IT was the picture on the side of a can of La Gina diced tomatoes that piqued my interest.
It showed the brand’s founder, Carlo Valmorbida, racing somewhere in Italy, probably soon after the end of WWII — at the wheel of what looks like a circa 1947 Fiat 1100 S.
And after saying he had a zest for life, that’s where the motorsport bit stopped, the label going on to say he had a passion for fine Italian produce.
Some research shows he competed in the 1949 Mille Miglia in a Fiat 1100 L4 with co-driver Sugliech, but did not finish the tortuous event.
However, his home town, Valli del Pasubio, tucked high up in the northern Vicenza province, didn’t offer much scope for his car and produce passions, so in December, 1949, he migrated to Australia — – one road there goes through 52 tunnels.
Apparently he planned to make a dollar or two in Melbourne so he could buy a racing car.
But after working at Astor Radio Corporation and later in sales for MacRobertson’s Chocolates, Carlo and his his brothers Mariano and Saverio bought Agostino’s specialty food and wine store in Melbourne’s Swanston Street in 1951.
They then imported a variety of Mediterranean-style products including small goods and tomato products and the business, called Conga Foods, thrived.
Then they fired up Valcorp Fine Foods (think La Zuppa soup, La Bella cat beer and La Gina canned vegetables) and the company steadily grew to include Victoria’s Mitchelton winery and the Il Globo and La Fiamma newspapers.
Apart from the Italian foods, the group also imports Santamaria sardines from Portugal, olives from Spain and Greece, Tex Mex products from the US and Samoa coconut cream.
Other brands include Moro, Sole Mare, Val Verde, Green Valley, Saclà, Zanetti, Latteria Soresina, Squeaky Gate and dc Specialty Coffee Roasters.
“The important thing about Conga is that we’re not just an importing company,” the Conga family website says.
“Anything we can produce in Australia to European quality for comparable cost we will produce here.”
Carlo, meanwhile, met his future wife Elsie in Melbourne.
They had three children — John, Paul and Luisa — who, with their own kids, run the show these days.
Carlo died in 2010, aged 86.
He would have died a happy man, knowing he had come from a tiny village (current population 2500) and built up a massively successful food empire in Australia.
And the La Gina name?
Legend has it that Carlo was a huge fan of actress Gina Lollobrigida and decided to name his canned tomatoes after her.
Which makes sense, since the expression “tomato” was often used in US films and some books to describe a good-looking woman.
Does anyone remember The Seven Year Itch movie? That was where Marilyn Monroe’s greeted her downstairs admirer with “Hi. It’s me, the tomato from upstairs.”
Oh, the can of tomatoes.
I bought it as an ingredient to a beef stew I was making in my crock pot.
Turned out great, and I’m glad I spotted that little image of Carlo belting his Fiat around a circuit somewhere in Italia.
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