PEASANT PRODUCE, URBAN FEAST
By Eva Perroni
When summer (eventually) hits the northern suburbs it can at times be quite oppressive. A thirty-something degree sun beats down, its heat soaked up by the thick, black tarmac and concrete buildings, locked in until the sun finally goes down and the baking buildings can slowly cool off in the evening breeze. It was at this time that my partner and I would take our little staffie for a wander through the back alleys of Brunswick. To the untrained eye, these walkways are nothing more than back access to people’s properties, but to the urban forager, they are a bounty bursting full of flavours, a treasure trove full of delicious ripe and low-hanging fruit.
What may look like unkempt vines and overgrown trees are actually a glorious source of diversity; inspiration for fruit-filled recipes that go beyond the pink lady or Cavendish. We would turn fig leaves into an infusion spiced with vanilla and honey, place purple grapes in the freezer for sweet, summer treats, grill nectarines and peaches to add to salads or steep persimmons with cinnamon and cardamom to make a sweet and spicy tea. Fresh juicy figs and tart little crab apples were often eaten on the spot, and any overgrown herb bushes were plucked and steeped in extra virgin oil.
Melbourne’s suburban sweet harvest of backyard bounty has its roots in the mass migration of Italian and other European immigrants during the 1950s and 1960s. Mainly agricultural workers from the southern regions of Italy, these backyard plots were reflections of Italian village-based traditions and the importance that the garden plot held in Italian village life.
The sweet harvest of olive oil and grapes for wine, succulent vegetables, primarily tomatoes for sauce-making, runner beans, bitter leafy greens and wild asparagus, sheep and goats cheese made up approximately 40-60 per cent of all household consumables in Italian village life. Coupled with often labour-intensive and time-consuming preserving techniques, like the preserving of tomatoes for pasta sauce and the drying and pickling of other fruits and vegetables for winter storage, the Italian family was firmly embedded in the daily grind of peasant agriculture.
The everyday slog of farming for a living was inextricably linked to the long-standing Italian virtues of hard-work and survival. All household members had a real and longstanding connection with the importance of the yield and the meaning of a good harvest.
As these families migrated across to a world unknown, these agrarian virtues and knowledge were uprooted and transplanted from the Italian hillside to Melbourne’s backyards. Garden produce became a highly meaningful and symbolic activity for Italian-Australians. Embedded in every tomato plucked and pepper preserved were traditions steeped in self-sufficiency and local economy.
Connected to their history and affiliation as paesani, surplus vegetables were often shared between households as acts of solidarity, friendship and love. Rarely do I leave my great-aunty’s in Glenroy without a tupperware full of succulent grilled eggplant and a bag full of spicy rocket (and a full tour of the backyard’s latest flourishes).
The fruits of these migrant labours that were once essential for survival are now but remnants of a past era. But that isn’t to say that these fruits aren’t to be enjoyed, eaten and shared like the harvest of a bounteous year. So when Mother Nature comes into full bloom, keep an eye out for low-hanging fruit. You may just get to taste the flavours of the Italian countryside mixed with the sweetness of Australian summer.
Eva Perroni is an activist-researcher and writer focused on creating a more just and sustainable food system.