Food, wine, travel, music
It’s nearly 20 years ago since I met Antonio Carluccio and his wife Priscilla. By way of tribute to a man of food, this is the article published in the Irish Examiner at the time. Since then, the couple separated, Carluccio had many ups and downs, from suffering from depression to being awarded an OBE. We remember him as an ebullient lover of his native food. He died at the age of 80 November 8 2017.
They have something in common: as children they would climb up a tree with a can of sweetened condensed milk and a tub of drinking chocolate and indulge in their sweet treat alone and away from disapproving eyes. He still occasionally sucks on a can. Perhaps he was taken from the breast prematurely? “Not at all, on the contrary, I had a wet nurse as well as a mother for breast milk, I don’t know why I love it so much.”
I am at lunch in Patrick Guilbaud’s with Antonio and Priscilla Carluccio who are in Dublin to promote their new collection of recipe books. They make a lively pair, laughing together, enjoying the humour and subtleties of life. They come from two different backgrounds, he growing up in the Piedmont region of the Northwest of Italy where he joined the pigs to mushroom and truffle hunt, she in the gentle countryside of Hampshire where at school she excelled in the arts of pottery, theatre and music as well as captaining her school’s tennis and lacrosse teams. The sister of Terence Conran, Priscilla’s visual art manifested itself first in a career as a freelance fashion photographer, contributing to prestigious magazines – Tatler, Queen and Man about Town. Working on the first Habitat catalogue led to her interest in exporting English and Irish pine furniture to France where in Paris she lived for a few years. Next she took a position as Buying Director and Stylist at the Conran Shop in London. She designed and developed handicrafts in the Far East to sell to the retail trade in Europe, and worked on projects including the design of a range of hair accessories for the Body Shop and the development of products for many lifestyle shops in Europe. “I grew up in wartime where we had to make do with whatever was around us. We had a strong work ethic and were hugely energetic. There was a history of design in the family, my mother’s family were architects, my father did pen and ink drawings and we made the best of what we had. My brother and I were probably quite creative, we did things like silk screening and we had a kiln at home.”
Antonio, whom we first saw on television in the BBC series Antonio Carluccio’s Italian Feast, endeared himself to us with his easy, camera-friendly demeanour and enthusiasm for simple Italian food. He is not a trained chef, but arrived at it through work as a journalist, language student and wine merchant. Meeting restaurateurs and expanding his interest in food and entertaining led him to be invited to become Managing Director of Terence Conran’s Neal Street Restaurant which he now owns. While it is a difficult business and keeping staff for him is the same problem as it is in Ireland, he sees the restaurant “as a pedestal”. He enjoys his customers, his lifestyle, and has no desire to live in Italy. “I cut my umbilical cord with Italy 42 years ago, home is in London and in Chichester.”
His passion for the homeland is satisfied in print where books like A Passion for Mushrooms, Passion for Pasta, An Invitation to Italian Cooking led to his discovery as a televisual treat, and now he is a household name. In Guilbaud’s, diners look at him curiously. They know they know him, but it’s three years since the television series was broadcast. His tan and mop of tight grey curls are distinctive and I expect it takes little time for the penny to drop while we talk of the various recipes which appealed to me from his series Carluccio’s Collection on which he worked with Priscilla. I like the sound of his Stuffed Olive recipe. “These are wonderful”, he says. “You can stuff them with anything, a little tuna, some cheese and salami like in the book, and then dip them in egg and breadcrumb and fry in hot oil for a good antipasto.” I suggest we in Ireland have not quite grasped the idea of antipasti, a variety of appetisers before a main course. “I agree, and it’s a shame as they can stimulate the appetite. We use vinegar in some of these dishes and this is good to get the digestive juices going.”
It has been Priscilla’s business acumen which has been the driving force in capitalising on Carluccio’s talents, and now the Carluccio brand has over 180 products. She created the concept, oversaw the design of the logo, packaging, and now is responsible for product development, marketing, financial control, personnel and marketing. We find olive oils, vinegars, and a large range of pastas with the Carluccio brand, and it is this side of the business which takes up most of Priscilla’s time. Their flagship store is in London’s Covent Garden. Priscilla is enjoying the challenge of building up the business and keeping on top of each supplier, visiting them in Italy, constantly sourcing new products and ideas. At the age of 63 she has an energy and enthusiasm which still has that feel of the old work ethic with which she was born. When I tell her of a friend who is growing saffron in Sussex, she and Antonio want immediately to meet him. They love people who are small suppliers, fearing the demise of good food if central distribution takes a further hold and destroys small producers and the joy of variety in the shops. The range of antipasti, Italian vegetables, pasta, fish and shellfish are listed in the back of each of their books and give clear descriptions for their best use. The Carluccios are special and the next best thing to meeting them is to share their enthusiasm through their books for €6.99. Cheaper than a meal in Guilbaud’s, but after a delicious meal in good compoany, not quite as much fun.