Olivigna – a Melbourne agriturismo

I love secret or little-known places. There is an excitement that comes from experiencing something that feels exclusive and special. Olivigna is one such place. It is half an hour from the centre of Melbourne and feels like a tiny bit of Italy nestled in the suburbs. I was invited to attend a cooking class there last Sunday – an italian dessert master class, held in a corner of their restaurant. As soon as I arrived I felt like I had landed in an agriturismo in the hills of Tuscany.

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Piera, a former chef of the restaurant Ladro, was our teacher for the day. Piera hails from Bologna and has a lovely teaching style and forthright (old school italian) ideas on food, cooking and the shared table. She seemed to cook a bit all’italiana, with a handful of this and a glug of that (the same way my mother has always done) as she prepared dough for grissini, cannoli and bomboloni (italian style doughnuts). She made dough making look so effortless and natural and won my heart when she added a glass of red wine to the dough for cannoli (what a brilliant idea!).

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After Piera showed us some of her dough making techniques, we helped out a bit with the rolling of grissini and the rather precise making of bombolone balls (they have to be very smooth and require a lot if hand rolling). We later shared a light lunch of prosciutto, salame, marinated vegetables, Olivigna olives (which were divine) and our own grissini we’d made with Piera in the rustic lolling private dining room (the “cantina”). One of the owners, Anna Gallo came to the table for a chat. She told us a bit about the history of Olivigna – how it had been a dream for many years and was now a reality. How they planted olive trees, citrus trees and vines and were looking forwards to the still being installed, which would be used to make grappa. The olive oil we had with lunch was the Olivigna brand – a lovely green-yellow colour and not too powerful. We shared a glass of the Olivigna limoncello after lunch – it was served in chilled tall glasses and certainly packed a punch. I could have drunk several glasses, it was just delicious. Olivigna is a boutique winery, olive grove, distillery, restaurant, venue and more than a bit like an Italian agriturismo – I don’t think it will be a secret for much longer! I can’t wait to return to have a meal at the restautant.

The recipe for grissini below is not quite like the ones that Piera made – she added sesame seeds and rosemary to the dough. Rather they have fennel and garlic (recipe first posted here). They are rustic looking and great to have with a Negroni or a glass of Prosecco.

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Fennel and garlic grissini

makes 20
200g (1 and 3/5 cups) strong white four
50g (2/5 cup) semolina
2 teaspoons dried yeast
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
2/3 cup warm water
Fennel oil:
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Mix the dry ingredients (flour, semolina, yeast and salt) in the bowl of an electric mixer. Combine the water and the olive oil. With the mixer running, slowly pour in the water/oil and mix until a smooth dough forms. You could also do this step by hand, kneading for about 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover in plastic wrap. Set aside in a draught-free place for about an hour until it has doubled in size. Punch down the dough and knead for a minute by hand and place in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for another 30 minutes.

In the meantime, mixture the crushed garlic and sea salt with the olive oil in a shallow tray. Scatter in the crushed fennel seeds. You will be rolling the shaped grissini in this oil before baking. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F

Punch down the dough and divide in half and divide each half into 10 small balls. Shape each ball into a cigar and using both hands, roll and pull the ends of the dough so a cylinder forms, about 20cm/8inches in length. Toss each grissino in the oil and then place on a lined baking tray, making sure there is room to spread between each bread stick.

Bake in a 200 degree preheated oven for 12 minutes and then turn the grissini over to bake on the other side for about 5 minutes. They should be golden. Place on cooling rack and eat when they have cooled completely. Store in an airtight container for up to five days.

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