Celebrated Italian chef Stefano de Pieri talks to BeanScene about calling regional Victoria home, the need to preserve Australia’s largest food bowl, and the origins of the real caffè latte.
Stefano de Pieri is amazed at how Australia’s coffee culture has evolved. Over the past 30 years, he’s watched consumer demands transition from “hot coffee” orders to discerning set temperatures, and the rise of the at-home barista. But most of all, he’s amazed at the nation-wide respect for the humble caffé latte, which, back in his home down of Treviso near Venice in Italy, was nothing more than a decaffeinated children’s drink.
“On our farm, a real caffè latte was a decaffeinated drink called miscella leone or the lion’s blend. It had a very gentle flavour, like chocolate milk. I had it with milk every morning before school, sometimes with bread and sugar, and more often than not, with polenta. It was a plant-based mix of roasted ground chicory. Our mother simply poured hot water over it and let it decant. It was never an adult drink the way it’s consumed now. In fact, if you got to an Italian bar and ask for a caffè latte, they’ll serve it in a tall glass with hot milk as a remedy,” Stefano says.
“I got my first ‘adult coffee’, however, when I was eight or nine year’s old. I remember my mum took me into the city to buy a suit for my first communion, and then we went to a pastry shop. I had a sfogliatella pastry with a cappuccino, and that was a revelation.”
Stefano migrated to Australia in 1974. In his youth, he recalls visiting Melbourne’s iconic Italian coffee institutions: Pellegrini’s, University Cafe, and Brunetti, a place he’d always get a reliable coffee with a cannoli. He calls Grinders founder Giancarlo Guisti a “good friend” and “absolute pioneer”, and credits Caffè e Cucina founder Maurizio Terzini for giving coffee a “bit more of an identity” in Melbourne around 1989.
“Like many people who have been in the industry for a while, we had the privilege of being among the first to introduce coffee to our respective communities. Of course, there was a generation before mine that can claim to have introduced coffee machines into Australia, but in the beginning, there was very little knowledge about properly maintaining machines. Many were kept in poor conditions and the coffee was often ground and left until the next customer ordered one,” Stefano says.
“Twenty-five years ago, a big revolution took place. People finally understood that coffee machines had to be cleaned, maintained, and descaled, and coffee beans had to be ground to order and not before time or else they’d oxidise.”
Stefano worked in state politics during the late 80s and early 90s, until becoming disillusioned with his career. It was at this time he met his future wife who was studying in Melbourne. When he was taken to meet her parents in the town of Mildura, northwest Victoria on the banks of the Murray River, Stefano fell in love with the regional town and called it home from 1991. He saw it as an “opportunity for reinvention” and a time to move out of politics and start a family. Stefano even started his own café, which today still bears his name.
“When we started 25 years ago, it was a challenge to introduce Italian-style coffee to a regional community. People weren’t used to it. It was a daily rebellion from customers that our coffee wasn’t hot enough. This generation wanted hot coffee with a lot of froth, and the typical cappuccino. Slowly, the coffee scene developed, to the point that in my town of 50,000 souls, I can count a coffee machine for every 1000 people – that’s an awful lot of machines,” Stefano says.
Even when driving back from Melbourne on occasion, Stefano notes the volume of small coffee carts off the side of the freeway in remote locations like the Mallee.
“Obviously people can’t travel 550 kilometres from Melbourne to Mildura without a coffee,” he says. “I remember a conversation with the late [Australian poet] Les Murray who wanted to create a map of reliable coffee shops in Australia so that the traveller would know where to head for a reliable coffee. Well, you don’t need a map anymore, coffee shops are everywhere, even at McDonald’s.”
When it comes to critiquing a “good coffee”, Stefano looks for balance, strength, creaminess, and no bitterness. His first coffee of the day is milk based, then he abandons milk for a long black, and finishes his coffee quota with a “gorgeous espresso” in the late morning.
Stefano has made hundreds of coffees over the years, but the one thing that continues to disappoint him at his restaurant, Stefano’s Cantina, is the customer’s desire for a milk-based coffee after a five-course meal and several glasses of wine. “I’ll never understand it,” he says. “Coffee should be drunk according to the time of day it was intended.”
Sefano never had the ambition to be a restauranteur. He wanted to sell wine, bread, cheese, and salami, but says in the early years in Mildura, the concept of a wine bar was difficult to implement. Instead, he opened Stefano’s Cantina in 1991 serving antipasto, then introduced hot food until his business became more of a restaurant.
“We were among the first, if not the first, who did not offer a menu at our restaurant. We said to our guests, ‘just sit down and eat’. It was quite gutsy to say, and now the menu is more structured, but it used to be created at the whim of the chef – me,” he says. “But over 30 years, we have consolidated a style of sharing platters, which has now become a universal concept.”
With 2020 forcing the closure of many dine-in facilities, Stefano took to opportunity to hit the roads and film new SBS Food series, Australia’s Food Bowl with Stefano de Pieri. On this trip, Stefano explores one of Australia’s most productive regions, the Murray-Darling around Mildura.
“I found a great affinity with Mildura and its community. Although the river is a different colour, it reminds me of my river town back home in Treviso. I feel comfortable near the vicinity of water and the Murray is so fascinating to me,” Stefano says.
This new series was shot amid the folds of COVID-19 last year. Stefano says sadly a lot of content was lost in production due to lockdowns, state border closures, and social distancing.
“To have completed the show at all is a proud accomplishment given the challenging circumstances,” he says. “The intention is to introduce people to my district and one of the food bowls of Australia. I don’t think Mildura has been as properly recognised as say Daylesford and other towns because it’s not close to the city, but it does have a lot to offer.”
In the 10-part series, Stefano explores the connection between the food producer and the consumer, and the relationship between food and the environment it comes from.
“We’re at the crossroads of significant issues like climate change and the decline of our water supply, which is critical to our wellbeing and food production,” he says. “Television is meant to entertain but there are also some truths to be told in this series.”
Stefano is one of a handful of pioneers who have made food and wine more accessible to the country. He credits friend Nick Diamantopoulos for single-handedly replacing imported Chinese garlic in every Australian supermarket with home-grown bulbs, and producers like Maggie Beer who help professionalise extra virgin olive oil. Stefano is also proud of his efforts to lead the wine revolution.
“When I get to the pearly gates and Saint Peter asks me what I achieved, I would probably say, ‘creating The Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show’. We have now got people drinking a huge variety of different wines because we started importing new varieties from Italy. I’m proud to say that 21 years later, in every bar and restaurant you’ll find a Nebbiolo or Sangiovese,” he says.
A long way off visiting those gates, Stefano hopes his new show will inspire others and regional communities, to put themselves on the map.
“If people can see that people like Maggie [Beer] and Alla [Wolf-Tasker] and others can start a food revolution, even a guy like me – a former politician and public servant – then they can too,” he says. “Hopefully, I’ve served my community. Now it’s up to other communities to raise their own bar and welcome visitors and tourists and continue to deliver a great Australian food evolution.”
Australia’s Food Bowl with Stefano de Pieri premiers on SBS Food from 27 May at 7:30pm. The series is available after broadcast on SBS On Demand.
This article appears in the June 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.