I’ve got something a little bit different for you today. I have an extract from Stephen Phelps new book A Recipe for Disaster.
Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the tour for some fantastic posts.
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 .
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.
If you’re old enough to have been watching TV for two or three decades you might have noticed a change that has taken place. It’s music. 25 years ago music was pretty much confined to music programmes (Last Night of the Proms, that sort of thing). Now it’s everywhere. In fact I think they even put it on News Bulletins these days. Like it or not, when you’re making a TV series you need music, lots of it. And it can get really expensive unless you can make your own (I can’t). So this was a bit of a headache for our little team trying to make the Cookucina series on a completely non-existent budget. The problem was solved for us one evening, though, when we went to shoot at a Sagra. What’s a Sagra? Read on….
Massimo, Adele and the Sagra
Sagras are a big institution in these parts. They’re a sort of annual village fair, held in most of the tiny villages up in the hills round here. They mostly center around food (of course!). Within a few miles of Sarnano we have Sagras in honour of polentone (big polenta), fresh-water prawns, strozzapreti (pasta that’s shaped like a priest’s collar. Its literal meaning is “priest throttler”) and even frogs. That evening there was a Sagra on the road up out of town in honour of vincisgrassi.
This is a real local treat. Legend has it (and you can read this in one or two cookbooks) that it was named after an Austrian General Alfred Candidus Ferdinand zu Windisch-Graetz who fought in the Napoleonic Wars. It is true that the Napoleonic Wars extended throughout Northern Italy and even down into the central provinces. Indeed one of the most celebrated of its battles took place just down the road from us at Tolentino in 1815. But it seems to me highly unlikely that this is the real derivation of the name. It’s not even that vincisgrassi sounds or looks much like Windisch-Graetz – unless you take your glasses off and squint a bit.
So on the night of the porchetta furnace interview I had us down to pay a visit to the vincisgrassi Sagra. I had been to it in previous years so I knew what we were in for. Apart from delicious vincisgrassi (and I am prepared to bet that none of the people who made it that night had ever heard of Alfred Candidus Ferdinand zu Windisch-Graetz) served with a glass of local Rosso Conero or Verdicchio di Matelica, all for a knockdown price, there would also be dancing, music and a fresh evening breeze coming off the mountains. Tam would be happy! What I hadn’t realized, though, was that we would make a major breakthrough that evening in what the whole series was going to feel like. More accurately, what it was going to sound like.
There was dancing. There’s always dancing. Mostly it’s good old-fashioned hang-on-to-your-partner sort of dancing. But I was taken a bit by surprise when we arrived to find the locals were line-dancing. And looking as though they were having fun. Which struck me as unusual because normally line-dancing sends a chill down my spine. My father took it up at the ripe old age of 75 and it sounded as though it was quite a laugh. Then I discovered that my cousin was practically a professional, so it seemed that she was going to be a good way into it, once I had decided I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The chance came when I got an invite to my cousin’s wedding anniversary. I was late (I generally am, I must be turning into an Italian) and I walked into the room to find that the line-dancing had started, about forty of them moving in perfect unison across the floor. The trouble was it didn’t look like fun at all. In fact they were so intent on getting it right, so deep in concentration, that it looked more like the march of the living dead. I have never seen a bunch of people looking so miserable doing what they enjoy. Which is why it came as such a surprise to see a bunch of Italian country-folk laughing and smiling and chatting with each other as they moved across the open-air dance-floor in, well, not exactly perfect unison.
But that wasn’t the biggest surprise of the evening. It was the music they were dancing to. Provided by a duo from a village about 30 miles away, as I discovered later. There was a guy in his forties playing the fisarmonica, the squeezebox which is the basic instrument of traditional Marchigiana music. He was brilliant, and could play anything from Bach to the Beatles. I expect I am exaggerating a bit, but not much. He was great. But if anything he was eclipsed by his partner, a stockily-built, twenty-something girl singer with a truly wonderful voice. I don’t watch X-Factor programs, but if I did I would not have been surprised to see her sweeping the board. But, of course, she lives in rural Italy and sings in Italian, so there’s not much chance of that.
A singer we did not need, but it suddenly dawned on me that Massimo and his fisarmonica were just the thing we needed for the soundtrack to the series. Local music played on a typical local instrument and everything either trad. (traditional) or written by Massimo himself, so that he was able to grant us all rights, in all media (currently existing or yet to be invented), everywhere, and forever (we are nothing if not comprehensive, we TV producers). And he signed it all over for a very reasonable price, too – presumably in expectation of fame and fortune. Luckily, we wanted only instrumental music, so there was no need to cut a deal with Miss X-Factor, though maybe we would have stood a better chance of making money if we had.
In fact Massimo’s music works brilliantly for the series, conjuring up just the right degree of tradition and history without making the series feel like something from the archives. Massimo and Miss X-Factor are two very talented individuals and deserve all the success they get, though I suspect they are quite happy living their normal life here in Le Marche and turning out for the occasional Sagra. Miss X-Factor looked a bit like Adele, who is one of the few huge stars/talents who has been able to keep the insanity of the music business and international fame in its place, maintaining her ability to live the normal life from which she was plucked. One of the few truly great talents to emerge in recent years, she often disappears from public life for months, maybe years, at a time, carrying on with normality who knows where. Come to think of it Miss X-Factor sounded a bit like Adele too – do you think it’s possible…? No, surely not…
Many thanks to Rachel Gilbey and Stephen Phelps for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour.
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For a chance to win this fantastic bundle including Biscotti artigianale, local honey, 3 x DVD of the Cookucina series plus a signed copy of A Recipe For Disaster click the link below.
About The Author
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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