Queens of flour power

Rolling pin in hand, Sue Wallace throws herself into preparing Italian dishes under the eyes of three sage experts.

Flour is flying and rolling pins are moving at record pace at the Three Nonnas cooking class in the King Valley.

The matriarchs - Katrina Pizzini, Josie Politini and Barb Sartori - are well known for their cooking expertise and enjoy sharing their culinary secrets.

The three nonnas, who arrived in the King Valley as young brides, are passionate about where they call home. "It's such a beautiful part of the world," Sartori says.

The King Valley stretches from Wangaratta 75 kilometres south into the Alpine National Park and includes the towns of Oxley, Milawa, Moyhu, Whitfield, Cheshunt and Myrrhee.

The area has a colourful history, with tales of legendary bushrangers, the Chinese planting market gardens during the gold-rush days, and Italian immigrants who in the 1940s and '50s discovered a little patch that reminded them of their beloved homeland.

Today's menu features quail stuffed with porcini risotto, calzone and pasta served with traditional pork-rib sugo but before we tie our aprons, we enjoy coffee and biscotti - home-made, of course.

Then it's time to roll up our sleeves.

Pizzini, who opened her cooking school, A tavola!, at Pizzini Wines last year, demonstrates how to stuff tiny-boned quail with porcini risotto. "It's not hard," she says.


Before long, a baking tray is filled with risotto-stuffed quail.

A newly married Pizzini was taught to cook by her mother-in-law, Rosetta, after she and her husband Fred moved into a flat at the back of his parents' home.

The first time she attempted to make gnocchi, she decided it would be the last. "I vowed I would never do it again," she says. "You end up with flour all over the place." Years later, Katrina has been crowned the gnocchi queen of the King Valley.

She serves up thousands of the soft dumplings at the Pizzini Gnocchi Festival every November.

Next in the spotlight is Sartori, who runs the King Valley Cucina with her husband, Wally.

She demonstrates how to make a calzone, which is Italian for "stocking" or "trouser". It is a turnover made of ingredients similar to pizza, folded over and shaped like a crescent.

Sartori grew up on the outskirts of Melbourne, where she thought pasta was spaghetti from a packet with tomato soup tossed on top.

But when she married into the Sartori family, she soon learnt differently.

"When you work alongside them in the tobacco shed, you learn a lot," she says of Italians and their cuisine.

Her passion for cooking comes from knowing the food she works with.

"It's because we grow most of what we eat and we don't waste anything," she says. "And it's easy to cook when people are there to appreciate it."

Sartori says there has been a huge response to the annual Three Nonnas cooking classes, which are one of the highlights of the annual Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. To meet demand, four classes are listed in next year's festival.

Most of the guests are from Melbourne, curious to discover the nooks and crannies of the King Valley and find out why there's such a fuss over the region's food and wine.

"We want to pass on the Italian family recipes and celebrate the Italian culture," Sartori says.

Pins at the ready, we start rolling out the dough for the calzone and mix the filling of sauteed silverbeet, prosciutto and cheese.

The trick is to make sure the dough is spread evenly on the tray and you aren't too heavy-handed with the filling.

Once brushed with oil, they are sent to the wood-fired oven.

Next Politini, of Politini Wines, who has a reputation for her hearty Italian cooking, shows us how to make silky pasta served with traditional pork-rib sugo.

She is well known for her cannelloni, gourmet sausages and salami but her speciality is arancini - rice balls coated with breadcrumbs - a dish from Sicily, from where the La Spinas, her family, originate.

"Some people do them very plain, they just put the mozzarella and the meat in, but I put a bit more," she says.

"Everybody just loves them."

Politini says she started cooking as a teenager and developed a passion for food because there was no other choice.

"My mum didn't like cooking at all and I was at home, I didn't have a job, so I started cooking," she says.

"Then I got married and when you get married you have to do these things."

The Politinis once grew tobacco in the King Valley but, like so many others in the area, when tobacco became no longer viable, vines took their place.

Today the King Valley is perfect for winery hopping and has some of the highest-altitude vineyards in the country. You can taste prosecco, nebbiolo, sangiovese and barbera, verduzzo, brachetto and arneis as well as more uncommon Italian varietals and traditional wines such as riesling and shiraz.

Soon delicious aromas are wafting from the kitchen and it's time for lunch.

The three nonnas, who have been friends for 30 years, congratulate us on our efforts as platters of delicious stuffed quail, bowls of steaming pasta, fresh salad, hot bread and calzoni appear on the long tables.

Suddenly all is quiet as we tuck into our Italian feast and toast the three nonnas of the King Valley.

Sue Wallace was a guest of North East Victoria Tourism.


Getting there

Three Nonnas in King Valley cooking classes — March 3, 4, 17, and 18 from 10am to 3.30pm. At King Valley Cucina, 4515 Wangaratta-Whitfield Road, Whitfield. Learn old recipes at this hands-on, Italian-inspired cooking class from these three King Valley matriarchs.

Tickets on sale December 2, see melbournefoodandwine.com.au.

Staying there

Orange Tree Cottage, 4321 Wangaratta-Whitfield Road, Whitfield, 0421 570 133. See orangetreecottage.com.au. Three-bedroom renovated farmhouse in the heart of King Valley with views of the mountains — close to wineries and restaurants.

Mountain View Hotel, 4 King Valley Road, Whitfield, 5729 8270. See mvhotel .com.au. Stylish renovated motel units.

Eating there

Dal Zotto Trattoria, 4861 Wangaratta-Whitfield Road, Whitfield, 5729 8321. See dalzotto.com.au. Sip a Dal Zotto Prosecco while perusing the Italian-inspired menu, which boasts seasonal and regional produce featuring simple antipasto platters, delicious gnocchi dishes and handmade pasta. Open weekends only.

King Valley Cucina, 4515 Wangaratta-Whitfield Road, Whitfield, 5729 3604. Cosy restaurant serving hearty Italian food with warm hospitality, known for its wood-fired pizzas. Open Friday-Sunday evening or by appointment.

Mountain View Hotel, 4 King Valley Road, Whitfield, 5729 8270. See mvhotel.com.au. Try the new degustation menu in the dining room or tasty bar food.