Stefano celebrates 30 years in the Australian food industry. His fifth book, an encyclopaedic exploration of the food of wine of Italy, has also just been published.
I met Stefano Manfredi at Tasting Australia years ago, when he and Perth butcher, Vince Garreffa, presented a session titled 'Know your Cow'. In 2012, Peter and I enjoyed a superb and memorable feast at one his restaurants, Balla, and have since longed for another taste of the wood-grilled King George Whiting a la Manfredi, and the Maccheroncini, gamberi di fiume e sesamo (maccheroncini with butter, parmesan, yabbies and sesame seeds). More recently, I had the opportunity (and great honour) to speak with Stefano about his new book, Stefano Manfredi's Italian Food, a comprehensive and magnificent tome that charts the food and wine of Italy, from Abruzzo to Veneto. Our conversation follows:
Congratulations on this very impressive milestone, Stefano, 30 years in the food industry in Australia. There's plenty to celebrate and now a fifth book, which, to my thinking, is an encyclopedia of Italian Food, with so much information.
'Thank you. We didn’t plan the two things together; it’s just the way it happened. I just keep working, not according to any real schedule. I love writing and write as things inspire me. I’ve had a parallel career writing for 20 years (for Fairfax and other publications) and also writing books. This is book number five and is the culmination of a lifetime of my culture, as well as falling in love with the other regions of Italy.'
How long has it taken you to compile this magnificent book?
'Two solid years in front of the computer, plus the day job [running restaurants Balla, Manfredi at Bells and Pretty Beach House], but it’s a lifetime of Italian food and wine. There are some 530 recipes. In fact, I had to cut out a lot of recipes that I would have liked to include. The book might have been 50-60% bigger, but then it would have been completely unwieldy.' [We agree that, at 632 pages, it's not the type of cookbook that one might read in bed].
I've noticed that you have been sharing photographs of your Italian travels on Twitter, are these photographs that you have taken for the book?
'No, those were photographs I took with my iPhone. I take people on a tour of Italy each year and have done so for a while. This year in October I took the group to Sicily. I like sharing photos in that way because it gives everybody an understanding that Italian food is more than what we see on the surface. It has such a rich, deep culture.'
In your book, Fresh from Italy (1997), you wrote about your grandmother, Angelina Pini, 'one of the finest cooks in the region' who ran a small hotel in Milan. You said she was also an 'experimental cook and could turn a porcupine that had been run over into a meal that almost justified its death'. Tell me, what is your earliest food memory?
'Yes [he laughed], that is true, she could do that. My earliest food memory? Stealing strands of pasta from my mother’s kitchen as she was making it. That was back in Italy, I was six years old when we came here. I still remember parts of my childhood in Italy.'
[We talk about how when he and I were children, it was an era where you would be there in the kitchen with your mother or grandmother, watching them cook, and learning]. 'That’s when you learn what food should taste like, when you are little,' Stefano said.
Tell me, in terms of food and cooking, how has Stefano changed from the little boy that was standing in line in the canteen at Bonegilla, the migrant hostel, to the Stefano who now has a series of restaurants under his belt? Is that little Italian boy still there?
'Absolutely. I remember being curious then and I’m still curious now. The thing that keeps me going is not knowing everything. I don’t feel as though I know that much about food. I know a little bit about food… but there is much, much more to learn. Especially about Italian food, it is so deep and rich. For instance, the Slow Food movement could only have come from Italy. There is a deep, deep understanding of produce at it’s core of cuisine, but not in a self-conscious way. Here in Australia for example we fetish-ise food. We are told that this ingredient or that ingredient is the current fashionable ingredient and that we should eat it. Quinoa is like that at the moment. But that’s not how cuisine works. It’s much more basic than that. It’s basic, it’s unaffected, it’s primal.'
Which regional Italian cuisine does your heart or appetite yearn for?
'Well, that would be… [he chuckled], the cuisine of my family and my childhood. I think that’s where we all gravitate back to eventually. People ask me "what’s your favourite dish, what would be your last meal" and that sort of thing, but I would say that the cooking of my mother and grandmother is, at a very base level, that is what I would yearn for. The region of Lombardy and specifically the Lombardy Plain, which is near the city of Brescia.
Having said that, I am absolutely in love with the south of Italy. It really is the soul and the spirit of the country. And I’m talking about Campania (of which Naples is the capital), and Basilicata, Puglia, those sorts of areas, around the boot, the heel the instep… and Sicily, of course, the island down the bottom. In terms of food and wine, I think over the last twenty years I have made a personal discovery of those areas and I really can’t get enough of them.'
What do you cook when you are at home? As in, what is your favourite meal, what’s your go-to, easy meal?
'I will cook a risotto, or I love soups, especially when it’s cold. I love bean soups and rice soups and barley soups. That sort of thing. Where I came from in Italy there is a soup culture. Minestrone is a meal on its own with crusty bread. I love soups in winter. In summer, I love opening a can of really good tuna that has been preserved in extra virgin olive oil (or other fish that have been preserved in oil, like mackerel). I love getting some fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and making a salad in summertime. They are the go-to things I prepare for my family. If I’m having friends over, I will make some Corzetti pasta [page 43], I bought some Corzetti stamps. Corzetti is a 4cm stamp made from wood and there are only a few artisans left that make the traditional carved wooden stamps. They are just beautiful. It takes you a little while to make these, but that’s the whole thing, you have to give your time to cooking... that’s what it costs you and that’s the thing that we don’t have enough of these days and that’s why many so many people don’t cook at home.'
What's for dinner tonight?
'It’s a busy day today; I’m not working tonight so that I can spend time with my daughter, who is coming over. I have some beautiful linguine here and some Lebanese zucchini, the light coloured ones, along with some really nice tomatoes that I’ve been ripening on the kitchen bench, so I’m planning to make something really simple with a salad.'
[Stefano mentioned that his daughter, Isabella, is in a rock band which was nominated for an ARIA and she will be performing at the ARIA awards. Stefano's meal sounds fresh, simple and delicious. And it will be prepared by a father for his beloved daughter, so I'm sure it will be good!].
'Manfredi celebrates three decades of service to Australian hospitality' appears courtesy of Stefano Manfredi:
Stefano Manfredi's Italian Food, $59.99, Fairfax Books/Allen & Unwin. With sincere thanks to Stefano Manfredi and the publicity team at Murdoch Books/A&U for giving me the opportunity for a conversation with the Chef, and to showcase this magnifico tome, which is also available as a digital download on iBooks.
Cookbook reviews and interviews with food writers and chefs.