The Italian influences on Australia’s eating habits have become so ingrained in our diets that we forget where they started.
There have of course been positive impacts felt elsewhere throughout the country since our European football-lovers began immigrating to Australia, but the biggest difference to our society has been with food.
Prior to Italian people setting their sights on these sunburnt shores as a new place to call home, the diets here were boring at best.
Meat and three veg was the way of life, not just an option for nostalgic or laziness reasons.
When you think about how extremely diverse our food offerings are nowadays, it is almost an unfathomable concept.
While Aussies have countless countries to thank for this widening of not only our palates but our culture, the Italian influence has been one of the most significant.
Pasta (including the modern staple of Australian households, spaghetti bolognaise), espresso, pizza, lasagne, garlic bread and different cheeses just were not eaten prior to Italian immigration.
Imagining a life nowadays without these options we now almost consider our own is extremely difficult, and makes one grateful for the diversity brought to Australia by these cultures.
Where did you come from, where do you grow?
Blood oranges are a staple of Italian food, which until recently, we have been unable to enjoy in the same way they do across the pond in Italy.
RedBelly Citrus was more serious about ensuring authentic blood orange offerings for Aussie consumers than Leonardo De Vinci was about painting.
Not only did they decline to work with a marmalade manufacturer because its processing wasn’t in keeping with Grandma’s traditional recipes, but they even got the government involved in selecting the best climate in Australia to grow the fruit before settling on land north of Griffith.
“Sicily is renowned for their blood oranges, they are the biggest growers around the world,” Vito Mancini, Director, Redbelly Citrus told Food Magazine.
“The weather gives them the growing benefits compared to other countries that grow them, like Brazil and Florida because they need a very big differential between day and night temperatures.
“The weather in Sicily can go from nights down to about 2 degrees whereas in the day it gets up to 14, 15 [degrees Celsius] and that difference, the trees don’t like it, and it causes stress and that is why it what comes out in the fruit.
Mancini assured Food Magazine that the “stress” the trees face in the extreme variables of the weather does not damage the tree or the fruit at all, and is necessary to create the colour of the fruit.
“It’s just like growing wine grapes, you get a better wine grape with temperature differences like that too.
“Orange trees aren’t as tolerant as grapevines, if it gets too cold, it will damage the tree.
“So we worked really hard at finding the perfect balance.
“If I go towards Victoria, way in the high country it will get too cold and damage the trees and if I got to northern New South Wales, to Bourke or up to Queensland, it gets too warm and the tree doesn’t develop enough stress.”
“They’ll look like a Valencia, and generally you won’t get typical blood orange.
“It’s taken eight years to get to this point, we worker with the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) for a couple of years to work out best variations in temperature and they did heat unit mapping to work it out.
“They grabbed the temperature data from Sicily and overlayed it over southern Australia, over New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, and there is a very distinct band which passes close to where we are that had similar temperatures to the growing areas in Sicily.
“So with that data, we could see the similarities.
“We always knew blood oranges grew in this area, but with that data were more confident we could match the Italian version.”
For health's sake
The reasons for ensuring the similarities in temperature between traditional growing regions in Italy and those in Australia was simple, Mancini told Food Magazine.
“Were farmers, not multimillionaires, and had to borrow cons money so needed guarantee that it would work,” he said.
Beyond the need to ensure the venture would be successful for business reasons, Vito Mancini and his fellow Director (and brother), Leonard Mancini are passionate about the benefits of the fruit and sharing the taste and health properties with Australians.
“The best way to put it is to think of a mix between an orange and a berry, like a blueberry,” he said.
“You get all the vitamin C and folate that you get from citrus fruits, which also have lots of other benefits,
“But grapefruit, for example, is really good, but they don’t recommend having them when on certain medications because it has high amounts of hesperin, which interferes with blood pressure tablets because it is a natural blood press regulator.
“Blood oranges don’t have the same level [of hesperin] as grapefruit, but has got the Vitamin C, folate, potassium, calcium, but an added benefit they contain belongs to the berry family chemicals, the main one being anthocynanins, which is a group of plant chemicals that have shown a lot of benefits.
