Brescia-born chef Stefano Manfredi collects Italian seeds and grows them into a rainbow of Italian vegetables.
“My father was a big gardener,” says Manfredi. “When we came to Australia, we moved to three houses before we settled in Blacktown where he grew vegetables and leaves in pots. Once we had a permanent backyard he planted fruit trees and a veggie garden.” Young Manfredi wasn’t the least bit interested in gardening at the time. “I couldn’t have cared less! I just wanted to be down the creek on adventures with my mates,” he recalls.
That changed when Manfredi started cooking. “I took an interest in what was going on in the kitchen much earlier than I did with what was going on in the garden,” he says. “I started cooking in my late teens, but I’d always had this fascination with the kitchen and with the alchemy of cooking. How could my mother and grandmother get those two ingredients to make this great dish?” he remembers. “I didn’t put the growing, and the cooking, together until much later. Suddenly it dawned on me that you could trust the fruit and veg that you grew much more than what you bought.”
Manfredi started planting leaves and vegetables to use in his restaurants, and today has a vast kitchen garden at boutique hotel Bells at Killcareon the New South Wales Central Coast where he cooks for guests at his restaurant Manfredi at Bells, and as chef in residence at nearby Pretty Beach House, a private luxury holiday home. He divides his time between Killcare and Sydney, where his other restaurants Osteria Balla Manfrediand Pizzapertaare based in The Star at Pyrmont.
“I think its ingrained in Italians to plant things,” he says. “Even in the city, anywhere there is an Italian family you’ll find them growing something. They’ll concrete their backyard, but they’ll have plots where they’ll grow things,” he says. “I think it’s a connection to the land, it is ingrained.”
Manfredi is currently preparing his garden beds for a late winter sow and then spring. He uses seeds from Italian seed company Franchi, sold through The Italian Gardener.
The winter harvest has seen bitter leaves - radicchio, cime di rapa, and acres of parsley. “Parsley loves winter,“ Manfredi explains. “The cavolo nero, and cime di rapa are almost finished, the garden beds are being ploughed in and the beds being re-done, soon tomatoes will go in, along wth pumpkins.
“I am growing a Mantua pumpkin, is a dry pumpkin, perfect for puree, soups, and for the stuffing for pumpkin torteli which is what it is used for near Mantua,“ he explains. “It's a knobby elephant grey pumpkin and when you cut it, it cracks like a really ripe watermelon.“
Manfredi takes as much joy from growing as he does from cooking. “In Italy farmers markets are in every small town, they are everywhere and they are a way of life,“ he says. “That is largely because agriculture is so close to everyone, it is on the doorstep of every town, and of every city. In Australia produce still has to travel so far to us,“ he says. “So that means that farmers' markets are a weekly or bi-monthly event, rather than daily.“
Growing his own means Manfredi has ready access to just plucked ingredients every day, as he would in Italy. “There are so many benefits to be gained from gardening,“ he says. “The satisfaction of having raised something yourself, better health, better ingredients - just life really.“