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Stephen Scourfield Writing

Italy & Sicily: A Story of Family


“Here. Here she is. Ah, look at her talking. She’s fantastic. Ehhh, just look at her.” The man is glued to the eyepiece of a video camera, playing back footage shot a few days earlier and somewhat oblivious to the rest of the Rome hotel’s packed lobby. People close in. By now just about everyone Carmelo Musca has met wants to see his Nonna – his grandmother – in the flesh, so to speak. We’ve all heard so much about her. And there she is in the viewfinder, the woman he has been so expansively describing and praising in his passionately Sicilian way, where conversation is performance.
And now I, too, am transfixed by this little old, cottage-loaf woman in black, with her neat, tied-back white hair, staring straight down the barrel of the lens, telling her anecdotes, laughing at her own stories, reliving memories, passing on her wisdom and the family’s history to her grandson. And all with such unaffected confidence.
Waving her arms (it must be genetic) and communicating so clearly, and so entertainingly, although I can’t understand a word she’s saying. 
“Ah, my Nonna. Isn’t she wonderful? She has such wisdom.”
Carmelo, a film-maker living in Australia but in Rome, Italy, to shoot a food documentary, has just travelled to Sinagra, Sicily, the village where he was born, to spend two days with his Nonna. He has come back overwhelmed by the experience. It is a powerful insight into the strength of family, the importance of blood, the gifts that older generations have for us, if we will receive them.
He arrived at his Nonna’s – “you walk in and there she is in the kitchen, welcoming the lost grandson” – to find she had made up a bed for him so they could sleep in the same room. And there they lay, talking in the dark, with just a slice of light coming in through the shuttered window, exchanging parts of their lives, Nonna handing on the wisdom of her years. 
Carmelo describes the fire in the room, which has frescoes on the ceiling but is furnished sparsely. “It has no curtains – just shutters – so there is a kind of echo.”
So, what did she tell him?
“She told me ‘love without strength, without backbone, without force, has no validity’. Isn’t that FANTASTIC. She’s 87 years old and she’s telling me that. ‘Why are you telling me that?’ I ask. And she says, ‘I thought you’d like to know’.” He pauses, reliving the memory. Relishing that wisdom, recalling the phrase that youth is wasted on the young.
He says that with six children “there is absolutely no substitute for doing the kind of things my grandmother has done. That’s what has given her her wisdom.” Family.
“She may have been to Messina (the main town in her province). I don’t think she has ever been overseas. But wisdom comes with age – she is old and wise and really understands.
“At 87 she feels she has only one major thing to do. It’s journey’s end. She has done all these things throughout her life and this is the next thing. We talked a lot about death. I found it really fascinating talking to her about death.”
And, reflecting the true nature of life’s cycle, the talk about death was balanced – even completed – for Carmelo by a powerful understanding of his own birth. “One of the most moving things was getting up really early on the Sunday morning and driving with my uncle up to the house where I was born,” he recalls. “It was a little old stone cottage which is now a bit dilapidated. Outside it has a little pool made out of rocks where they used to wash the clothes by hand, and 500 metres away the tap where we used to get water was still there, with water coming out. I remember as a kid going there with earthenware pots and getting the water and bringing it back home. My mum would put them on her head.”
Musca’s uncle told him that when he was born there was no road. 
“I was born at 3am and my father went down with a donkey – he was the only one of six brothers to own a donkey, he was quite progressive – and he brought the midwife up on the donkey and it was November, and it was really, really cold. He can always remember how cold it was, and they had a fire going in one room.
“When my youngest son was born I was there – and there were pre-natal classes and playing the right music for the birth and all that kind of stuff – and I was just thinking what it was like when I was born, with all the sheets handmade on a loom.”
Carmelo left Sinagra, with his family, when he was six.
“In the 50s, when my father left, there was still a feudal system. He used to have to give so many eggs, so many olives to the baron. I went and saw the baron’s house – unbelievable – an English mansion in this peasant village. My father got sick of giving money to him and packed up and went to Australia.”
He borrowed the money to leave and it took him three years to pay back the loan and then get his family to Perth, in Western Australia. “He just had a sense of doing it for the good of the family.” He worked seven days a week.
“Our parents came to Australia because it was better for us – for a better education, for the standard of living, for a better way of life. But now it has really gone a full circle. We are growing organic vegetables – I have got chooks at home and a goat – and I come back here and I think my parents would have been much better off if they had never come to Australia.
