Greedy for the truth

In Antonio Carluccio's memoir you can hear the gruff voice of that larger-than-life quintessential Italian you'll know from television. But you'll also discover a lifetime of recurring depression and attempts at suicide. This is a man for whom outward bonhomie has hidden a terrible underlying despair.

In conversation with Carluccio, he lets that low voice run on, answering questions as directly and fully as you could hope, so you get a sense of the man who loves people and communication. He says he has come to terms with the difficult parts of his life. So much so he has finally come clean on a crisis that made newspaper headlines four years ago when an injury to his chest (he stabbed himself with scissors) was announced as a kitchen accident. It was, in fact, one of at least four suicide attempts he recounts, since he took an overdose of sleeping pills as his first marriage fell apart in the mid-1970s.

Yes, Carluccio agrees, it takes courage to lay bare this part of his life, but he feels settled enough now to say it happened. The crisis with the scissors, he says, was ''the result of the moment'', the break-up of a relationship sparking a whisky-fuelled moment of madness.

As we speak, Carluccio is in the garden of his cul-de-sac home in London, where he says the day is a bit murky, but the garden is quiet and he is battling with squirrels for peaches. ''I try to defend the peaches with all my guts but I lose the battle,'' he says. ''I know the right one is to share with nature but I am fed up with it.''

Writing his memoir has helped him understand his life, he says. And it's all there for the reading - well, most of it. ''Absolutely what I wanted to achieve was to write the real thing, and there are some few bits and pieces that I didn't enlarge or go in deep, for example, my relationship with the Conran family [Carluccio married Priscilla Conran, sister of Terence Conran, a big name in design and architecture]. Anyway, I did another version.'' This second version is an oral history, where Carluccio recorded hours of interviews, now in the British Library with a stipulation they not be made available for 20 years. ''If somebody wants to know more of the nitty-gritty they can know it, but in 20 years' time,'' he says with a small chuckle.

One of the striking things about Carluccio's memoir (among many, including the number of women in his life, the ease with which he fell in love and the inevitable collapse of the relationships, although eventually he settled into a 28-year marriage to Priscilla, from whom he split in 2008) is the circuitous route he took to a career in food.

After moving to London in 1975, he had to find work (he got a job selling Tuscan wine) and learn a difficult language, and he attributes a heart attack at 38 to the stress of it. By this time also, Carluccio had had his first depressive crisis in which he took an overdose of sleeping pills.

''My sadness has often played out in self-destructive ways as it's not in my nature to inflict how I am feeling on others,'' he writes. ''Indeed, I would go to great lengths, often at my most distressed, to keep how I was feeling from those around me, telling jokes and playing the convivial host when I felt quite desperate inside.''

He traces this sadness partly to the death of his younger brother in 1960. He was closest to his brother Enrico, whom he looked after.

''Of all my siblings, I found him the most similar in temperament to myself. He was a little quieter than the others … but with a strong imagination and sense of adventure, an urge to fly away and discover new places.''

When Enrico drowned while swimming at age 13, Carluccio says his heart was ''cauterised with grief''. Enrico's death isolated members of the family. His mother seemed to ''collapse in on herself as if her life, too, were over'', and soon after, she turned to the Jehovah's Witnesses, as did his sister, a conversion that apparently still rankles with Carluccio.

The day after his brother's death, Carluccio bought a bunch of parsley and a kilogram of salted anchovies and set about the methodical task of rinsing and filleting the anchovies for bagna cauda, or salsa verde. He describes this as ''perhaps the first time I remember actively turning to the preparation of food in an effort to create some sort of meaning and purpose in my life when otherwise there was none''.

In London, Carluccio moved in restaurant circles, through his work selling wine and collecting mushrooms, and through brother-in-law Terence Conran, who owned the Neal Street Restaurant. He was encouraged to enter a newspaper cooking competition, and made it to the final. Conran asked him to manage the Neal Street Restaurant in 1981, and ''everything came together, and my professional career started 25 years ago'', Carluccio, now 75, says.

