The first edition of Cookucina introduces us to the two central characters, TAMSEN COURTENAY and LIA ROCCHICCIOLI (pron. “rock-ee-cho-lee”), and the relationship between them. Lia is Italian and a professional chef. She is teaching Tamsen to cook Italian country-style – “simple food, beautifully cooked”, as she puts it. Lia is also having English lessons from Tam, so that in Cookucina we can learn not only Italian home-cooking but also some basic kitchen Italian. The programmes are part-subtitled as well as translated by Tamsen “on the fly”. This first programme also introduces us to the beautiful but little-known region of Le Marche, and the almost perfectly preserved medieval hill town of Sarnano where Lia and Tamsen live and work, and where the series is set.
In each programme Lia shows Tamsen how to cook three dishes, a starter, main course, and a dessert. But they also travel the region to meet interesting people in beautiful places as they gather their ingredients. Cookucina is not just a cookery series, it’s also a chance to sample genuine Italian country life at its simplest and best.
In this first programme, Lia cooks grilled peppers with home-made labneh, trout baked with summer vegetables, and pears in Marchigiana red wine. The two women travel across the Sibillini mountains through a national park to buy their trout from a farm at the head of a mountain stream. They walk through the immaculate vineyard of the Cantina di Saputi in search of the perfect red wine, select pears from Gino the local greengrocer, but go no further than 20 meters from the Cookucina house to pick huge and succulent peppers grown by Lia’s husband Sergio.
Programme two reprises an introduction to the two women and the relationship between them, and takes another step in revealing the rich landscape of Le Marche to the viewer. Lia’s first dish is acciughe al verde, anchovies with parsley, so Lia and Tam get to meet one of Sarnano’s most beguiling characters, a man they call “the fish pirate”. Stocky, strong and always wearing a bandana, he brings fresh fish from the nearby Adriatic to Sarnano twice a week.
For vellutata di zucchini, a creamy soup of courgettes, we’re down on the orto, Sergio’s allotment, where everything grows at fantastic rate in the extreme climate of the central Italian mountains where summer heatwaves give way to massive snowfall every winter. And Lia’s dessert, crema di nonna Giudi¸ (nonnas, or grandmas, figure heavily in Italian country cooking) takes Lia and Tamsen to meet the extraordinary Silvano Scalzini who specialises in the history of food in the region while running a delightful little restaurant in a ruined castle perched on the side of a hill.
This programme gives us an opportunity to find out more about Sarnano, and to get out into the nearby woods with Tinker, the Cookucina dog, in search of a local delicacy – truffles. Today’s starter is a delicate fish mousse made with just about the ugliest fish you’ll ever see, so ugly that to call someone a “Scorfano” is a popular Italian insult. Lia’s main course is a pasta dish – Tagliolini con Tartufo, and it gives us the opportunity to get out into the heavily-wooded countryside of Le Marche, with Tonino and his truffle-dog, Fiuto, in search of truffles which can, if you find the right type, be worth more than their weight in gold.
Finally, Lia introduces Tamsen to a very special kind of torta di cioccolato, a chocolate tart that won’t make you fat because it uses neither flour nor butter. But it’s quite possible that all that good work may be undone, because the two women make a trip to the local gelateria, where we discover how Italian ice-cream got its world-wide reputation.
Lia and Tamsen open the fourth programme of the series up in the high meadows of the Sibillini Mountains where they’ve come to meet the unique breed of Marchigiana cattle that graze the high pastures during the summer months. Then it’s on down to meet a family-run business using time-honoured techniques (and a secret ingredient or two) to produce one of Le Marche’s true specialities, ciauscolo, a kind of soft salami that can only (so they say) be properly made in the climatic conditions of the Sibillini foothills. That’s the key ingredient for today’s starter crostini con ciauscolo e stracchino. Stracchino is a soft, fresh cheese that is mixed with ciauscolo to make a delicious light spread for the crostini. The name stracchino comes from the Italian word “stracca”, meaning “tired”, and the story goes that only milk from tired cows coming down in the autumn from the alpine pastures should be used to make stracchino because it is more acidic and richer in fats. Whatever the truth, the mix of the two makes a mouth-watering starter.
