You couldn’t get a more enticing book launch than this – an invitation to a Tuscan villa in inner city Sydney where you could spend several hours cooking an Italian banquet from scratch, before sitting down to eat and drink with colleagues. And the afternoon at Cucina Italiana was everything that was promised – and more!
Luciana Sampagna has run her cooking school from her house in Annandale for many, many years. She is all about celebration – celebration of life, celebration of love and celebration of food. From the minute you step into the home you are transported to another world – trickling fountains, mosaic tiles, a woodfire oven, an enormous communal table, hand crafted drying racks for pasta and wicker work “mandolinos” she imports from Italy that make a colander not only redundant, but outlandishly clumsy.
She is warm and witty as she gathers you around her, unlocking the secrets of making pasta from scratch, paying as much homage to the effect of the weather on the pasta as to the effect of the mother-in-law on the making of three day bread. Her explanations are littered with references to family relationships, festivals, life cycles and expressions of Italian culture through its food.
And so to the wooden cooking bench. For us it was flour, eggs and as much water as the gods would permit on that hot and humid February afternoon. Kneading techniques were explained. (Apparently it is about weight transfer through the knees. It is not about biceps and triceps). Pasta left to dry. Tortellini to fill and shape. Meanwhile there were plenty of breaks at the table to sample delights from her fabulous new book, Light of Lucia, with matching wines of course.
Light of Lucia is a collection of recipes, whose provenance is Luciana’s own family and friends. What is special about the book is that it is presented through the eyes of a little girl who grows up in an Italian family steeped in traditions, food, superstitions, saints and tales. Through the recipes and commentary, we get snippets of nonna’s wisdom (no doubt passed on while shaping the tortellini), we get the immigrants’ stories (connecting to their home by cooking it). We even get the recipes that will win over the new husband, and more importantly, his mother.
Luciana has divided her book into life stages so that it becomes not only a recipe book but an insight into Italian culture. The recipes themselves are achievable in the home kitchen. This is not about restaurant food and restaurant presentation. It is much more than that, although some of the mother-in-law food requires a little patience (in particular that three day bread).
And so for our lunch. We “launched” the book with recipes from the chapter on Il Battesimo (baptism), followed by tortellini in brodo, tagliatelle al ragu and pasta al cartocio. (Be impressed please. We made the pasta ourselves). We had the pane toscano – Tuscan bread - (fit for the most daunting of mother-in-laws) before finishing it all off with a symphony of desserts and Luciana’s rosolio, a liquor she makes with rose petals.
Needless to say, I am a complete convert. I’ve booked the family into the classes (including the gluten free option for one of us), I’m using her simplicity-itself mandolino at home, I am turning out some pretty good meals and I even wear the apron!
Meanwhile, Luciana herself can explain it all better. Here is the clip she made especially for Booktopia.