When we get Julia Busuttil Nishimura on the phone, she’s on a train returning from a trip to Spring Street Grocer; she has just been downstairs in the shop’s cheese cellar, reveling in a very comfortable 10 degrees Celcius compared to the 36 degrees beating down on the city at street level. This hidden cave á fromage is one of her weekly must-visits.
Julia Ostro, as she’s known in the food world, is an Italian teacher, cook and author living in East Brunswick with her husband Nori and two-year-old son Haruki. She’s developed a dedicated following over the past couple of years for her home cooking. Her online platform Ostro (and recently released cookbook of the same name) is a treasure trove of simple recipes fashioned from fresh, seasonal produce, cooked with minimal fuss.
She’s a firm believer in using the best quality ingredients so cooking can be super simple – because the flavours are already magic on their own. “I have so many recipes in my book that are only four ingredients. And so if there are only four ingredients, then you just get the best olive oil, the best tomato, the best garlic and the best basil, and then that’s your recipe,” Julia says.
Having lived in inner-city Melbourne for 10 years, she’s tracked down those go-to retailers that make or supply the best of the best. During the week that means many of the businesses we cover in Broadsheet Melbourne Food, such as Loafer Bread in Fitzroy North and Baker D. Chirico in Carlton for bread and pastries. “But on Sundays we have a new ritual. There’s that new Brunswick bakery, Ovens Street. Pip [Hayes, owner] bakes for wholesale customers throughout the week, and then he only opens the doors to the public on Sundays, and he makes really good bread and amazing pastries. There’s a line out the door, and the bakery has its own little cult following now.” Julia says the Polish poppy seed buns and doughnuts filled with burnt plum jam are “incredible”. “When these kinds of specialty retailers crop up it’s really exciting, and you start seeing the same people there every week and it’s a really nice community feeling,” she says.
On Saturdays, Julia and Nori take Haruki to a farmers’ market and then to a butcher to buy meat. “I’m driven by what’s in season, what’s fresh and what’s looking really good. So visiting a farmers’ market puts seasonality front of mind when I’m writing recipes during the week. We then shop either at Meatsmith, which is a really nice shopping experience and the quality is really high, or Donati’s Fine Meats in Carlton, which is fun because they usually have opera blaring.”
She often heads to Mediterranean Wholesalers specifically for its salted cod, Market Lane for her morning coffee, Hawthorn grocer Common Good, and Blackhearts & Sparrows for wine. “The thread through all of these retailers we visit is about putting trust in the people you’re buying this produce from. That’s the main reason I shop at these places.”
Julia says talking to the producers and retailers and asking what they recommend is often the first step in shaping what ends up on the dinner table that night. “I usually don’t decide what I’m going to make until I’m in the shop, depending on what they recommend and what they have in. I trust the shop and I trust the sellers. Rhiannon at the Lygon Street Blackhearts & Sparrows store is always on point. I go in, tell her what I feel like, and she knows exactly what to give me. You can’t be an expert in everything, so I think it’s really important to have those relationships with the people who do hold the knowledge.”
Julia makes making food from scratch look really easy — after all, the beautiful meals that pepper her Instagram feed and website are her family’s “everyday food”. “Everything I make is just the food that we cook at home, and everything we buy to make those recipes is from in and around Melbourne. We don’t eat out too much because for us, it’s the most pleasurable thing to be cooking at home.”
Visiting four or five specialised retailers is Julia’s idea of a morning well spent. “It’s like visiting your friends. You get to know them really well, and they ask about you and your family, they help you with any questions that you have. When I lived in Italy, that’s how we shopped. You’d never just go to one shop to buy everything. There’d be a fish shop, a chicken shop, a bread shop and a cake shop.”
She recalls that during a visit to Liguria in north-western Italy, she discovered one shop that she utterly adored because it had been making a special type of focaccia, called focaccia di Recco, for hundreds of years. “They’re not even a bakery, they just specialise in one thing. And it’s not just about the produce, but about the people selling it and making it. Because they’re so passionate about what they do and that excites me.”
And if you’re into super-specialised strains of focaccia, you can buy the cheese you’ll need to make it, called stracchino, from DOC Deli on Lygon Street, which Julia frequents for all her Italian pantry essentials.
Our new book, Broadsheet Melbourne Food, is an indispensable guide to Melbourne's best shops, markets, producers and suppliers, including many of Julia’s weekly haunts. It’s available now both online and at all good bookstores.