Graphic designer, printmaker and journalist Chips Mackinolty lives in Darwin and and Palermo. “Anything is possible in Sicily, and in some ways the impossible is more likely than not in this part of the world,’ he has said. This collection of his prints made in Sicily pays tribute to these “objects of beauty” and the men women who grow the glorious produce that they bring to markets across Sicily. Mackinolty’s exhibition of prints titled, The wealth of the land, opens in Darwin this week and then moves to Sydney and Melbourne. The following essay is from the catalogue for his exhibition.
I grew up in an area called the Hills District: the place of my childhood a semi-rural area of small farm holdings and related service industries — an infinite world away from today’s endless sprawl of Sydney suburbia.
I must have been about five or six years old when a group of local market gardeners got together and opened a green grocery, a sort of growers’ market, at the end of the shopping strip, and about 100 metres up from the pub.
The market gardeners were from Malta and southern Italy — Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia and Campania—and for our family it provided salvation from the brutal boredom of Anglo food.
The market gardeners provided produce undreamt of since British farming drove out the ancient Aboriginal patterns of nurturing and gathering bush tucker, and bending to seasonal cycles of reaping the wealth of the land.
I have no real childhood memories of the market gardeners themselves — just some of their kids from school. And we just knew the green grocer staff as “Italians”, with no thought for where they came from, let alone the dialects they spoke.
As part of the casual racism of the day, these farmers would have experienced a life as Wogs, trying hard to excel in the local community as “New Australians”.
These men and women — terroni as north Italians disparaged them — would have experienced the same struggles to make a living from the soil as they did in their homelands, but in a countryside vastly different to the lands and skies of the Mediterranean.
But for me that mattered little.
Their little tin-roofed, fibro-walled growers’ market shop on the Old Northern Road was a place of wonder. For the first time there were capsicum and chilies; different varieties of tomatoes and pumpkin, eggplants and beans; spring onions and rocket and zucchini; garlic and an exotic array of herbs never seen before in the district.
Different ingredients demanded different ways of cooking. As a result of the market gardeners we dined on meat and sauces seasoned and cooked with wine, and were treated to zabaglione when we had special guests.
And if our kitchen in the ramshackle weatherboard cottage we lived in occasionally smelt like a Wog kitchen … so what? Mum was never much for the Sunday lunch roast anyway, so pasta was our weekend fare.
Of course we still had the cuts and styles of cooking meat that came from England but, led by Mum and supplied by our Mediterranean friends, we experienced new ways to think about food and cooking.
Half a century or so later I find myself living in the Vucciria, the oldest market in the historic centre of Palermo, the capital of Sicily. A market that goes back to Arabic times, and still bears powerful traces of French and Spanish hegemony. And which still reverences dialect over formal Italian, where cooking is done with àgghia and not aglio — let alone garlic!
Most days I have a couple of beers at the Taverna azzurra, sitting down with Pasquale who runs a tiny fruit and vegetable stand across the discesa di Maccheronai.
I’d noticed the obvious: that the fruit and vegetables in the Vucciria, and at the larger Capo and Ballarò markets, were always fresh — but also astonishingly seasonal. A particular kind of bean, for example, would only be available for a couple of weeks, then disappear to return a year later. And some things are just never there, totally unlike the insane “fresh grapes flown in from California” regime available in the rich West.
Sure, some things come into the markets from other places in southern Italy and abroad—but in large part the fresh food available here is intensely local, unmediated by the vast food distribution chains seen in so many other places.
It’s not an accident that the Slow Food Movement started in Italy nearly 30 years ago.
Customers here will wait for the first broad beans of the season to pile up in the wooden trays and crates, for the first fragoline or, dear God, the first fresh piselli, to be hustled into our narrow streets on the backs of Vespas or Ape.
And yes the trays and crates are still made of wood, recycled and re-used and re-used, and re-used again, until they fall apart and are fed to the bread and pizza ovens of the neighbourhood. At first the primary colour labels look like pre-Pop Art 1950s retro but soon it is understood that they are designs that have stood the test of time.
But it wasn’t until Pasquale arrived one day, a few weeks before Christmas, with a tray of the most gorgeous red peppers, bunched with gold ribbon, that I really started looking at the fruit and vegetables of the markets. Not just as changing arrays of produce, but as objects of extraordinary beauty.
This collection, mostly from Vucciria but also from Ballarò, as well as the monthly organic food market in Palazzo Steri, is a tribute to those “objects of beauty”, but also to the men and women who have grown them, who bring them into markets across Sicily, as well as to those who vie with each other to sell them from street stalls, big and small.
As we face the potential disintegration of massive carbon intensive food distribution networks, not to mention the ravages of climate change, it is likely that all of us will have to re-think about locally grown fresh foods, and the ways they get to the kitchen or restaurant table.
How, indeed, we should harvest the wealth of the land.
This essay was first published on Bob Gosford’s Crikey blog Northern Myth.