I have always had a deep fascination for vegetables growing in the home garden. My parents were impoverished immigrants to this wonderful country of ours. My earliest memories of my parents, my mother in particular, were seeing them working in the large vegetable garden they tended to put food on the table. My parents were very poor as immigrants, having left post war Europe to find a better way of life where political persecution would no longer interfere in their unlucky lives. My father, in a temporary period of unemployment heard about the dole being available so he went into Geelong to inquire. The dole person at the time signed up my father and corruptly kept the dole payments himself, leaving our family to make do without. My father’s English skills were very limited at the time which is why the corrupt official got away with this embezzlement.
My parents were used to hard living from back home so whilst mum would tend the vegetable garden and preserve those magnificent cling stone peaches from the old peach tree on the back of the copious garden and mix up batches of apricot jam and make vegetable based preserves, my father would cycle up to 10 kilometers away and go fishing, arriving home late in the afternoon with the catch that would feed our family for the next few days. Dad also went hunting. Mum took the bus into Geelong before I was born and purchased a nice big shot gun, bringing it home resting across my older brother’s pram. Distant days. We grew up with the taste of wild animals such as rabbits, ducks and the odd boar and wild mushrooms. My brother and I remember the taste of wild meat to this day. Nothing since has compared to that wild flavour that was so very well matched by my mother’s culinary skills honed by a long ancestral line of superb cooks and a stint by my parents in running a trattoria in post war Trieste in the far north of Italy.
I can still see in my mind’s eye, my mother bent double over the vegetable patch in the Geelong housing commission house we lived in. 32 Camellia Crescent, Norlane, to be exact. A plain little dog box of a house with an open fireplace and a big back garden. My mother tended the vegetable garden and strawberry patch whilst our father worked far away from home after snagging a job, helping to construct the wheat silos in Hopetoun and Jeparit in the isolated and dry western district wheat belt in Victoria. After that, my father worked down at Portland, helping to construct the docks. My father learned English through reading a newspaper and was also assisted to some degree by other immigrant workers on these rough working sites. Dad ended up with a little bit of a Dutch accent due to receiving English instruction from Dutch workers on these sites.
I have had a life long fascination with cabbages with their glorious artistic wrinkles and folds of simplicity and under rated deliciousness. These are one of my earliest vegetable garden memories, alongside mum tending them. These glorious wrinkles and natural patterns are mostly found on the stunningly superb large King Savoy cabbage.
I planted a punnet of these lovely and under rated vegetables this past late autumn. These vegetables grow very well in our cold winters here in Gippsland. The savage nightly frosts we have endured this winter’s past actually improved the flavour of these artistic beauties.
I remember mum making a dish harking from her Slovenian family. Mum made something quite similar to the Croatian Sarma. Stuffed cabbage rolls in the commonly pedestrian vernacular belies their flavour.
I had some leftover seasoned pork filling from a recent bout of sausage making at my brother’s house. I used this as the basis of the filling, alongside some sauteed home made pancetta my brother makes, onions, more garlic and some rice. The rice was cooked until it was nice and lightly toasted, much like one would prepare for a risotto. I cooked the rice until it was nearly done. This mixture was blended into the left over pork sausage mince.
I steamed off the cabbage leaves and then cut away the hard core of each leaf.
Each cabbage leaf is stuffed with some filling. If the cabbage leaf is too thin after steaming and coring, I added a second outer leaf. Neat little packages of flavour on the way.
I packed each parcel into a greased oven tray and covered it all with passata and half a glass of water. The tray was covered and cooked for approximately 1.5 hours to allow the rice to finish cooking.
A very simple dish but one which is replete with childhood memories surrounding the life of my parents and making do with what they had and not complaining. My parents come from a place and time where people had backbone and made do with the hardness that life threw their way.
Cooking is more than providing sustenance. Cooking for me is a continuum of my ancestral heritage and each ancestral dish I prepare is akin to looking at a family photograph.