The Swiss Italians
“Without them we may not have the spa and the spa culture that we have in the region today.”
WRITTEN BY RICHARD CORNISH
Gary Thomas is a local chef and community activist. He also has a curious mind and loves stories. “Out at Eganstown,” he says, “Thomas Road intersects with Morgantis Road. That is the story of my family. While the Thomas side of his family came from Ireland, the Morgantis family came from a small village near Locarno in Switzerland called Someo in the Italian speaking canton of Ticino. “For generations my ancestors lived in this steep valley,” says Thomas. “The mothers would have 16 kids and, through poor sanitation and other factors, 13 of the kids would die. Then in the early 1800s there was better sanitation. Bang! The population went through the roof,” he explains. Many of the young men from Northern Italy and Ticino in Switzerland were sent to the goldfields of California. Many came to the Central Victorian goldfields. The names of their descendants are still in the local phone book today: Gervasoni; Righetti; Scheggia; Tinetti and Pedretti to name a few. "You won’t find any Morgantis,” says Thomas. “That line died out around here.”
Apart from the names, another reminder of the Swiss Italians is a world-famous recipe for a sausage. Recognised by the Slow Food organisation in Italy, it is called the Bull Boar. It is a mixture of coarsely ground beef and pork that has been marinated in red wine, that itself has been infused with classic spices such as clove, nutmeg, cinnamon or mace along with loads of garlic. They were always made at the beginning of winter when entire families would get together to cut up whole beasts and stuff them back into their own gizzards. These days you can buy them at various butcher shops in the district. Many consider the butcher at Newstead to have the most authentic recipe, basing it on the Gervasoni recipe (23-25 Lyons Street, Newstead.)
The Swiss Italian bricks and mortar heritage is self-evident. Drive out to Yandoit and the old streets are lined with Italianate two story villas that would not look out of place on the banks of Lago Maggiore. You can visit Australia’s oldest Italian built building at The Old Macaroni Factory (64 Main Rd, Hepburn Springs). It was built in 1859 by the Lucini brothers and you can take a tour of the historic building with its 150-year-old murals every Saturday. Then there is Lavandula Swiss Italian Farm. A heritage stone property dating back to the 1850s celebrates the Swiss Italian heritage with its Primavera Festival on Sunday 22nd October.
This year also sees a Bull Boar making demonstration and the Annual Lavandula Petanque Competition (350 Hepburn-Newstead Road, Shepherds Flat; lavandula.com.au).“The real legacy of the people from that part of the world is all around us,” says Gary. “The people from that part of the world were familiar with mineral water and spas. It was part of their culture. So when they discovered water pouring out from the springs in Hepburn, these migrants lobbied the colonial government to create reserves to protect the surrounding forest to maintain the water quality,” explains Gary. “Without them we may not have the spa and the spa culture that we have in the region today.” Gary has travelled back to his family’s home village to research the culture. “The people may have been peasants but they had a level of European sophistication. Even the shepherds can speak several languages,” he says. “Being migrants themselves and coming from communal societies, the Swiss Italians knew not only how to work together but to manage change. They were really accepting of others,” he says. “When the Eastern European Jews arrived to develop the spas in the late 1800s they were accepted. This region became a place people came to. The hippies in the 1970s. The gay community. What the Swiss Italians really left this region, is that wonderful broad sense of community.”
This month sees the 25th anniversary of the annual Swiss Italian Festa in Hepburn running this year from Wed 18th October - Sun 22nd October. It is a five-day festival that celebrates the legacy of the migrants who emigrated from the northern cities, regions and Duchies of the north of Italy and Ticino.
Swiss Italian Festa; swissitalianfesta.com