“They’re called Neutrogenicals because of their benefits for the skin; they save against UVA and UVB damage, but another added benefit is the angiogenic inhibitors,” Mancini explained to Food Magazine.
Angiogenic inhibitors are molecules that prevent the growth of new blood vessels, which fights against ageing, obesity and most cancers which are dependant on new blood vessels.
Blood orange brothers Len and Vito Mancini
Just like Nonna used to make
Once the Mancini brothers had decided on the very best spot in Australia to grow their blood oranges, they set about making the fruits come to life in the same way their family had done for generations.
But it wasn’t a job that any average company could do, because they were determined not to sacrifice the quality, flavour or process of their marmalades, cordials and syrups.
“The recipes are quite basic, like any good Italian recipe,” Manini told Food Magazine.
“It’s about the quality of the ingredients, rather than quantity.
“We don’t make the product selves, we got contractors to do it because we don’t have bottling facilities and things like that.
“So we went through the receips with them, and some didn’t want to do our recipes, or didn’t have the gear.
“The marmalade for example, the way my Nonna used to make was with long thin strips of marmalade, but we found one company that wanted to run it through a machine to cube it up, so we said no to that.
“A lot of people we spoke to said they had to use preservatives, and I think that by using more natural and basic ingredients, sure we may not have a shelf life of a hundred years, but we have the quality products and the story behind it that’s going to help push it.
“We could use preservatives so that my great grandchildren can eat that jar, but it’s probably not good for them,” Mancini laughed.
With over 40 hectares to take care of and more than 30 000 tress in the ground, the Mancini brothers have a lot of work to do running their business.
Mancini told Food Magazine he pruned 16 000 tress on his own last year alone.
During picking season, the company will hire a few extra sets of hands to help out, but for the most part, they do it on their own, and are enjoying the ride.
Despite the company’s success and a reputation as the expert on all things blood orange, Mancini is humble about their story.
“We will be the biggest producers around Australia, but it’s not about that, we just want to make produce that consumers can understand and appreciate,” he said.
“What we’ve done here, I call it a prototype farm, a huge prototype.
“I believe the world would be able to accept about 1500 tonnes of blood oranges, and if you look at the largest four producers in the world, Morocco, Spain, Turkey and Italy, we’re able to compete here in Australia, being an alternate season.
“What I’m trying to do is open up opportunities for citrus growers in Australia.”
Olive you glad it's authentic?
Another quintessential Italian product Australians have embraced wholeheartedly is olive oil, and according to Paul Berryman, Chief Executive for Bertolli Australia, consumers are much savvier these days when choosing their ingredients.
“Consumers are becoming more and more aware of how the flavour of olive oil helps enhance their dishes,” he told Food Magazine.
“The good quality Mediterranean olive oils are rich, full of flavour but smooth and not too acidic or grassy.”
He explained that in the last 20 years especially, consumers have redefined what they are looking for, and can tell authentic products from the imitations.
“Australians are generally accepting of foreign flavours and this has certainly developed further in the past two decades,” he said.
“We have such a wide range of cultures making up the Australian culture.
“Italians are a big part of Aussie culture and this contributes to this acceptance of Mediterranean food.
“We must also recognise that the Australians of today are also quite different to 15-20 years ago.
“We are a much more multicultural society and many people have grown up with foreign flavours being considered the norm.
“This leads to a greater acceptance to trying new things and a reliance on the products’ country of origin to produce the best.”
The Bertolli range of olivefg oils are still manufactured in Italy to ensure their authentic taste and production, but when asked by Food Magazine whether the company would ever manufacture in Australia, Berryman did not rule it out.
“It is believed that the Mediterranean countries produce the best olive oil,” he said.
“The olive oil for our spray products come from our growers in the Mediterranean but are packed at a local company in Sydney’s west.
“Since the introduction of sprays on the market, we have seen demand growing.
“However, consumers will always want the option of bottled olive oil as this suits other purposes.
“Bertolli is part of a global olive oil company.
“While we have an Italian heritage, we are always looking for new possibilities.”