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Umberto Raffaele Somma (1930–1989)

by Beverley Kingston

This article was published:

Umberto Raffaele Somma (1930-1988), cheesemaker, was born on 7 November 1930 at Piemonte, Naples, Italy, son of Giuseppe Somma, cheesemaker, and his wife Maria, née Amodio. Umberto’s grandfather was also a cheesemaker and his mother worked in the family business.

Sailing from Genoa aboard the Oceania, Somma arrived in Sydney on 2 September 1956. He gave his occupation as ‘barber’ but brought with him a 90-litre copper vessel in which to heat milk to make cheeses such as ricotta. Initially he found accommodation with a countryman at Arthur Street, Surry Hills, and worked as a labourer among fellow Italians. Sponsored by Umberto, two brothers followed him to Australia.

In 1959 Somma began making soft, traditional Italian cheeses by hand in a tin shed on the banks of the Hawkesbury River near Windsor, rented from a Calabrian friend. He used recipes passed down from his grandparents. At first he hawked his cheeses from door to door among the Italian community in the inner suburbs of Sydney, but there were problems. His English was not good and his Hawkesbury factory was constantly in danger of being closed, partly because there were objections to his method of disposing of excess whey, partly because he was not licensed. When—eventually—he was fined, the Italian consulate intervened, a licence was arranged, and the fine revoked. However, there continued to be problems in securing a suitable milk supply and in developing a market for his cheeses. At that time, for many Australians, cheese meant soapy, processed cheddar wrapped in silver paper inside small cardboard cartons, although it was possible to obtain good plain cheddar. At Yagoona, Sydney, the sons of a Parisian cheesemaker, Julian Brancourts, who arrived late in the nineteenth century, were among the early manufacturers of soft cheeses including cottage cheese and mozzarella.

A flood on the Hawkesbury River drove Somma to relocate his business at Wetherill Park, then at 27 Gerald Street, Marrickville. His Paesanella (meaning Peasant [or Country] Girl) factory produced mozzarella, ricotta, mascarpone, bocconcini and other traditional Italian varieties. In 1963-64 he returned to Italy for five months.

On 11 July 1968 at St Fiacre’s Catholic Church, Leichhardt, he married Teresa Magrino, an Italian-born machinist whom he met when she came into his shop as a customer. She joined him in the business. Though naturalised on 3 July 1967, Somma—who had dark brown hair and eyes and was of medium height and build—remained pure Italian, happiest speaking his native language. A passionate, generous man, he was hard-working and utterly devoted to his cheeses, his business and his family. When he died of chronic obstructive airways disease on 1 December 1988 at Camperdown, Sydney, his funeral was held at St Fiacre’s. His body was returned to Italy to be buried at Piemonte near his father and grandfather. His wife and their two sons survived him and continued the business.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Vondra, A Guide to Australian Cheese (1971)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 1982, p 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 December 1988, ‘Good Living’, p 7
  • Paesanella Cheese Manufacturers (, accessed 21 June 2011, printed copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. SP1122/1, item N1958/64019

Citation details

Beverley Kingston, 'Somma, Umberto Raffaele (1930–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 November, 1930
Piemonte, Naples, Italy


1 December, 1989 (aged 59)
Camperdown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.