Sisto Lucarelli – My Italian friend-Pictures
Born in 1930 in Colle d’Anchise (called Collanchise by the locals), Campobasso province, Italy, Sisto migrated to Melbourne, Australia, in 1955, to join his brother-in-law who migrated in 1952. Both left their families behind.
Colle means hill and Anchise is the name of the local hill. Legend suggests that the hill’s name comes from the Trojan warrior Anchises, who, with his son Aeneas (whose mother was Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty) visited the area before settling in Sicily after the fall of Troy. Another legend suggests that Aphrodite seduced Anchises in a two weeks amorous encounter, presenting herself as a Princess. It was nine months later, when Aphrodite returned with the young child, that Anchise discovered that his lover was a goddess.
A more recent but unpleasant legend suggests that the local Duke, who lived in his castle on the Anchises hill, made a ruling that all young girls to be married must sleep with him first.
Most of the houses are along the main street (called Via San Sisto) and two other roads that form a large triangle. Virtually all houses are either surrounded or back onto farmland.
Ever since records began in 1861 the village’s population hovered around 2000 reaching its peak in 1951 with 2035 people after which there was a steady decline to 818 in 2001. It is believed that in recent years the population has dropped even further. The village’s altitude is about 650 m.
Sisto’s house is on the outer perimeter of Colle d’Anchise, about 1 km away, in a small hamlet called Costa Casale. He is the youngest of three children – two of his siblings died at the age of six and eight, before Sisto was born. An even greater tragedy happened when, at the age of three, he lost his father, who was electrocuted from power lines over their property.
As with many other migrants he intended to stay in Australia for only a few years, to earn some money and return home. But as he jokingly says, his shoes acquired strong Australian glue preventing him from leaving.
Ask him why he migrated and his is a familiar story. He recalls the misery during and after the Second World War. Such was the poverty that basic necessities were rationed and provided only by coupons. But he recalls with nostalgia the village’s simple life and various celebrations including the one on his name day, San Sisto, the Patron Saint of the village, on 6 August.
His brother-in-law brought his wife (Sisto’s eldest sister, 16 years older than him) and their four daughters to Melbourne in 1956. Five years later, Sisto brought his wife Angela and their daughter Anna together with Sisto’s mother, leaving behind Sisto’s sister (7 years older than him) who is still in the village. Based on strong traditional family values, Sisto brought to Malbourne his wife’s parents in 1965.
In the village he used a donkey for transport, while in Melbourne, for the first 13 years he made good use of a bicycle to go to work and to do his shopping. He has worked in a diverse number of jobs in factories, the latest and longest one lasting 23 years in a stainless steel factory specialising in industrial cooking equipment.
Along with the rest of the family Sisto misses the special flavours of the village produce, especially the delicious cherries that, in addition to enjoying them fresh, they sold excess produce in the Bojano market. His special love for his loyal and hard working donkey did not prevent him from the occasional enjoyment of donkey mortadella, which they bought from the market. In describing the hardship of those days, Sisto says with sadness, “Nothing was wasted.”
Anna’s special memory is that of reduced grape juice (mosto cotto) mixed with snow for a cold drink or a granita. I wish I’d had this recipe in my village high on the mountains in Cyprus.
Not surprisingly, Angela misses their intensely-flavoured Italian tomatoes that were used for the cooking of her favourite dishes of homemade gnocchi and rabbit. Perhaps the sun shines more brightly over Italy or the Italians are rewarded for their bravery in being the first Europeans to try tomatoes early in the 19th century. Until then they were thought to be poisonous and grown only as an ornamental – after their introduction from south-central America. Italians have even put tomatoes on the other Southern Italian icon – the pizza. Still, my preference is for the original simple pizzas – without tomatoes.
Here in Melbourne, Sisto tried many tomato varieties before settling for a large heart shaped tomato. In addition to enjoying fresh tomatoes they use them in cooking and bottling. While many Italians buy tomatoes for bottling, the Lucarelli family is self-sufficient. This tomato plant is very vigorous and it is exceptionally prolific in Sisto’s garden.
Sisto is often called a perfectionist but I prefer to describe him as well organised, well equipped and very passionate about what he is doing. These traits are evident in his well-ordered garden and garage where he makes wine, preserves tomatoes and peppers and makes the traditional sausages and other pork specialties.
