R U JOKING, GRANDAD BLOG 9th November 2017

Sad news for me reading that my favourite chef has died. He surely was the Grandfather of food.

There’s only one thing my friend Carluccio loved more than food – women: As chef who changed the face of Italian cooking dies at 80, critic WILLIAM SITWELL pays tribute

For The Daily Mail

The man who clinched Britain’s love affair with Italian food did not regard himself as Italian, he once confided to me.

‘I’m not British, I’m not Italian,’ Antonio Carluccio said. ‘I’m a citizen of the world.’ He accompanied this grand declaration with his wickedly broad grin.

More than anyone, Carluccio – who died yesterday aged 80, following a fall at his home – taught us to love the flavours of rural Italy. He was due to stay with me next week, to help present awards at a food festival, and I was so looking forward to seeing him and giving him an illustration I had just framed.

It had initially been commissioned to accompany a piece he wrote for the food magazine I edit. He loved that drawing.

The man who clinched Britain’s love affair with Italian food did not regard himself as Italian he once confided to me, writes food critic William Sitwell

Remarkably, the illustrator had perfectly captured Carluccio’s own memory, he said. He was depicted at his bedroom window, as a child in the 1940s, in Piedmont, north-west Italy. His father was the local stationmaster, and together they would forage for wild mushrooms.

All his life Carluccio was fascinated by mushrooms, the mouthwatering textures and tastes they could impart to a meal, and the almost mystical way they could thrive anywhere on the planet.

He had ornaments of them all over his home – everyone who knew him would bring him mushroom-related pieces of art as presents. Even the doorstep of his home in Wandsworth, south London, was sometimes adorned with one, in front of a mosaic of tiles that spelled out his name.

When he first arrived in London in 1976, he went foraging for mushrooms in Hyde Park. In some bushes by the Albert Memorial, he found a giant puffball. Taking it to a nearby restaurant, he asked permission to use their kitchen to cook it: ‘It was delicious.’

A chef from the start: A young Antonio, centre, sits at the table of his parents’ home in Italy where his early career began

But there was one thing he loved better than mushrooms, and that was women. He was a great romantic, the archetypal Italian lover, who was full of gruff and witty aphorisms on matters of the heart.

‘Sex is as important as food,’ he liked to say. ‘The one without the other is hard to imagine.’

Inevitably, a great romantic will have his heartbreaks. Carluccio’s first love, a woman called Inge, parted from him and went on to have two children. He said he was happy for her, but admitted it was a happiness tinged with envy.

He had two failed marriages, to Gerda from Austria and Francesca from Italy, before he decided to escape his troubles by moving to England. After arriving in London, he met and married Priscilla, the sister of the designer Terence Conran. At the time, he was in the wine trade. Priscilla was a brilliant businesswoman, and helped him set up and establish his restaurant as the place to go for an authentic taste of Italy.

Priscilla was a divorcee with children of her own and, though Carluccio was deeply fond of his stepchildren, it was a source of lifelong regret that he was never a father. They were married for 27 years.

Carluccio did find love again, with Sabine Stevenson, an archaeologist more than 20 years his junior. But the break-up with Priscilla plunged him into a deep depression, and in 2008 he attempted to end his own life by stabbing himself in the chest with a pair of scissors.

Close friends and family resolved to hush it up. The Press was told that Carluccio, suffering from exhaustion, had slipped while using a knife. But he told the truth four years later in his autobiography, A Recipe For Life, in which he admitted that he had been plagued by depression since the death of his younger brother in a swimming accident in 1960.

Carluccio had a 28-year marriage to designer Sir Terence Conran’s sister Priscilla (pictured together in 1994)

‘He was 13 and I was 23… [It was] the greatest of lifelong losses.’ He put on a brave front, writing, ‘It’s not in my nature to inflict how I am feeling on others. Indeed, I would go to great lengths, often at my most distressed, to keep how I was feeling from those around me.’

Reading those words saddened me, because I saw my friend so often at lively parties. He would beckon me and other friends over and entertain us with his stories. Often I would find I spent far longer with him than with anyone else in the room.

A beaming smile under a shock of white hair

After his ‘accident’, he stopped drinking, saying that abstinence helped him to manage his moods. But being the irrepressible Carluccio, I don’t think he was too strict a teetotaller. Bumping into him at a London club last summer, I offered him a glass of wine. ‘I don’t drink anything these days,’ he assured me. ‘Only whisky!’

And then he laughed, with that great dazzling smile that made all his friends glad to know him. He was full of folksy wisdom too: a favourite saying was, ‘Monday’s child is fair of face’. Of course, he had been born on a Monday, in April 1937 – his parents were Giovanni and Maria (she was just 16 when she married), and Antonio was one of five children in a seaside house in the town of Vietri sul Mare on the Amalfi coast.

When he was seven months old, the family moved north, to Castelnuovo south of Turin. One of Antonio’s earliest memories was of helping his mother at the stove, as she struggled with two more babies. He burned his arm, and had the scar all his life, but it didn’t put him off cooking.

‘Mealtimes were always family affairs. You can share your differences and your reasons for being happy when you eat together,’ he wrote. He loved to recall those memories. His smile beamed under that shock of white hair as he told me about buying ice cream in the village – ‘the most delicious ices I ever tasted… one of the formative flavours of my childhood!’

These memories were the inspiration not only for his nationwide chain of cafes (with 110 now in the UK, and more abroad) but for the books he wrote constantly. He kept a pile of notebooks on his dining table and wrote everything by hand in pencil, later to be typed up on a computer.

Beside the books was an overflowing ashtray. In the days before the smoking ban, I only ever saw Carluccio through a haze of tobacco. Right up to his death, he smoked 20 a day.

He always had a pile of walking sticks in the corner of his room too, which he had whittled from branches himself.

‘If you are a good boy,’ he once told me, ‘perhaps when the time comes I’ll take you out to look for mushrooms and give you a stick.’ That was a tease. Carluccio would never show anyone where he found his mushrooms.

But with everything else, he was immensely generous. The last time I visited his home, he produced a jar of pickled mushrooms, and placed them into my hands with a grin, as though I’d know exactly what to do with them.

I didn’t, of course. The jar has been at the back of my fridge ever since, playfully challenging me. Tonight, I plan to open it and try grilling the mushrooms on toast. And with every bite, I shall remember my friend.

Carluccio’s was founded in 1999 and has now expanded to include branches across Britain



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Highest chart position No.14 30th April 1977