A little while ago now, before this blog had its forced hiatus, I was lucky enough to be able to talk with Antonio Carluccio.
I must confess, I have a soft spot for the man. I find him engaging, warm and infectiously enthusiastic when he’s talking about food, and for that he gets a very big tick in my book. I’ve probably watched all his TV series over the years, and there’s something about his avuncular demeanour that I just can’t help but be drawn to.
But just as importantly, I’m a fan of his food – the food that characterises the cafe chain that still bears his name, and for which he still acts on a consultancy basis, and which fills several of the recipe books he’s penned.
I spoke to him very briefly following the publication of his latest book, Antonio Carluccio’s Simple Cooking, and had the chance to fire some rather random questions at him, related to the book. Between limited time, a poor mobile reception, no voice recorder, and my hearing loss (more about that another time), it wasn’t the easiest – but this is what I managed to salvage....
What, I asked him, was the inspiration for Simple Cooking?
It was partly the times we live in, he replied, in which food has become over fussy and complicated. He felt a need to pare it all back, and to make it simple and enjoyable again. Equally, though, he felt that it was the right time to gather together some of his favourite recipes and put them into one book.
Is there anything or any particular moment that he could remember sparking his deep love for food?
His mother was a very good cook, he said, and his father a good critic! He and his siblings were always closely involved with ‘food production’ in the Carluccio household, so it was natural for him to enjoy helping his mother and to be around food. He was often asked to go and gather ingredients from outside as well as help prepare things in the kitchen. What really changed and shaped his attitude towards food, however, was the time he spent studying in Vienna as a student. There, he became self-reliant, cooking for himself, and then others. Cooking, and sharing the food he cooked with his fellow students and friends, became part of his social agenda and then a hobby which ultimately led him to take up cooking professionally.
His fondness for mushrooms is well known. What would he choose as favourites after mushrooms?
There are so many that it’s difficult to choose, he said, but his preference is for typically Mediterranean vegetables, particularly courgettes and aubergines.
And spinach, I asked? What about those famous spinach balls? (One of the most popular dishes on the Carluccio’s menu is Penne Giardiniera – pasta with courgette, chilli, and very more-ish deep-fried spinach balls with parmesan and garlic.)
Yes, he loves spinach, too. The spinach balls were created for a friend as a favour, about 25 or so years ago. Carluccio experimented in the kitchen to come up with something new, and so the spinach balls were born.
Some of the recipes in the new book seem more novel, and less typically Italian (what would his mother have thought?), such as the dessert of mango and lime. What lies behind those?
It transpires that Carluccio likes the mango and lime dish very much, not least because it is so simple. The same goes for the other less recognisably Italian recipes, he said – he chose them for their taste and for ease of preparation. They are straightforward, yet taste amazingly good. Those were the principles of cooking that he was brought up on by his mother, and for those very reasons, he is sure she would have approved of the book, even though it is not given over entirely to specifically Italian recipes.
Does he have a personal favourite recipe in the book – one that captures everything he feels that good food, cooking, and fun should be about?
There are too many! But if he had to choose, and aside from the tagliatelle con funghi, it would probably be the giant spaghetti with onion and anchovy sauce (bigoli in salsa di cipolle e acciughe).
And what, I asked him, does he think the future hold, cooking-wise? Is the trend for simple, good food here to stay, or is it just a reflection of the recession?
His answer was immediate: food in the UK had, until a couple of years ago, become far too over-the-top, rich, and fancy. We have come to this juncture quite naturally. While simple food is very ‘now’, it is certainly something that we are all coming back to, and it is likely to stay around.
Finally, I ventured to ask, what’s next in the Carluccio pipeline?
His autobiography is planned for next year, and he may write another book. And he’d consider doing more television if asked!
There are a couple more things I should say before signing off. Despite being in the middle of a whizz-stop tour of the UK to promote his new book, Antonio Carluccio was a joy to speak to. I believe he was getting over a cold at the time, and probably rather tired to boot, but he answered all my questions with unfailing politeness and patience. It genuinely felt like a chat with a long-lost uncle rather than an interview with the man who’s arguably done the most to put Italian food on the map in this country over the last 20 years or so. To him, and to Absolute Press, huge thanks. And now, if you don’t mind, I’m off for a plate of tagliatelle con funghi.