Flavours From My Italian Kitchen Garden: Bri DiMattina

An interview with Bri DiMattina — recipe developer, gardener & author of recipe book: Nostrana.

Nostrana means homegrown, ours; growing food with the intent of sharing it with others. Recipe developer and gardener Bri DiMattina’s book, Nostrana, sets out to rekindle the joy of the home garden and kitchen. Growing your own, creating in the kitchen and sharing with others.

In the book, Bri talks about how gardening kind of crept up on her. She’s always had some form of kitchen garden growing, even if it was just a windowsill littered with cuttings and seedling. She wonders if her tendency to garden was, perhaps, inherited.

Bri’s grandparents both immigrated to New Zealand from Italy as children, meeting and moving to Nelson when they had their children. Her nonna and poppa’s edible garden was enviable, Bri recalls, with every inch of their quarter acre property filled with vegetables and other edibles.

Influenced by her chef mother and her gardening grandparents, it’s no wonder Bri has been drawn to cheffing and seasonal recipe development, influenced also by her large home garden. Bri describes her garden as low maintenance, organic, slightly wild and a food-forest-like space.

Inspired by her garden, her nonna’s recipe book and her mother’s cafe, Nostrana is a nod to where Bri is from and who she is. Organised seasonally, and with growing guides for each ingredient, this cookbook shares simple and delicious recipes with fresh vegetables and fruits you can easily grow and harvest yourself.

The Stromboli-inspired recipes in Nostrana include: zucchini arancini, polenta corn fritters, tomato sauce and a divine lemon-chocolate pizza dolce tart.

We’re delighted to share this interview with Bri below, where she shares her keys to starting and enjoying the edible garden journey…

— Interview as told to Emma Sage.

Bri, tell us a little about yourself and your life as a gardener and recipe developer…

I have a large garden in Māngere Bridge (Auckland), a stone’s throw from the motorway – very city-ish with amazing volcanic soil. We bought the section well over 15 years ago, so it’s a large old-fashioned size that we would probably need to leave Auckland to find again. The house itself is an old villa with fireplaces. The trees that are trimmed never leave the property and become either mulch or firewood.

I grew up in Wellington and spent my school holidays in Nelson with my Italian Grandparents. My study and early career was in Hospitality Management, during which I worked in some great kitchens around Wellington. When family demands clashed with hospo hours, that led quite neatly into recipe-testing and writing. And gardening, of course! I entered national cheesemaking and gelato competitions with my recipes, some of which are included in Nostrana.

How did gardening become part of your life?

It really crept up on me. I have only recently started calling myself a gardener! I’d never considered it a hobby and yet I’ve been growing things for as long as I can remember, whether in pots or illicit spots in rental properties.

I remember as a kid loving the butterbeans from my grandparents’ garden patch and the minxy-faced pansies. As I got older my love of pansies became peonies, but butterbeans stayed an eternal favourite.

I always have cuttings or seedlings on my kitchen windowsill, so much so that in my current kitchen renovation I’m creating a dedicated permanent home for them.

What is your vision and philosophy for gardening and landscaping your property?

My garden is completely organic and spray-free. I don’t aim at self-sustainability, but being able to feed our family is a large component of my gardening.

It’s also about seasonality – fresh-grown basil or tomatoes, for example. I’ve always been on a flavour-chasing journey for the most delicious food, and my favourite part of each day is choosing some goodies from the garden to cook with and knowing that they are full of flavour. This has changed how I cook. My meals have become much simpler so as to highlight the existing flavours, rather than overwhelm them. I try to make the ingredients themselves sing.

What are your tips for creating an effective edible backyard?

My edible garden is focused on year-round provision rather than a huge summer crop for preserving. I prefer to grab a few things from the garden each day and cook with them that night.

I let a lot of things self-seed, which can be very untidy, but I have a number of plants that have existed like this for years now: perpetual spinach, carrots, parsley. Ridiculously, I even have tomatoes popping up in the lawn!

My biggest tip is to seed-swap. I’ve made so many great connections and gardening friendships through seed-swapping, gaining great new plants and advice.

What lessons have you learned along the journey of creating your garden?

It’s all about the soil. I know this is the most boring answer, but it’s true. The sooner you can move away from ‘bumping things up’ all the time and get sustainable soil, the sooner your plants will thrive.

I’ve learned a tonne of lessons in the garden, and I think that is part of the beauty of it. A little like in the kitchen, there is always something new to learn from someone. Gardening makes for a great community.

What are your favourite plants to grow, and why?

I’m a big fan of perennials: asparagus, rhubarb, my mandarin tree. Every year they supply copious amounts of produce for relatively little effort on my part. It almost feels like cheating as a gardener, and more like I just live alongside these plants, waiting with a knife and fork as the seasons draw close.

What would you say to encourage someone who is starting on a gardening journey?

Just start and start small. Choose one or two plants and get to know them. It’s fun at the beginning to choose everything, but that’s where it can get overwhelming down the line. Understanding one or two plants is less of a commitment, and you can slowly add to them when ready.

Choose plants you love and might ordinarily buy – whether it’s edible or floral, the success is so much sweeter when you’ve grown a favourite plant yourself.