“I see my mum’s sister and brothers who didn’t come to Australia, and Sicily is their culture. It is their whole way of life. They are retired and they go down to the little village square on Sunday morning and sit there in the sun and read the paper and have a cappuccino. They are dressed immaculately.
“In Australia, everyone lives 20km apart. If you are sick no one cares and no one comes round to see you. There is a totally different philosophy.
“My father – who died years ago – tried to continue the Italian way of life. In Australia, in our little quarter acre block, we had our little garden and my dad would grow capsicums and cucumbers and eggplants and tomatoes and he would always save the biggest for seeds and then do the seedlings. He would put the seeds on newspapers in the sun to dry them. There are still seeds in the garage in jars. Basil seeds, bean seeds, capsicum seeds.”
But pursuing that Sicilian way of life brought with it its own problems.
“We always spoke the Sicilian dialect at home. English was a second language for me for a long time – I went to school and couldn’t speak any English at all. But you just wanted to be one of the crowd. I remember as a kid going to primary school and my mum would make these sandwiches with salami and cheese in Italian bread and kids would say to me ‘he’s eating jam and cheese’. They literally had never seen salami before.
“And there was this feeling, ‘Please mum, can you use square white bread and put peanut paste on it, or Vegemite?’ I will always remember when I convinced my mum to give me Vegemite sandwiches. I just wanted to feel like everyone else in the playground.
“I guess my son is a little bit like that. But he is really quite proud of being half Italian – then a quarter Irish and a quarter English from my wife, Maggie.” Carmelo pauses. “So he is half Italian, quarter English, quarter Irish and 100 per cent Australian.”
He adds enthusiastically: “He cooks a nice spaghetti sauce, though. Kids love fast food, so we have a bet that we can make spaghetti sauce quicker.” It’s a change from Carmelo’s own childhood. “I was never allowed to cook. Italian boys don’t go in the kitchen. A daughter is not so important. A boy is the continuation of the human race.” He adds: “It’s the women that perpetuate that – it’s the mothers that do this kind of macho, male thing.”
The mixture of food and culture is intrinsic to Carmelo’s philosophy. He eats eggs from his own chooks and has been known to make a year’s supply of tomato sauce, pour it into jars and then pack them between clothes to simmer in a 44-gallon drum.
“I bought a goat,” he adds. “In a suburb. Twenty minutes from town. In the suburb of Shelley! When I tell people I have got a goat, they think ‘What?’ And I say, hey, other people have dogs which bark and rip and dig holes and are revolting. I tie my goat up on the lawn. It fertilises the garden, we get milk, I make my own yoghurt.”
And that mixture of food and culture comes through in his work for his film company, CM Productions. One series, Preserving for the Taste of It, was as much about preserving human traditions as the traditional foods of 13 countries. Another, The Rich Tradition, which he directed and co-wrote, focused on the cultural importance and impact of food. It was a landmark in his successful career, which started when he borrowed a dollar from his dad to make up the $26 he needed for his first stills camera, then “fluked” a portrait of a winning horseman at an event in Harvey in Western Australia’s South-West, which in turn brought him a stream of equestrian work. His first paid photography.
Stills led to study at the then WA Institute of Technology – he kept himself by taking more horse pictures and covering the occasional wedding – which led to his first film.
The flow of work has been steady. Just as importantly, it is work he is proud of. “I think Preserving for the Taste of It is an important series as it documents something about multicultural Australia,” he says. “When I show it to people overseas they find it very hard to believe it’s all happening 10 minutes from my house. It teaches us a lot about life – like my grandmother – there’s a lot of that in the series.”
Life has moved on, even for Nonna. “When I went and saw her before, she had no toilet, no running water and no electricity. Do you know what she does now? She takes me out and gets me to listen to the water meter – tick, tick, tick – with the tap on. And she’s got this self-lighting gas stove, but there in the corner of the kitchen is this welded drum cut in half on a tripod that the blacksmith has made for her in which she has her embers so she can do her tomatoes and capsicums, which she roasts and peels. She starts cooking on it and the whole house smells so beautiful. When I arrived there, I could smell dinner cooking before I got there.”
It’s never easy leaving someone you love. But there is a peace about Carmelo when he gets back to Rome. He recalls how on a previous visit he looked out of the back window of a car as it drove away from his grandmother’s home. “I was driving away in the car and I was crying, thinking I would never see her again because she was so old and who knows if I would ever come back again.”
In the 20 years that have passed there have been 12 more visits. But perhaps none quite like this.


