I’m delighted to be taking part in Stephen Phelps’ blog tour today for A Recipe for Disaster : Cooking up a big Italian idea.
A Recipe for Disaster is a cookbook, a travelogue and the companion to Cookucina, a six-part TV series available on Amazon Video, iTunes and Google Play – see www.cookucina.com .
Today you can read an excerpt, watch the trailer, enter the tourwide international giveaway and don’t forget to check out the other stops on tour.
A Recipe for Disaster is a cookbook, a travelogue and the companion to Cookucina, a six-part TV series available on Amazon Video, iTunes and Google Play.
It’s also the entertaining journey of an Englishman struggling with the ups and downs of living in rural Italy. After giving up a successful career in television, Stephen found himself dragged back into a world he had happily given up when his neighbour, Lia, persuaded him to listen to her Big Idea – making a TV cookery series. But Lia speaks no English.
And Stephen’s partner, Tam, can’t cook. So, much against Stephen’s better judgement, the three of them embarked on a six-part series set among the rolling hills of the little-known, but spectacularly beautiful, Italian region of Le Marche. In the Cookucina TV series Lia teaches Tam to cook alla Marchigiana, while Tam translates. A Recipe for Disaster follows their many encounters with the real Italy – a world away from the picture-book ideal of summer holidays in Tuscany.
As the team try to construct a professional series with no funding they come to rely on the generosity of the Marchigiana people, while attempting to overcome the constant difficulties thrown up by those whose stubborn adherence to their age-old way of life is rooted in their beloved fields and woods.
A Recipe for Disaster is a goldmine of simple yet delicious recipes, while peeling back the veneer of television professionalism and opening the door to a world of Italian surprise and delight.
A Recipe for Disaster comes with unique access to Cookucina, the final six-part TV series, so you can see for yourself how the team cracked their problems and (just about) held it all together in a blistering heatwave.
Experience this contradictory world of vendettas and kind hearts through the laughter and frustrations of Stephen and the team, as you follow A Recipe for Disaster slowly coming to its surprising fruition.
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On the night of August 23rd 2016 the little Italian hill town of Sarnano, setting for our Cookucina TV cookery series, was rattled by the Central Italian earthquake that struck the nearby village of Amatrice, killing over 300 people. We survived (grazie dio) but our home did not. We had to move into “temporary” accommodation, where we now expect still to be living in 5 years’ time. There were two more on one Wednesday night in October, followed by an even bigger one on the Sunday morning. No-one died because we were all “ready” for them. Not that you are ever really “ready” for your frying pan to jump off the cooker, or for the walls of your house to wobble like blancmange. But we were ready in the sense that we knew to run as soon as the tremors started. “Did you know you were living in an earthquake zone?” we are often asked. Not really… earthquakes are things that happen to someone else, in some other place, at some other time, aren’t they? Well, we should have known. The warning signs were there for all to see, as you’ll be able to tell from this extract from A RECIPE FOR DISASTER written before the 2016 earthquakes struck.
EXTRACT FROM A RECIPE FOR DISASTER
Ortos and Earthquakes
Next day was a Saturday and life in the Cookucina house was going to be even more hectic than usual. The shooting schedule told us this was a cooking day. Mostly. Two recipes in the kitchen, morning and afternoon, and then dinner al fresco in the orto. Dinner in the allotment may not sound like much, but let me put it another way. Sergio’s allotment is a long thin strip of land that stretches out away from the Cookucina house following the contours of the old city wall. Our house is one level above theirs, and if we look out in the morning we can often see Sergio planting something out or fiddling with his roses or whatever people do in allotments. I generally call out a cheery “hello” in the hope that he’ll get the hint and drop off a basket of tomatoes or something on the way home. When I say “drop off” I mean it. He’ll leave them on the wall below our window and shout up to let us know they’re there. That way it’s me who has to do the fifty-three steps down, and then the same back up, to collect them. Sometimes, when I am feeling lazy, I will leave them there till I have to take the dog out. Can’t do them any harm, after all. They’ll just be ripening that little bit more in the sun. And living in a small community like this you don’t have to worry that they will still be there – nothing ever goes for a walk like it does in London. When I was away Sergio’s wife Lia would occasionally bring round meals for Tam and just leave them on the front doorstep if she was out. All nicely wrapped, of course, but without the slightest worry that they might disappear. If you are in Sarnano one evening, hungry and caught short without any cash, it’s always worth checking our front doorstep.