He eventually bought the restaurant, taking on Gennaro Contaldo, who became a lifelong friend and his offsider on BBC TV's Two Greedy Italians, and also, briefly, Jamie Oliver as a pastry chef. Carluccio started a string of eponymous delicatessens then cafes in the 1990s, with phenomenal success (he no longer owns the chain). With television shows and books, his success in the food world was complete, but he was not happy. He felt his life was spiralling out of control and he had lost his name to a brand. In 2007, the Neal Street Restaurant was forced to close and Carluccio took to gambling - ''sheer, expensive escapism'' - but, after an ultimatum from his wife, booked into an addiction centre. But 2008 was to bring another crisis, when his marriage to Priscilla finally ended and depression took hold again, along with gambling and whisky. ''It was an instinctive reaction to the intolerable pressure under which I found myself,'' Carluccio says of the moment when he locked himself in the bathroom and used his body weight to shove scissors into his chest, penetrating the pleural cavity in his lungs.

During his recovery, Carluccio says, ''I don't think I have ever felt more abandoned or alone or angry''.

At least he had something to look forward to that year, he writes - of all things, an invitation to Tasting Australia in Adelaide, ''which went some way to restoring my enthusiasm for life''.

Carluccio loves the simplicity and authenticity he finds in Australia's food, in line with his philosophy: ''Minimum of fuss and maximum of flavour'', a line he truncates to ''mof mof''.

When Carluccio arrived in Britain in 1975, he confronted the era of freeze-dried mashed potato and instant puddings, but also the beginnings of an interest in Italian food. Carluccio describes what developed as ''Britalian'' food: dishes such as spag bol, made with minced beef, rather than tagliatelle al ragu bolognese, which he says should be made with minced veal and pork.

Now, in Italy there's a return to some of the traditional food, but he also points disapprovingly to the introduction of ingredients from other countries - oysters with chocolate! Carluccio is down on fusion in any guise, not just in Italy. He wants British cuisine to be true to its roots and he clearly likes food to be recognisable and simple. He's not a fan of dishes that describe a long series of ingredients, many of which appear only fleetingly on the plate. Nor is he a fan of the style epitomised by Heston Blumenthal, whose food he doesn't believe will stand the test of time. For Carluccio, food is not something ''banal to play with''.

He regrets not having children, but he has a girlfriend now, and he's happy with his lot. Why wouldn't he be, he asks, listing the good things in his life: a lovely garden and house, the ability to travel and meet people as he wants. Writing a memoir, he says, ''you see the life running just like a film'', which helps you discover the things that make you happy and the things that make you unhappy - and you learn that while you might wish for things to be different, you can't change them.

''I was able to forge a life that was true to me,'' he writes. ''And with my hand on my heart I can say, this is my story and I am happy with it.''

Anchovies in green sauce

Various salsa verde or green sauces have been developed over the years by non-Italian chefs, which may be delicious, but which do not always correspond to the Italian taste. We normally use parsley, basil or rocket as the green base, and this one is made with parsley. When you come home and feel a little peckish for something salty, these anchovies on toasted bread are miraculous. Naturally the dish can be served as part of an antipasto.

300g perfect anchovy fillets in oil (Italian or Spanish are the best)

Salsa verde

1 fresh white bread roll

About 2 tbsp white wine vinegar

1 big bunch flat-leaf parsley, very finely chopped, without the stalks

1 small medium-hot chilli, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled and pureed

10 little cornichons (mini gherkins), very finely chopped

15 salted capers, soaked, drained and very finely chopped

Extra-virgin olive oil, as required

Drain the anchovies and put a layer of them in the bottom of a narrow ceramic container. You want to have several layers of anchovies, so don't use too large a dish. To start the salsa, cut off the crust from the roll, and soak the inner crumbs in a little vinegar for a few minutes. Squeeze as dry as possible, then finely chop. Put into a bowl with the parsley, chilli, garlic, cornichons and capers and mix well, adding enough olive oil to achieve a sauce consistency. Cover the anchovies with a layer of green sauce, then top with another layer of anchovies. Repeat this until all the anchovies are covered with sauce. Add enough olive oil to cover everything and keep refrigerated for a day, after which you can start to use them. Keep refrigerated for up to a week. Serve with cold meats or as a dip with other canape-type dishes.

Makes a 300g batch

From Antonio Carluccio: A Recipe for Life.

Antonio Carluccio: A Recipe for Life (Hardie Grant, $39.95) and a new recipe collection, Antonio Carluccio: The Collection (Quadrille, $49.95), are published on October 1.

Meet the man

Antonio Carluccio appears at the World Chef Showcase at the Crave Sydney International Food Festival in Sydney on October 6, see cravesydney.com

The story Greedy for the truth first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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