Four years ago, give or take, I took a call from Natalina – or Nat – Cherubino, an ex-pat Calabrian with a fire in her belly.
Cherubino’s generation was part of a long line of Calabrian immigrants who came to Perth after the discovery of gold at Kalgoorlie in 1893.
Throughout the 20th century, Fremantle was the first Australian port of call for ships arriving from Europe. For many of the 340,000 Italians that have settled in Australia – the majority of which came from Calabria in Italy’s south, where people were poor and eager to seek out opportunities elsewhere – Western Australia was the first taste of a new homeland. These new Australians, though, didn’t arrive empty-handed.
With them came ingredients we have since embraced as our own. Pasta. Olives. Salami. Tomatoes in more guises than seemed decent, from finely chopped and served on bruschetta, to dried in the sun and stored in olive oil and cooked and pureed into passata.
Some 58 years after emigrating to Western Australia, Cherubino recently made her first trip back to Calabria and wanted me to help her self-publish a memoir filled with more than 60 recipes, each to be edited and photographed by me.
Self-publishing isn’t for everyone. There’s no nice publisher waiting in the wings to cover the costs of editing, graphic design and printing. Nor do you enjoy the services of a well-paid publicist ready take your new title to book fairs. Rather, there’s you and a hell of a lot of boxes of unsold books that stare at you day-in-day-out with something bordering on recrimination.
Not that this ever deterred Cherubino, a small, tough woman with dark, intelligent eyes and a quick, mischievous wit. She raised her five kids to work as hard as she does and is passionate about sharing her story with other emigrées in the hope they too would reconnect with their heritage.
She arrived as a seven year old and did it tough from day one; she grew up on a remote bush block near Yarloop – perhaps not the life her mum had envisaged when she agreed to start a new life in Australia.
Food was – and is – central to Cherubino’s life. She learned early that if you didn’t grow, catch or forage it for yourself, you’d go hungry. Her mum worked for local land-owners in exchange for precious flour to make bread for her family, and everyone in Cherubino’s village had their own vegetable patch.
Working on Summer in Calabria, I quickly learned that Nat Cherubino was a fiercely seasonal cook. God help me if I wanted to photograph an asparagus dish out of season using a Thai specimen. It didn’t matter how I cajoled or how much I dropped the deadline word. She refused to cook something that wasn’t fresh and local: we’d just have to wait another six months for bloody asparagus to bloody well come back into season again. Ditto zucchini flowers (which she stuffed with ricotta, parmesan and breadcrumbs before shallow-frying until golden-brown and crisp). Ditto eggplant (which her old mate Rosa baked into a fine parmigiana rich with tomatoes and cheese).
Cherubino was, of course, right. If you cook what’s in season and growing locally, it’s going to taste better, period. Try telling that to all those luxe restaurants in Seminyak serving foie bloody gras.
To Cherubino, food is love. It’s how she shows she cares, and how she nurtures her family and friends. Her relationship with food is integral to who she is.
Before I started working with her, I’d been writing about food and critiquing restaurants for a lot of years. Yet what she has taught me in our time working together – an insistence on seasonality, a commitment to flavour and, most of all, the importance of sharing what you cook with those you love – are lessons I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Summer in Calabria ($60) is available online