I am not much given to hoarding but I am delighted to have kept an Advent calendar sent to Nick and I in 2003 by my friend Antonio Carluccio and his then wife Priscilla. To have this with us for our first Advent in Orkney is a simple blessing, in an era when celebratory calendars for the season seem to have been completely taken over by present-stuffed indulgences. Grump over! This calendar is a lovely reminder of Antonio, who died suddenly In November.
You might well ask “What have mushrooms to do with Christmas?” and I would struggle to reply, except that I have just made a store-cupboard pasta dish which was brought to life with the addition of some dried porcini - and it is Advent, the run up to Christmas....
Antonio was a gentle giant in the food world. My friend Judy Ridgway wrote of Antonio that, on a press trip as they flew over the mountains of Liguria he pointed down, saying “I can hardly believe that I came from a small village down there and now people know me in so many other places!”
So many people knew Antonio - he was instantly recognisable from his TV shows. One night on the way to supper with us he and Priscilla got lost and he went into a pub to ask the way - and of course they were then even later as everyone wanted to buy him a drink and have a chat. I think Priscilla had to go in and get him in the end!
Antonio was a journalist who loved to cook and he lived and worked in Germany as a wine merchant after studying languages in Vienna and before moving to England in 1975. Having managed The Neal Street Restaurant for Terence Conran (who became his brother-in-law when Antonio married Priscilla, Conran’s sister) Antonio bought it and the restaurant became the flagship of his business empire. I can remember walking along Neal Street one day to see him leaning on the door jamb, smiling and waving in great excitement, beckoning me in to smell his truffles, newly arrived from Italy! No suggestion of staying to lunch but it was enough: I felt totally accepted by a member of the culinary glitterati!
We became friends after Antonio came to West Dean Gardens to give a demonstration in the Chichester Food Festival that I ran with my great friend Anna Best. He was sponsored by Waitrose and came with his chef Gennaro Contaldo with whom he later made the TV series Two Greedy Italians. By then Jamie Oliver was beginning his career at Neal Street before moving to The River Cafe and Gennaro eventually left Antonio to work with Jamie. I think that Jamie was responsible for reuniting the two through his Jaime magazine after a number of years of strained relations, and, once friends again, Two Greedy Italians was made.
Whilst Antonio will be remembered by many as The Mushroom Man he will always be Mr Tomato in my eyes. He returned to West Dean to demonstrate for us to demonstrate together at The Totally Tomato Show and the illustrator Amanda Loverseed wrote to me on the news of Antonio’s death to say that she would never forget “his hands, like great paws, massaging tomato into bread for bruschetta In our demonstration”. To be on stage with him was like Russian Roulette - he was Naughty and you needed your wits about you to manage his conversation! But he was a delight and he never stopped sharing his love of food - and maybe I was too sensitive after years of hosting events for Waitrose in Waitrose-speak?!
Like many who make it to the top of their profession I think Antonio longed for real friends, for people who would like him and not the celebrity that surrounded him. He loved children and apparently was working on a children’s book when he died. He loved whittling walking sticks and the countryside and so the opportunity to meet people who shared those passions was always much enjoyed. How the conversation flowed around the dining table with him - he was such fun! Lunch with him at his country home near Petersfield was about good food and drink and walking it off afterwards - and I remember the flowers! Early March and masses of white tulips in vases everywhere! Design and ambiance were so much a part of the success of the Carluccio’s cafe chain and this was really Priscilla’s domain, with the fabulous food writer and designer Alastair Hendy closely involved.
Antonio was honoured with an OMRI, the Italian equivalent to a Knighthood in 1998. I was truly aware of him being called by his title Commendatore when I was invited to the party at the Italian Embassy in 2007 to celebrate his OBE. I have never been at a more beautiful event! The best of everything that Italy had to offer in food and drink was laid out in spectacular displays - how I wish that I had pictures to share with you but it was enough just to be there, to eat and drink and to be a part of the celebrations. To be recognised for his work both in Italy and the UK was very special to Antonio but I wonder whether he was just as happy at a harbourside lunch party that we were at together, where he found samphire at the water’s edge while most of us were chatting?
It was a great shock when Antonio and Priscilla split up but he was very happy with a new partner who I met briefly when they came together to open the Carluccio’s in Chichester. I am sad that we never got to know them as a couple but I am happy to have such special memories of Antonio, my friend.