Barely three years after he arrived in Melbourne he bought a block of land in South Oakleigh in an area where many people from Colle d’Anchise have established themselves. He built his house largely by himself employing tradesmen only when necessary. Also, as in the village where relatives and friends helped each other for difficult tasks, relatives and neighbours helped him when help was needed. This is not surprising in view of Sisto’s generosity in helping other people. Once the house was finished it became his wife and daughter’s domain – together with Angela’s parents and Sisto’s mother who lived with them until they died.
Next came the building of his domain – the garage and the establishment of his vegetable garden. So that he remains outdoors and can work comfortably, he built a well-equipped outdoor toilet. Then came the building of a chook house and garden storage facilities. Using bricks he built a covered box for manure storage. In 2007, following Australia’s long drought, he installed four large water tanks to collect rainwater for his garden.
Sisto however, did not hesitate to break stereotypes and enter his wife’s domain. When Angela was in hospital for a hip operation I saw him cooking with Anna, Angela’s favourite meals to take to the hospital daily.
I have often observed neighbours and relatives dropping in for a chat, to borrow equipment or to bring some of their produce: home made biscuits, fennel seedlings and persimmons – cachi in Italian that is closer to the Japanese kaki where the tree originated.
I met the Lucarelli family in 2004 when, together with Murray Thompson, State Member for Parliament, Victoria, we organised a kitchen garden competition. Sisto won a prize for his well-organised and very productive garden. Since then we have developed a friendship. A testament to this friendship is that I have never entered the Lucarelli house through the front door. In true Italian migrant style, friends and relatives visit through the backdoor – where the garden, garage and kitchen are located. This is the area where the appreciation of the simple but exciting flavours of the healthy Mediterranean diet are enjoyed and practiced.
Ever since I met Sisto I noticed that his homemade wine – without commercial yeast and preservatives – was always of high quality. I have attributed this to his stainless steel equipment, his thorough cleaning procedures and his attention to detail – from the purchase of the grapes to the bottling.
While his vegetable patch is very productive and enviable, Sisto doesn’t grow much fruit. A fig tree (fico gentile, from Colle d’Anchise) that bears delicious fruit and is suitable for drying and is resistant to Melbourne’s humid weather; an olive tree that is used for table olives; a lemon tree for the characteristic olive oil and lemon flavours of the Mediterranean; and a very productive and delicious orange tree.
Back in the village they were substantially self-sufficient. When there was excess produce they took it to the nearby Saturday market in Bojano. The donkey was loaded with the produce for sale and they walked alongside for the 7 km trip. The little money they earned was used to buy basic necessities – shoes and clothes. They also engaged in bartering which was common in those days. Here in Melbourne he shares his excess produce with relatives and friends. I rarely walk away with empty hands.
Sisto is a multi-talented handyman and extremely skilful in a wide area of expertise but he is very modest in receiving praise. “In the village, I used to work on the farm; I knew nothing”, he says. He has made many of his garden tools including watering attachments, a good looking and well-constructed press for his green olives, several high quality stainless steel containers and equipment for his wine making, equipment for the preparation and preserving of his home grown tomatoes and peppers, a coffee table and a traditional woven chair.
Summer produce: Tomatoes, peppers, chillies, beans, cucumbers, zucchinis, onions, basil.
Winter: Broad beans, fennel, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, garlic.
Throughout the year: Various types of lettuce, Italian parsley, silver beet, oregano.
PS – “Fortunate” misfortune
On Sunday 5 June 2011, misfortune struck the Lucarelli family, fortunately without victims. On a cold wintery Sunday evening the family was socialising with their neighbours from just around the corner, Sisto’s niece Carmela and her husband Frank, when a frightening noise interrupted them. They stepped outside the back door only to observe a part of the garage back wall knocked down. A speeding car, after hitting another car about 50 m away, instead of stopping, sped away and broke into their garage. It smashed the rolling shutter door, smashed Anna’s car pushing it onto the back wall. Among other damages, Sisto’s wine press and one of his valued stainless steel containers were destroyed. Despite the heavy crush the driver was left virtually unscathed – loosing only a tooth. The insurance has taken over and it is believed that the damaged garage and possessions will be repaired soon. Despite this misfortune, Sisto’s resilience and stoicism will undoubtedly help him again. Two days later, as already planned, Sisto helped Frank and Carmella to carve and freeze half a cattle for their yearly supplies. As soon as the garage is fixed, Frank and Carmella will reciprocate and a few weeks later they will process the pork specialties.