Review: Guy Grossi’s Recipes from my Mother’s Kitchen

It’s Mother’s Day again, in Australia at least, and if we believe the TV ads and glossy catalogues, husbands, fathers and blue-eyed babies everywhere are scrambling eggs, putting the final touches of sticky tape on huge gift boxes and working out a schedule of household chores to conquer by lunch time.   But while those families (if they exist) bounce on winter-white sheets showering Mum with presents, others will be remembering mothers who are no longer with us, sitting by the beds of the sick, awaiting the birth of a child or mourning a child that never was.  The ads rarely acknowledge that mothering has many guises;  although a lot of us will be mothers, and all of us have been children, the daily experience of those roles remains unique to each family.  Guy Grossi’s charming Recipes from my Mother’s Kitchen deftly illustrates the way those roles have been interpreted in his family, as he weaves his mother’s life story through a collection of mouth-watering Italian recipes.

Guy Grossi is referred to as an icon of Italian cooking in Australia.  As owner and head chef at renowned Melbourne restaurant Grossi Florentino,  among many other ventures, Grossi pays daily tribute to his heritage in a family for whom food has always been a passion.  Sumptuously photographed (and with clear instructions) these recipes, inspired by his mother’s cooking, take food back to the hearth, reminding us of its importance in ceremony and memory-creation as well as sustenance.

Guy’s mother, Marisa Tosadori, was born in Verona in 1933. She had a difficult early life, losing her own mother at 11 and, with her siblings, shouldering family responsibilities when their father suffered a stroke soon after their mother’s death.  Living in a part of Italy hard-hit by war, Marisa’s introduction to cooking included harsh lessons in being creative with what foods were available and never wasting a morsel.   As a young woman, she moved in with an abrasive aunt in Milan, breaking away from what had become, through hardship, a saddened and struggling family.  She took on what work she could find, as a seamstress, a rice picker and a laundry woman, and eventually began serving in a local bakery. There she met Pietro Grossi – himself escaping an oppressive father and keen to establish his independence.   Marisa and Pietro were married in 1955, in simple grey suits made by Pietro’s brother.  After the haphazard ceremony the pair went for a cappuccino.  Pietro, by then a cook, went back to work in the afternoon.

The pair entered the next big phase of their lives when Pietro met Mario Vigano, a restaurateur from Melbourne who visited Milan to recruit staff.  Pietro was enticed by the promise of a new life; Marisa had never heard of Australia. ‘It’s where all the bananas grow,’ Pietro told her.  In 1960 the family prepared to leave for Melbourne.  At the last minute, Pietro felt it better to leave Marisa and their baby daughter Lucia in Italy until he was sure the Melbourne venture was viable.  This decision put Marisa’s immigration documentation at the bottom of the bureaucratic pile. Marisa endured sad months of separation from Pietro. To escape mounting debts and family pressure she fled to Rome, where she took a small apartment and cooked for the landlady, making almost daily pilgrimages to the immigration office.  Eventually, tired and depressed, she sat on the steps of the agency and told the secretary she would not move until she had her papers;  “…if she didn’t give it to me she would have to call the police to move me from here,” she said.  Marisa was finally reunited with Pietro at Essendon airport in late 1960, with a single suitcase in one hand and baby Lucia in the other.

The Grossis’ story of immigration to Australia is one of many from the era, but it becomes beautifully personal in this memorable book thanks to the inclusion of family photos, letters between Marisa and Pietro,  and novel snapshots of  historical documents like immigration papers and a copy of the early guidebook ‘Discovering Australia’.   The family’s story is enough to hold your interest, but let’s not forget about the food.

Marisa would eventually treat her own children to the recipes that held happy childhood memories for her.  Frittelle di Mele (sugary apple fritters) and fresh homemade pastas add colour to the stories of Marisa’s Italy.  The years of struggle are evoked in recipes like Baccalà (salted cod) which have their origins in the necessity to preserve food for longer periods, though they’re now eaten as tasty delicacies.  The ‘poor man’s meal’ of Zuppa di Cipolle (onion soup with dumplings) turns simple ingredients into a flavoursome supper.

As Marisa and Pietro’s story slowly becomes the story of their children’s integration into Australian society, a chapter on ‘school lunches and street footy’ offers quick dishes for hungry teens like Uova Strapazzate con Pomodoro (scrambled eggs with tomato passata).  The occasional frivolous dish makes an appearance to celebrate precious vignettes – like the jam sandwich which will forever remind Guy Grossi of the only time he lied to his father – while lasagne, the solid favourite that’s been reinterpreted by the multitudes, is presented here as the family’s special Christmas dish.   Tips and tricks from Grossi’s restaurant experience also encourage us to take another look at recipes we may already make at home, like risotto or osso bucco.

Of the many books relating to motherhood that magically appear in the stores at this time of year, Recipes from my Mother’s Kitchen stands out for its celebration of the fundamental skills of parenting (love, support and nourishment) and its respect for the mother as an individual who had a full and colourful life of her own before being thought of primarily as Mum.  Most importantly, Grossi reminds us that small moments of daily life will one day become our treasures, not the things that come in big department store boxes.

Recipes from my Mother’s Kitchen is published by Lantern, an imprint of Penguin Books, and is in stores now.

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