Living legacy: preserving the Italian way

10th March 2021 | Alison Turner

In what began as a personal project to explore his culinary heritage, Italian Australian GP Pietro Demaio has created an invaluable resource that celebrates the Italian art of preserving food – and in doing so, he has also helped to preserve Italian food culture.

Preserving the Italian Way is Demaio’s love song to his heritage and the food of his childhood. First published in 2008 and with more than 45,000 copies already sold, the book has had a modern update and is once again available. It’s ideal for anyone who wants to grow and preserve their own food, reduce waste or help keep cultural traditions alive.

Demaio has meticulously collected family recipes handed down for generations from nonne (grandmothers) and nonni (grandfathers) all across Italy, including how to preserve vegetables and fish in oil, vinegar or salt; how to make cheese, cure meats and dry herbs; and traditional methods for making bread, wine and liqueurs.

Demaio created the book to keep his family’s traditions alive for his children and grandchildren.

A proud history

Demaio has long held a passion for his Italian heritage and the tradition of respecting and preserving foods. His parents emigrated from Calabria to Australia – his father in 1937 and then his mother and their five children after WWII ended, in 1948. Demaio was born in 1949.

“Back then it was very difficult to get Italian produce here,” Demaio says. “In those days, you couldn’t even get olive oil – you had to go to the pharmacy to buy it, because it was seen as something used for massaging only, not for cooking.

“But my parents, and a whole generation of people like them, came out with these incredible skills that have been honed over millennia. My parents had lived on the land, and they basically ate what they produced. So there’s this whole culture surrounding preparing food, and then preserving it so it can be eaten over a period time.”

Demaio grew up watching his relatives work to create the food they loved. The family would kill a pig each year to make their own salami, his father made wine and they grew vegetables in the back garden, which they’d preserve to ensure they lasted through the seasons.

“While it sounds romantic, it was hard work,” he admits. “But it was essential work, because otherwise, that whole nexus that exists between culture, food, history, tradition, family and recipes would have been lost.”

Demaio has seen a real connection begin again with the older Italian generation and their culinary skills.

A living heritage

When Demaio became a father himself, he decided he wanted to keep the old traditions alive and pass them on to his three sons, so he embarked on a personal journey to collect and publish preserving recipes – not just from his own family, but from families all over Italy.

“The generation that was doing this was dying out, and so I thought I’d put together a collection of recipes from my mother and from my relatives in Italy,” Demaio says. “Each of them had a particular recipe, or a special way of doing things.”

While these relatives were still alive, Demaio and his family decided to travel to Italy and ask them to share their recipes. Along with his own research, Demaio thought he’d see what recipe books he could find in Italy that might help him in his quest.

“I thought there must be hundreds of books on Italian preserves,” he says. “I went to Naples, Rome, Florence… every bookshop I asked at, the response almost invariably was, ‘We don’t have any books like that. But my uncle/mother makes the best such-and-such’. So I’d ask if I could speak to their relative, and started collecting more and more recipes.”

When he first started his collection, Demaio thought he might end up with 10 or 15 recipes which he could print off and send out to friends. Instead, after several decades and seven research trips to Italy, he says things “got a bit out of hand”.

“I ended up with a book that was 220 pages long,” he says. “But as it turns out, I’m glad it did. Because while that generation has now disappeared, the recipes live on in the book.”

Simple, natural and delicious: preserving food is as easy as it is appetising.

Keeping the tradition going

What fascinated Demaio most was that almost all of the hundreds of recipes he collected centred around three things: salt, some sort of acid or fermentation process, and oil.

“That was it,” he says. “So, if you’re doing tuna, it’s salt and oil. If you’re making salami, salt it, let it ferment and then put your spices in. If you’re making cheese, it’s salt and let it ferment. Nature provides you with everything you need.”

The original 2008 book was a big success, and the feedback from the Italian Australian community was hugely positive. But come 2021, with interest in food culture, sustainability and reducing waste only continuing to grow, Pan Macmillian has decided to republish the book to introduce the Italian art of preserving food to a whole new generation.

“It’s been a great journey,” Demaio says. “Your culture, your history, where you come from, is so important. And part of all of this is food.

“The book is not just a collection of recipes which have a proud historical and cultural background – it’s also preserving my own history.”

Preserving the Italian Way is published by Plum/Pan Macmillan Australia.

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