But I still haven’t given you a proper picture of the orto. The small path along which Sergio walks back the hundred meters or so to his house is called the via degli Orti, the street of the allotments. There are ten or a dozen orti in two long strips below the via. Each of them has the same characteristic shape as Sergio’s – long and thin, and following the gently curving contour of the old city wall. In fact the outer edge of Sergio’s, bounded by a low wall, is actually right on the city wall itself. The view from our window high above is one of a patchwork quilt of thin allotments, the rich earthy colors of the land streaked with lines of tomatoes or beans, intersected with a regular pattern of low walls. Two or three sets of narrow steps run down between them to give access to allotments on the lower level. It is a lovely view and remarkably different from the vista of roof-tiles falling away from windows on the other side of town. But it wasn’t always like this. These orti hold a sad secret, one which it took me many years to work out.
From the moment I first walked under the Brunforte arch and into the centro storico I had been fascinated by the history of this little town. I had learned about its founding in 1265, about how St Francis of Assisi had visited the area some forty years earlier during his travels across Italy, and how the town had been built on the castrum principle to protect itself against invaders. I also began to understand just a little of how a small medieval town like this might have worked. In the middle ages there were the same number of inhabitants as there are now, but all crammed into the tiny centro storico instead of spread out in the new development which has grown up around the old town in recent decades. I learned how taxes were based on the number of chimneys in operation on a dwelling. And how flour produced in the watermills of the surrounding countryside would be brought to the Porta di Pesa, the “Weighing Gate”, to be stored in a communal granary (now re-purposed as the local cinema – where else can you find a seven hundred year old cinema?). But then, in thinking about the relationship between the town, with its tight little streets running between rows of tall houses joined in a single unbroken run, and the countryside, where everything would have been grown before being brought to market in town, I began to ask myself why would they have had allotments? Who would have wanted a vegetable garden in 1265? And then I read about the earthquakes.
Italy is a seismic hotspot, and down the years many earthquakes have ravaged this region. In 2006 we felt the ground shake, as much of the ancient town of L’Aquila, 55 miles away, was reduced to rubble. Ten years earlier Giotto’s magnificent frescoes in the Basilica at Assisi, including a depiction of St Francis himself appearing before the Mamluk Sultan in Egypt, were damaged almost beyond repair by an earthquake. One day a few years back I woke up (possibly because the house was shaking slightly) with a revelatory thought. These regular shaped allotments weren’t just gardens designed by someone with a liking for straight lines and right angles – they had once been houses. That morning I flung open the shutters and, looking down, I could see not allotments, but a streetplan, each orto the footprint of a house like mine, where people had lived, loved and died, some of them possibly as the earthquake brought down walls and roofs already more than five hundred years old. It was on one of these footprints that we were going to dine that night after watching the sun go down behind the mountains, in the balmy evening heat, by the light of candles and oil lamps.
A poignant revelation …
Educated at Oxford University, I began working with BBC Radio, moving to BBC TV where I launched Watchdog and produced the investigative legal series Rough Justice. In Hong Kong for BBC World Service Television I oversaw the start of BBC World. I then spent twelve years running my own TV production company, Just Television, specialising in investigative programmes in the field of law, justice and policing. In particular, Trial and Error for Channel 4 which exposed and investigated major miscarriages of justice, winning the Royal Television Society’s inaugural Specialist Journalism Award in 1999. Recently I have been working as a consultant for Aljazeera English on major documentary projects.
In 2002 I took an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Writing credits include many plays for BBC Radio, my most recent being a drama documentary for the 30th anniversary of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. Books: The Tizard Mission published by Westholme Publishing in the United States, tells the extraordinary story of how Britain’s top scientists travelled in secret to America in the autumn of 1940 to give away all their wartime secrets to secure US support in WWII. A Recipe for Disaster is a book about living in Italy while trying to make a TV cookery series, Cookucina (now available on Amazon Video, Google Play and iTunes.
I have several other books and three screenplays in development.
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