When a loved one dies, there are many ways to keep their memory alive. For Bungendore local Ashley Violi, connecting with local gardeners has given him a way to continue his Nonno’s legacy.
Rocco ‘Roy’ Violi – Nonno, to Ash – was born in Italy in 1926. Migrating to Griffith in the early 1950s, Rocco ended up in Canberra with his wife Maria and five children in 1969. When he came to Australia, Rocco had precious cargo on board: a few tomato seeds from his hometown of Plati, in Reggio Calabria.
For 30 years, Rocco was head cook at the Royal Canberra Hospital, and Maria catered the nurses’ dining room, but outside of work hours, you could find them gardening and cooking at home. Ash told Region it was impossible to visit his grandparents’ house without leaving with shopping bags full of fresh produce from Nonno, and a full belly.
“I remember once trying to schedule a visit so that Nonna wouldn’t spend all day in the kitchen, but sure enough, she still had a pork roast sitting on the table at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon!”
Pride of place in the garden were Rocco’s tomatoes, grown from those few smuggled seeds. Rocco’s tomato is a sauce variety – probably a cultivar of the popular San Marzano variety – which is ideal for making passata, the basis of many classic Italian dishes. Each year, Rocco would save the seeds from the biggest, healthiest fruit for planting the next season.
Ash remembers having big family lunches under the grapevines in his grandparent’s Canberra garden. As he got older, he became more interested in learning family recipes and growing his own food.
“Their love of growing their own food, preserving and sharing it really resonated with me … I feel like it was a special connection we shared – whenever I saw him, the first thing Nonno would always ask was, ‘Ashley, what have you got in your garden?'”
After Rocco’s death at age 95, Ash’s father handed him an envelope of seeds from the last crop of tomatoes and Ash started growing them in honour of his Nonno. When he harvested his own crop with his kids on the first anniversary of Rocco’s death, he decided it was time to pass on that gift to others.
Ash wrote a post about Rocco’s tomatoes in The Urban Homesteading Club (Canberra & Surrounds) Facebook group to ask if any local gardeners would be interested in receiving some seeds and growing the tomatoes.
“I was expecting maybe a dozen or so responses, but in the end, we got close to 150 messages from all over the region!” he said.
“It was quite overwhelming, and we’re honoured to think that this coming season there will be so many households and community gardens helping to preserve his legacy.”
Those who responded received an envelope with a few dozen seeds, a short bio about Rocco and instructions for growing the tomatoes. And all that Ash asked in return is that anyone who ends up growing these tomatoes should be generous with them, just like Rocco. Ash encouraged people to save and share the seeds, which are well adapted to the Canberra climate after 50 years of growing here.
“Rocco’s Tomatoes are for coming together, for celebrating family and friends, and for sharing,” Ash wrote in the note accompanying the seeds.
“We would love for you to continue to pass Rocco’s Tomatoes – seeds or sauce – on to others so that Nonno can continue sharing from his garden for many more years to come.”
Ash gifted seeds to more than 100 people through the Urban Homesteading group, with the remainder going to the Canberra Seed Savers Cooperative, which will continue to grow and save the seeds among their members, ensuring that Rocco’s legacy continues for many years to come.