There is something positively ancestral about cuisine. I make certain dishes in my life and I am transported back to childhood, in the kitchen, helping my mother who is preparing food and orally instructing me on how to compile certain foundation recipes. The cadence of instruction never altered. Mum repeated the mantras of recipe ingredients and I had to recite them back to her. I always see in my mind the trays of slow ripening tomatoes sitting underneath the big nectarine tree next to the barbecue in the back garden. I can smell the tomatoes to this day and can hear the rustling of nectarine leaves that cast dappled shade over the tomatoes. The intense blue sky of a hot, sunlit day speckles through the leaves onto the barbecue table my father constructed from concrete. The smell of summer is wafting throughout the vegetable garden…..
My mother came from an oral tradition where recipes were handed down from mother to daughter in the kitchen and not via a printed recipe book. I used to struggle with this concept of culinary instruction because it did not involve those rigidly defined weights and measures that were the foundation of the way I was taught to view the world at school; a way that was insisted upon by the rigidly uncompromising home economics teacher. “Cooking without love” my mother used to say of this “foreign” way of compiling dishes based on measuring everything with scales. Mum’s recipes had been in the family since time immemorial. Mum taught me the standard unit of measure in her tradition which centered on a fistful of this and a pinch of that. “Un pugnio pien di questo” my mother would say in Triestin (a fist full of this). A “glassful” was another unit of measure. There really was no other way of cooking in my parents’ house and my mother created meals that were eagerly sought by fellow Triestin people who had also migrated to Australia. Friends and family would often discuss an upcoming visit and request certain dishes be prepared and mum did just that. The essence of culture lost and displaced emotions for homeland were captured on the luncheon plate. I recall seeing one particular close family friend who would be close to tears as he consumed his requested recipes. Even as a kiddie, this scene broke my heart.
“Mum and dad (Amalia Bertok and Luciano Bari) in Trieste after the war. Dad’s beloved Vespa took them around the place. Mum had the typical anaemic appearance of post war people who had starved on a regular basis. Mum’s health improved markedly when they arrived in Brisbane, Australia (photo on right) where they lived for a year prior to moving down to Victoria.”
My mother and father ran a trattoria in post war Trieste. My father who was a trainee police officer back then, would go to the market before training and purchase vegetables and other goods for the day and bring them back to the trattoria. Dad would run past with the platoon during the morning five kilometer run as part of the training. Mum would cook up whatever my father brought to the trattoria. There were no menus back then in the old style trattoria. Mum would come out of the kitchen and tell the customer what she had cooked for the day. Customers would make their selection and mum would prepare delicious dishes that were taught to her by her mother, Maria Bersan who in her time was taught by her mother, Maria Cerkveni and so on back through each preceding generation. Secret women’s business in the kitchen. Dad would finish up police training for the day and help mum in the trattoria. Extremely long hours with mum cooking for up to 80 customers a day but my parents were young then and full of the energy of resourceful post war people who had gone without and were determined to make something of their shattered lives. Mum always said she was hungry during the entire war. My parents were Slovenian people who lived in Trieste, in the far north of Italy. Both were multilingual. Mum also knew German as her father spoke German to my mother’s older sister Emilia and Italian and Slovenian to the rest of the family. Mum also had to learn German when the Germans arrived and occupied the region. German language was taught in the school. A mixed linguistic bag. Our ancestors also came from Hungary, judging by the Hungarian names in the family history. Slavic and Hungarian names such as Bertok, Oblik, Cerkveni, Charmaz, Mamilovic, Pribac, Bersan, pepper the family tree. Mum and Pop only taught my brother and myself Triestin the local patois in Trieste, which is now long gone. Within one generation, our family has gone from multilingual people adept at instant code switching to bilingual only and I am slowly losing my bilingual ability after my parents’ passing. The recipes remain, however.
Pomodori Ripieni (stuffed tomatoes) is a dish that brings back all sorts of memories for me. I always associate this dish with excess garden produce at the end of summer and into the autumn. After the annual passata making has finished, there are always tomatoes going spare in the garden and will continue to do so until the cold nights set in.
Pomodori Ripieni is an easy recipe to make. I snaffled 16 of these from the back verandah where trays of tomatoes are finishing off ripening. Cut off the stem top and discard. Scoop out the juice and seeds into a bowl and set aside. Place the tomato cups cut side down on some kitchen paper towel. I cooked a good amount because these are delicious served warm the next day when all the lovely flavours have melded together.
The filling ingredients do vary, as this type of cuisine always takes advantage of what is on hand. I had a couple of slices of bacon left over after stuffing a chicken so I used the slices, finely chopped up. Saute a small onion until golden brown. Add the bacon and some finely chopped up Hungarian salami. Add some finely processed fresh breadcrumbs, (I used 5 slices for this recipe), 2 eggs, finely chopped Italian flat leafed parsley, a small amount of marjoram fresh from the garden and a fist full of grated Parmesan cheese. Mix all together. Stuff the tomato cavities. Chop up the tomato cavity lumps you hunked out of the tomatoes and spread out on the bottom of a greased ovenware ceramic container. Pop the stuffed tomatoes on top of the base and drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil. Make sure you pack the tomatoes against each other to stop them falling over during baking. Bake at around 180 degrees for 45 minutes. Pull the tomatoes out of the oven and drizzle over some red balsamic glaze and pop them back into the oven for another 15 minutes or so, just to set the glaze. As you can see, there are no weights and measures for this recipe at all. The ingredients are negotiable to an extent.
I served Pomodori Ripieni with a portion of chicken that had been stuffed and roasted on top of a pavement of potato slices. The potatoes are Russet Burbanks I grew in the vegie patch. I also cooked up some more onion until translucent and then added some Borlotti beans from the garden and some peas and corn, herbs and a little water. Fresh Borlotti beans from the garden are delicious. I always grow an excess of Borlotti, shell and freeze them for use throughout the year.
I increasingly think even with a lot of affluence in this country, people are basically unhappy, chasing material possession. I also think that we must stop looking 100 percent of the time at what we desire in this life and remember to start looking good and hard at elements of our past that define us today. Life matters are like that. We take the good with the painful and make the best of what comes along. My parents did just that as they migrated to Australia in 1954 during the great post war Slovenian diaspora with nothing more than two suitcases and a trunk full of dreams for a peaceful, discrimination free life.
Pomodori Ripieni is definitely a dish that I will make all my life as it is my ancestral connection to loved ones who are no more on this earth. I am thankful the culinary connection remains.