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

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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

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