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In My Kitchen: Marisa Gardiner keeps Italian cooking alive for grandchildren

Marisa Gardiner and her daughter, Erica Tonkin, both said it was important to showcase Italian cuisine for their younger family members due to the current restrictions on international travel.
Marisa Gardiner and her daughter, Erica Tonkin, both said it was important to showcase Italian cuisine for their younger family members due to the current restrictions on international travel.

"Most people who came to Australia after World War II have the same story," Marisa Gardiner said as she plated and then closely inspected her three, Italian dishes.

"Beforehand, everyone was working and things were good, but after the war it all changed. As owners sold their land, there was no where to work and people were scraping for food."

"And that's why we came to Australia."

For this week's In My Kitchen, Ms Gardiner whipped up her beef and pork lasagna, tomato and bocconcini salad and crostoli, traditional Italian pastries which are fried and sprinkled with sugar.

The lasagna, a recipe passed down from her mother, was a visual treat consisting of meat sauce, thick, homemade pasta sheets and lashings of béchamel and homemade passata sauces.

Born in Northern Italy some 45 kilometres north west of Venice, Ms Gardiner moved to Australia in the 1950s when she was just three-years-old.

"My dad was here working on a farm for one year before we joined him. He was 36 and my mum was 29. Neither of them could speak a word of English," she said.

Laughing, Ms Gardiner recalled a time her mother tried to purchase a colander using limited English.

"She was using her hands acting out how a colander worked, but it wasn't until she finally said 'water right through, macaroni stop' that the shopkeeper understood what she meant," she said.

In 1958, just eight years after arriving in Australia, Ms Gardiner's father purchased a farm.

Ms Gardiner recalls food being plentiful on the farm.

I don't know when any of us will get back there again, but for now this is my way of giving my grandchildren a taste of Italy.

Marisa Gardiner

"We had our own chickens, sheep and cattle. My mum used to create all sorts of things," she said.

"I learnt to cook from watching her. She never measured anything. I'd ask her how much of this, how much of that and she'd say just put a little bit in and then taste it. That's how we learnt."

Through hand gestures, Ms Gardiner acted out how she made her Italian dishes with great finesse.

She had used homemade passata sauce that she frequently made with her brother, Peter.

"We cut up the tomatoes, boil and drain them, and then put them through a special mincer. The pulp comes out one end and the skin and seeds come out the other. Then we drain the passata until it's thick," Ms Gardiner said.

Between layers of homemade lasagna sheets, Ms Gardiner spooned the hearty, meat sauce with the passata, adding béchamel in the middle to keep the lasagna strong in the middle.

"The béchamel wasn't in my mum's original recipe, it's my touch. It has a bit of ricotta mixed into it. Fresh herbs such as rosemary and basil are also important, they make all the difference."

At 18-years-old, Ms Gardiner moved out of her family home and began working in the telephone exchange where she met her husband, Kevin.

"He was my boss," Ms Gardiner laughed.

She has three daughters Marlene and Julie, and Erica Tonkin.

"I was born in Australia. The first and only time I visited Italy was in 1983 as a 10-year-old," Ms Tonkin said.

"As a kid I didn't really appreciate it much, but looking back I'm very grateful for the Italian culture and cuisine. Italians are so welcoming and seem to have so much life."

Ms Tonkin said she makes her mum's lasagna for her own children but again adds her own twists that suit the tastes of her family.

"Me cooking from mum's recipes has proved a little difficult because she would teach me the same way her mum taught her: adding ingredients from taste. I'd always say Mum I need quantities, I need you to write them down and she'd say: I can't, it's in my head!"

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Ms Tonkin said how important it was for her and Ms Gardiner to showcase the many tastes of Italy for the younger family members due to the current restrictions on international travel.

"My daughter was actually planning to visit Italy for the first time in September last year but obviously had to cancel her trip," she said.

"It's scary to think of travelling anywhere right now, but it can't last forever. For now we can just taste authentic Italian food from Mama Marisa!"

As a way to cleanse the palate after eating pasta, Ms Gardiner had also prepared a tomato and bocconcini salad with basil and rocket.

She said crostoli was also relatively easy to make.

"I combine flour, eggs, butter, lemon juice and a bit of brandy then roll it through the pasta machine. I lay out the dough and cut it. When it's ready I sprinkle a bit of caster sugar over the top."

Ms Gardiner has ten grandchildren and one great grandchild who is due to be born any day now.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had adverse effects on international trips which has resulted in a temporary travel ban.

To date, Italy has recorded over four million cases of Coronavirus.

Ms Gardiner said she has been back to Italy seven times in total and plans to return in 2023 but is skeptical if she will make it there or not.

"I don't know when any of us will get back there again, but for now this is my way of giving my grandchildren a taste of Italy."

Do you love to cook? We'd love to hear your story about what you cook and why, just like Mama Marisa. Feel free to share a recipe or two for you own In My Kitchen story. Send in your story here.

This story In My Kitchen: Keeping Italian food alive for her grandchildren first appeared on Braidwood Times.