The main course today take us even deeper into history, with a visit to an artisan brewery in nearby Urbisaglia to find the right beer for pollo all birra – chicken with beer. From its hilltop position Urbisaglia overlooks the old roman town of Urbs Salvia, which straddled the road from Rome to Ancona before the Visigoths sacked it in the 5th century. Much of its floor plan remains, including the ancient amphitheatre where gladiators used to fight – presumably fortified by a beer beforehand.
Lia’s dessert today is a Ciambellone, a simple and versatile cake that the locals eat with dessert wine, or with cappuccino for breakfast. But the programme finishes on a historical theme with a medieval meal as the little town of Sarnano begins its annual festival of Castrum Sarnani, where the whole centro storico goes back in time and you can only buy your food by at the Taverna della Luna by changing your Euros into medieval money.
Ferragosto is the day Italy lets its hair down. In the middle of the traditional August holidays it coincides with the religious festival of the Feast of the Assumption, but mostly it’s when Sarnano comes alive and people take to the streets in medieval costume. Traditionally it’s pasta dishes and roast meat, but at the height of a blistering summer Lia prefers something lighter. Today’s starter is sformatini di zucchini, small cakes of courgettes and egg, flavoured with onion, basil and two kinds of cheese. Light, delicious and very more-ish.
Lia chose a light pasta dish for a main course. It’s called pasta Sibillini after the mountains that overlook the Cookucina kitchen in Sarnano, and it makes use of ricotta cheese that’s made right before our eyes in Maria’s country kitchen. Tamsen and Lia get a double lesson – in making not just ricotta but the pecorino cheese that’s part of the same process. And out in the farmyard they get to meet the sheep that produced the milk for both. Today’s dessert is a home-made semi-freddo all crema di nocciola – a kind of do-it-yourself ice cream that’s as easy to make as it is delicious to eat.
And this edition rounds off with a trip to a Sagra. They hold these open-air parties in just about every village in Le Marche. And throughout the summer you’re never far away from a Sagra. Like most other things in Italy they have a bit of a religious history, but really they’re about celebrating a particular kind of food – from prawns to polenta to pizza. Tonight it’s Pancetta, and another opportunity to sample the Marchigiana way of eating – simple food, beautifully cooked. All to the traditional sound of Massimo and his organetto.
The final edition of this first series of Cookucina takes us high into the mountains again, to the beautiful Lake Fiastra, a shimmering carpet of blue nestling among towering peaks. We’re here because this is the natural habitat of the wild boar – a local delicacy that Lia has chose for today’s main course. She’s making a salmi di cinghiale, a sort of wild boar stew made to a special Sarnanese recipe.
This follows a very special starter – special because it was actually made by Tamsen as the culmination of part one of her cookery course with Lia. It’s an onion soup and a recipe she borrowed from Silvano Scalzini, the food history expert from programme two. And to put it to the test, she invites a few friends round to dine al fresco in Lia’s orto perched on the city walls. It’s sure to get past the English, but what will the ever-demanding Lia make of it?
And after a very English onion soup, and a supremely local salmi of wild boar, Lia’s dessert take us deep into the gastronomic history of the area. It’s a torta di mele con zabaione. That’s a deliciously melting apple cake, with a very special type of zabaione. Special because it’s made not with fortified marsala, but with an ancient favourite in Le Marche, vino cotto, literally “boiled wine”. And that gives Lia and Tamsen the chance to meet Tonino who takes us into his laboratorio to show how vino cotto is still made the old-fashioned way – everything by hand, everything cooked in copper and stored in barrels made of different types of wood according to the taste desired. And, of course, vino cotto gives us a fitting send off to the series as we travel to nearby Loro Piceno for the annual Sagra di Vino Cotto, where we meet a barrel of wine that’s been on the go for over a hundred years and finish the series with a spectacular fireworks display lighting up the night sky in honour of boiled wine!