I spent a couple of weeks in Rome with Carmelo Musca. He was filming. I was writing. We were both enjoying Italy; thin-as-tissue-paper suede jackets, camel hair coats, women with jet black hair on scooters. And eating, of course. Eating well is a consuming passion for Italians. What they eat, and how they prepare it, forms a big part of the cultural identity of the country. Not for them the mere consumption of enough calories to survive.
On the back seat of a Lancia, someone is liltingly, almost privately, harmonising to the rendition of O Sole Mio which is belting with gusto out of the car stereo. Carmelo’s boisterous, arm-waving embellishment (he compensates with volume for a lack of tonal accuracy) rips up through the open sunroof, out the windows and rattles the shutters of Rome. I can’t remember now who said it, and it is probably irrelevant, but someone broke off from the in-car concert to toss across: “Write this in your book. Now, this is Rome.” And, indeed, this is the spirit of Rome and, indeed, way down the hillside, bathed in the sunlight of spring, sits the spirited city itself. It is a city of passion, of cobble and concrete, pillars and panache. It is a city of human history in intriguing layers.
At the wheel, slicing through the thick wedges of Rome’s traffic, slamming on the brakes, flamboyantly raising, in threat or exasperation, a cupped hand in the air, playing the car horn, is Maurizio Pagoni.
Maurizio, with his slicked black hair, sharp moustache and tiny beard, his immaculately cut clothes and a simmering smile which leaks suavely from one side of his face.
Aah, Maurizio. A young chef with a complete passion for food, which he and his extended family are determined to share with us. 
“You maast come to lunch. You maast eat with us.” Delivered like this, there is really no question about it. We maast indeed. It is a typically Roman lunch, with a procession of dishes. It starts with buffalo mozzarella and the finest proscuitto (the pigs are fed only acorns for the last three months of their lives), then melt-in-your-mouth cannelloni and tasty fish. Then there are numerous other courses (somewhere along the line we lost count), all rounded off by profiteroles and a white sister to creme caramel, made with cream and sugar.
“You must ’ave some cheeses. You like cheeses?” I think I might pass, actually. (Before I pass out, actually.) Carmelo begins to translate and their faces drop. “Just full,” I say, rubbing a bulge where once all was flat. I add apologetically, quietly: “Sorry.”
But still there is coffee, its bite belying its size, more talk, more sign language and the afternoon wears on, following the finest traditions of Italian family hospitality.
There at the restaurant Lo Stil Novo Zio d’America – My American Uncle’s Place – we sit with Maurizio, Bettina Tornusciolo and Andrea di Curzio. Then Maurizio’s chef brother, Roberto, comes from the kitchen to join us. Then Andrea’s mother, Fiorella, and father, Aldo; patriarch, food and wine connoisseur, an uncompromising man who has made Lo Stil Novo a temple for Italian gastronomes.
Carmelo and his film crew are shooting away outside the restaurant, in the super-deli below, in the ovens, throughout the presentation of dishes. He seems happy with the footage, and then they all decide they need something very, well, Roman for the show’s introduction. They pack up and truck off to the Colosseum, and I go along too.
Trying to ignore the gypsy children attempting to strip possessions from passers-by, the presenter begins talking to the camera, but my attention wanders to the massive structure behind. To mark the Colosseum’s opening in 80AD, 5000 animals died in 100 days of bouts between wild beasts and gladiators. In 249AD, to mark the millennium of the founding of Rome, 32 elephants, 12 tigers, 50 lions and six hippos went the same way. It seems a savage waste of life, and the thought of it flushes up my own guilt.
Previously Carmelo and I had been guided to the tiny trattoria Da Corrado in the old, Jewish quarter of Rome by a young Italian doctor, Carlo Torcia. He led us up cobbled backstreets and then, in keeping with Rome’s pleasantly refreshing lack of signage, through an inconsequential door in a wall. There we were greeted with the news that the dish of the day was pagliata. “What’s that?” I whispered, hesitantly. Carlo fumbled for a completely accurate translation. Carmelo pieced together the clues. “The bowel of a baby lamb, killed before it has eaten grass, so it still has the mother’s milk in it.” To modern sensibilities, it sounded barbaric, and I picked at it, not wishing to offend. It tasted a bit like liver.
Its sweetness came later. It drove the presenter of Carmelo’s food show quite dotty to think that he had missed what was, apparently, the gastronomic coup of the trip, if not a lifetime. A nirvana for the senses, I think someone said. It made him so mad that he talked us into taking him to Da Corrado the next day – the day before we were due to leave. 
The cook was bewildered. “Pagliata? No. No pagliata. Not today. Today’s Thursday.” He threw his hands up, and then enlarged. “Today the dish is gnocchi.” It is a simple and effective menu idea, having just one dish a day; the same dish on the same day of each week.
I admit I was relieved to sit at a table – covered by a new sheet of white paper, listening to the sing-song conversations around me and a rousing mandolin – and eat my gnocchi, knowing that no lamb had been subjected to something as indefensible as infanticide.
I must also admit that Carmelo and I felt somewhat smug, and that the presenter has never fully recovered from the disappointment. (We did try to make amends by taking him to the Jewish bakehouse Carlo had shown us, declaring it to have “the best chocolate and ricotta cheesecake in the world”.)
It is through such specialties and in such unassuming shops and restaurants – away from the tourist strip – that Italian culture lives on in its cuisine. “Our dishes reflect our history and are culturally based,” an official for the Italian Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Forests Resources tells me, as I look into it all further. “The message of a simple and healthy way of eating comes from the Mediterranean countries. Olive oil is the basic element of the eating style.”
“The local food makes you see the heart of people,” says Anna Tasca Lanza, a food specialist from Sicily. “Local food is the soul of culture and the tradition of a country.”
“Gastronomy is a measure of a nation,” says Professor Massimo Montanari, from Bologna, “displaying through cuisine that country’s influence upon the world and its confidence. There is a link between gastronomy and territory.”


* Written in 1994. Carmelo Musca’s grandmother died in 2001.

 

Design by CCC   All Rights Reserved:  Stephen Scourfield Western-Australia