Agata Commisso

The rebel who now has a cause

Life has turned full circle for Agata Commisso since growing up at the back of her parents’ fruit shop in the Melbourne suburb of Albert Park.

Her mother Angela was born in Southern Italy and arrived in Australia in 1953 aged thirteen to join her father who had migrated earlier. Angela went to school to learn to speak, read and write English, but had no idea what an important role she would play in the future of the family business.

Angela got her first job as a ‘tea lady’ at sixteen in 1956 and was promoted to the very important job of putting caps on beer bottles. “It’s not surprising that one of her favourite songs was Slim Dusty’s The Pub With No Beer,” said her daughter Agata.

In 1957 Angela was introduced to Tony and an ‘arranged marriage’ was organised. When they started a fruit shop business Tony may have been the manager but Angela was his ‘rock’. Tony couldn’t read nor write in English or Italian. Like many ‘modern women’ of the sixties, Angela obtained her driving licence in 1966 and later learnt to type with the nuns at St Peter’s and Paul’s in South Melbourne.

Angela was the main link in the family business and she became the business administrator, secretary, and banker. As well as being a wife she was required to be mother, nurse, carer, counsellor and cook for Agata and her two younger sisters and younger brother.

Another task she embraced willingly was that of teaching customers how to cook her recipes. With Angela having so many tasks to perform, nine year old Agata was called on to help serving customers in the fruit shop.

“The cooking odours drifting in from the kitchen at the back of the shop intrigued the Australian customers and they would ask what my mother was cooking,” said Agata.

While explaining the dishes and ingredients, Agata’s love of cooking began to evolve, but as a fifteen year old she rebelled against the old family traditions. Life at school for young Italian descendants back then could be difficult. Many Australian palates had not yet acclimatised to the taste of migrant delicacies. “At school I was discriminated against because of my ‘smelly’ Italian sandwiches.”

It wasn’t only the teasing she received at school that prompted a rebellion at home but the family’s way of life. “At Moomba and on long weekends, friends would go away for holidays. My family would get together and bottle a thousand bottles of Passata sauce. After the Queen’s Birthday weekend, the kids would come to school and say they had been to the snow or away while we had killed a pig to make salami.”

Agata began to grow weary of the demands placed on her by the cycle of family life. “If it wasn’t Passata or pork time, there was Ricotta cheese to be made, or my dad and uncles would go and get a couple of goats and we would have fresh goat for a few weeks,” she said.

Each year her father and his brothers would make wine and even though the girls were not required to help in the actual wine making, there were bottles that had to be cleaned and washed. “If we weren’t involved in food or wine making, there was a steady stream of functions for the wider family to gather and share in the celebrations. Most times it was to someone’s First Holy Communions or Confirmation, Baptism and huge weddings.”

In 1976 after living at the back of the fruit shop in Albert Park, the family shifted to Doncaster. There had been no space to grow any produce in Albert Park and the move to a normal house and garden created great excitement. “Mum always had something cooking on the stove. She couldn’t wait to share her most recent batch of Biscotti (biscuits), always laid a tablecloth and shared the joys and sorrows of life when anyone came to visit.”

It was Angela who would later provide the inspiration for Agata to continue the family tradition of cooking and the wish to share everything her mother had taught her. At the age of thirty, single and still living with her parents, Agata ‘ran away’ from home. She spent the next six years in Portugal acquiring other cooking skills learning to cook Tapas and Paella.

“I went overseas to teach English thinking I would end up in Spain but I fell in love with Portugal where I taught Business English to adults in the workplace,” recalled Agata.

She learned Portuguese and Spanish cooking and collected recipes that were based on simple foods but bursting with flavour. “There was ‘to die for’ dried tomato pesto, Spanish tortilla made with potato, egg and garlic and Chorizo, a Spanish style salami.”

When Agata first returned from overseas she was employed in several temporary jobs and soon after met her future hus-band Michael. “During the Y2K I ended up working in the same building as Michael. We met in 2001 and, much to my parents relief, got married a year later. They had given up all hope after I turned forty,” she laughed.

In 2005 Agata was not happy working 9-5 in an office at the Royal Women’s Hospital and thought about going back to teaching. She started training in the work place during the week and cooking classes on the weekends. When Agata first started teaching cooking, her father complained that she was giving away all the family secrets. “But he was also happy that I was continuing the family traditions.”

Now based in Portarlington, Agata runs classes at Springdale Neighbourhood Centre in Drys-dale, in Portuguese and Italian cooking, especially the Southern Italian (Calabrese) recipes she grew up with, making salami, sausages and caponata (the source of the ‘smelly’ sandwiches of her schooldays). There are also classes in preserving surplus produce from the garden like zucchini, garlic, globe artichokes, lemons, jams and chutneys.

She also teaches an eight week Italian course at Springdale on Saturday mornings.

Michael and Agata work well together in the kitchen. “Among other things Michael carries the heavy boxes of tomatoes in tomato season, puts together the sausage machine at sausage time and helps with the washing up after the cooking classes.”

Michael speaks highly of Agata’s contribution in their other business, Bellarine Media. “Ag’s really good at time management and planning. That helps me estimate and track projects because it’s easy to get absorbed in the nuts and bolts detail of our web projects,” said Michael. “Ag also runs training sessions for new customers, patiently explaining it all.”

It is Agata’s intention to continue to share the recipes and traditions of the past that were once made out of necessity and are now made out of interest and for fun. With a book also in the pipeline ‘101 Ways To Cook With Eggplant’ it is obvious that Agata, as well as following in Angela’s footsteps with her love of food, has inherited her mother’s work ethic.

Agata and Michael’s business, Amore Cucina which basically means ‘Cooking with Love’ can be accessed at amore cucina.com.au and Bellarine Media 0407 687 971.