My renewed appetite for life

Italian cookery writer, restaurateur and television presenter Antonio Carluccio has just published his autobiography. Sheena Grant caught up with him ahead of a visit to Suffolk

IN THE foreword to cookery writer Antonio Carluccio’s strikingly candid memoirs, long-time friend Raymond Blanc describes his shock at reading about the jovial Italian’s painful episodes of depression.

Raymond Blanc was not alone in his ignorance. It wasn’t something Carluccio advertised.

“I used humour as a mask to hide how I was feeling,” he tells me during an interview to publicise a book-signing visit to Bury St Edmunds on Friday.

The fact that most people thought of him as a good humoured, larger-than-life avuncular figure makes the revelations in his newly-published book Antonio Carluccio: A Recipe for Life all the more surprising.

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He reveals not just the depths of his depression but also his feelings of despair, self-loathing and even some suicide attempts, the last of which was in 2008 as his 28-year marriage to Priscilla, sister of the designer, Terence Conran, collapsed.

In a drink-fuelled haze he took a pair of scissors and stabbed himself in the chest, penetrating the pleural cavity close to his lung.

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Had it not been for the quick-thinking of his personal assistant in calling for help and getting him to hospital, who knows what might have happened?

As he recovered in hospital, followed by a stint in a Priory clinic, those around him put out a statement saying that he had an accident while sharpening a knife, a story he stuck to when later asked about it by journalists.

But now he wants to set the record straight – and boy, has he done so.

What sort of reaction has he had from people to his honesty, I wonder.

“Very positive,” he says. “I hope anyone reading the book will get some encouragement if they are in the same situation. Depression is nothing to be ashamed of. It is very common.”

Antonio Carluccio is 75. He has been married three times but the family with children of his own that he once longed for has eluded him.

He’s philosophical about it now, saying he’s happy to make a fuss of the children of other people in his life.

But there is a real thread of sadness running through the book, despite all his success and incredible life experiences.

His cherished younger brother died in a swimming accident at just 13 years old, an episode that cast a long shadow.

“I did not know it was so deep until I started writing about it,” he says.

In fact, he tells me, he never intended the book for publication when he first put pen to paper.

“It was just my own examination of my own life,” he says. “I wanted to know who I am and what my life is. Then the publishers saw it and it went from there. I did have reservations and there are, of course, bits and pieces that have not been told because of the other people involved. They were too private.”

Throughout the book Carluccio features favourite recipes that he connects with different times in his life and explains the story behind the dishes that form the touchstones of his life.

A love of good, simple Italian food is what has always driven him but you get a sense throughout the book that this pleasure has in a way been at times tarnished by the success it has brought him.

He writes about how, on leaving the Priory, he longed for “restorative Italian sunshine, to be cooking in the old kitchen of a Piedmont farmhouse… happy and carefree, back in the days when Carluccio was just a man and not a brand”.

And yet, he acknowledges all that his love of food and his ability to communicate that passion has given him.

Antonio Carluccio was born on the Amalfi coast in the south of Italy in 1937, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

He learned to love food as a young child, with his mother’s wonderful home cooking at the centre of family life and, in Piedmont, at the age of seven, he started his life-long past-time of hunting and collecting mushrooms and funghi with his father.

He began cooking pasta dishes on a two-ring stove for himself and a flatmate while living in Vienna and, after time spent in Germany, he moved to London in 1975, with nothing more than a suitcase and his dog.

While learning English he traded as a merchant of Italian wines and in his spare time continued his hobby of studying and collecting wild mushrooms, of which he found numerous varieties growing in the countryside close to London, almost completely undiscovered.

In 1981 he took over the Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden, which traded for 26 years, and in 1991 opened a deli next door. Seven years later he started the first Carluccio’s Caff� in Market Place, London. He is no longer a director of the caff� business but continues to advise on menu development and chef training.

His television career began in 1983 on BBC2 and at the same time he was asked to write his first book, An Invitation to Italian Cooking. He went on to write 13 in total and has made numerous television programmes, most recently Two Greedy Italians, with former employee and fellow mushroom enthusiast Gennaro Contaldo.

In 1998, he was awarded the Italian equivalent of a British knighthood for services to Italian gastronomy and in 2007 he was awarded an honorary OBE.

He feels the British understand authentic Italian cuisine now more than they did during his first few years in London.

“Many years ago it was just food for making British people happy – Britalian food,” he says. “Now I think the message has got through. I have always believed in food being very simple. For me, the chances I have got to appear on television have been a wonderful way of sharing with others what I know, to spread the gospel.”

After so long in Britain he feels London is definitely his home and says many native Britons are not fully aware of what they have in the robustness of British democracy.

Despite the painful chapters of his life, writing the memoir forced him to confront he found the experience cathartic and comforting, in equal measure.

He hopes the depressive episodes that have characterised his life are now at an end and realises, he says, that he has finally started to grow up, aged 75.

“My spirit is very young. I have been becoming older with a young mind. Now I have written, I can breathe. I have had that life; now I can have another one, looking for some more positive things. Who knows what is round the corner?”

Antonio Carluccio: A Recipe for Life was published by Hardie Grant on October 1 in hardback. It is also available as an e-book.

Antonio Carluccio will be in Bury on Friday, November 23, at 1.30pm, doing a book-signing event at Carluccio’s, 24-26 Auction Street, IP33 3FA.

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