By his ex-brotherin-law, Sir Terence Conran
Following Antonio Carluccio’s death this week, his friend Sir Terence Conran pays tribute to a culinary master full of wit and wisdom
With Antonio, it was endless food, endless cooking and endless laughter. He was always telling jokes; perfectly improper, off-colour Italian jokes that seemed to amuse him more than anybody else, but you found yourself howling and shuddering along with him. Then there was Antonio’s own laugh, that big laugh that would announce his arrival long before he stepped into the room. A crude, coarse cackle full of mischief and delight that came right from the heart of his belly. He may have grown up in the mountains of northern Italy and travelled to London via Vienna and Hamburg, but it was unmistakably the laugh of a cheeky young boy from southern Italy. It carried with it all of his spirit of generosity, warmth and passion.
Let us not be drawn in to caricature, though: Antonio had travelled to London to make something of himself and he set about that business rather seriously. He’d been working as a wine merchant for a number of years when he was introduced to my sister, Priscilla, at The Conran Shop, where she was creative director and head of buying, in the late Seventies. They fell madly in love, were soon married and Antonio became an adored member of our family.
Soon after the wedding, my then-wife, Caroline, and I rented a house in Sicily with the pair of them. He was desperately unhappy with the quality of the local restaurants, so we decided to take it in turns to cook meals ourselves. It was here I first truly discovered what a sensational chef he was – he took full command of the kitchen in no time. He had no training whatsoever, but managed to extract flavours from the ingredients like a master conjurer; a magician’s gift. Minimum fuss, maximum flavour, as he used to say, chuckling away to himself.
Through his contacts in the wine trade, Antonio knew the local vineyards very well and the holiday was a blissful, gastronomic delight that planted the seeds of an idea. Priscilla was always encouraging Antonio to get more involved with food and was terrifically supportive of his talent. At the time I had the Neal Street restaurant in Covent Garden. While considered a great success, the restaurant rather lacked management – we were just bumping along, really. We shared so many ideas about taste and the more time I spent with Antonio, talking for hours about food and devouring his cooking, the more excited I became about him taking on the restaurant and running it. Alongside his passion, charm and character he had a great wisdom and knowledge about food and cooking, and a real authority to him.
He radically made Neal Street his own, revitalising it from our Frenchbritish to a classic Italian menu that reflected the simple, generous rural cooking that he adored. I will never forget the wild mushrooms and truffles, displayed with great pride in season, that added so much earthy lustre to the menu. It ran successfully and modestly until 2007, when the landlord embarked on a redevelopment plan, but I know my sister dearly cherishes the memories of their wonderful time there.
One of their great earlier ideas was to take over a mundane space next door to the restaurant (an over-large entrance to our offices) and create a delicatessen. It was packed with imported Italian speciality food products and became a prototype for the successful Carluccio’s chain that really helped to make his name. His personality and burgeoning television career gave the business an instantly recognisible allure; they were a fantastic team and together they created a very important business.
His generosity of spirit – certainly with food – was legendary to all who knew Antonio, and whenever he came to visit, he’d bring a big bag bulging with masses of hams, cheeses and other delights from Italy.
I remember a particularly delicious visit to our home at Barton Court in late spring when my kitchen garden had asparagus – perfect, delicious British asparagus – sprouting abundantly. Among the other delights he’d brought along, Antonio had a bag of white asparagus he’d had flown in from Sicily. Anybody else and I may have taken great offence. We ate it with melted butter and parmesan, and he also rustled up plump Sicilian prawns. Then there were white truffles he’d sourced from his friends in Italy. Next was the cold melon soup he so adored, followed by artichokes alla Romana, pickled mushrooms, agnolotti del plin, ravioli from the Neal Street restaurant – and then the most tender roast baby lamb.
His peaches in wine could make you quiver, and Antonio would always insist you dip your cantucci in your dessert wine. Lunch with him always extended to eight or nine courses and stretched out for hours; his Italian philosophy never failed to fill our Berkshire home. His genuine adoration for the produce he worked with and the clear pleasure he took in crafting every course taught us to love rural Italian cooking.
On other visits, particularly in the mushroom season, he’d take himself off to the woods, foraging whatever was available; ceps were always top of his list, along with the ever-elusive British truffle. He’d bring back long hazel sticks which he could carve, and after dinner he’d sit quietly – relatively quietly – whittling away by the fire with a glass of whisky.
Such quieter moments were rare and the only real glimpse most of us ever saw of the demons that troubled him on such a deep but private level. He was able to hide them very well – too well, sadly. None of us will ever really know what Antonio faced up to in those darker times. I am no expert in such matters, but I do know it was very painful for those close to him to deal with. It didn’t make any of us love him any less though, and I will confess to missing the depth of our friendship in the years after Priscilla separated from him.
It was only later that Antonio was able to speak openly about battling depression. “I didn’t want the burden of people asking me what I, a successful man, had to be depressed about,” he confessed in an interview. “I concealed my real feelings, and I survived by telling jokes.”
A burly fellow, only his huge worker’s hands gave away just how hardworking he was; they told the story of all that foraging, cooking and whittling.
I remember another occasion, Christmas at our home in Provence. The whole of France was white with ice and we hunkered down. Antonio cooked from daybreak to nightfall.
He was very well liked in the food industry and I thought it was extraordinary to watch him on television because he was a natural. He’d come a long way but when he was at his happiest he was still the little boy with all the cheekiness of a southern Italian. Endless cooking, endless food, endless laughter – that is how I’d like to remember Antonio.
‘Minimum fuss, maximum flavour, he used to say, chuckling to himself ’
Godfather of food: Antonio Carluccio, right, when he released his autobiography, A Recipe for Life, in 2012; above, Antonio with his wife Priscilla, her brother Sir Terence Conran and Lady Conran