Joe Hurd & Antonio Carluccio

“In Bengodi there was a mountain all made of grated Parmesan cheese, standing at the top of it are people on it who do nothing else but make macaroni and ravioli and cook them in capon broth and them throw them down the slopes. The more you take, the more you get”

I suppose Bengodi is to Bocaccio, what Valhalla may have been to Snorri Sturluson.  Instead of “Gold-bright” spear laden rafters, seats of breast plates and soaring eagles, the Italian chefs paradise is fluxing veins of golden Parmigiano Reggiano, neatly trimmed ravioli and Bartolomeo Scappi and Pellegrino Artusi throwing handfuls of macaroni into each others eager mouthes.

I like to think that there is another pasta-lark up on Parmesan mountain today, his wide smile that seemed to connect up to his eyes in a total grin, thick white curly hair and strong frame leaning against a whittled stick kicking up the cheese for the odd porcini or a truffle.

Antonio Carluccio released his first book in 1986, “An Invitation to Italian Cooking” It was the first of 20 more that wended their way through pasta, mushrooms, feasting, vegetables, regional cooking from top to toe of Italy.

They were a breath of fresh air, as was his now infamous Neal Street Restaurant and countless series of seemingly ever lasting food odysseys through the heeled peninsular of his birth

Italophilic Brits previous to this had had decades of over cooked red sauce pasta, pollo “sorpressa” (chicken Kiev) spare ribs (how the eff’ did that even happen) and tricoloro salad all served up on gigham and the obligatory chianti fiasco. Books were old, clunky and void of real study, substance or passion, while the TV shows took you to Italy through the eyes of pompous, yet humorous, drunks that could barely make a pizza.

One man, Antonio Carluccio, pretty much changed the Italian image overnight

In 1986 I was born into an English Italian family in Hull and I cant remember a time when Mr Carluccio wasnt present in our house. He was my excuse for staying up a little later, past my school night curfew, with hoots, hollers and devotions made to his shows being integral to my cultural upbringing. I spent the whole episode devouring his descriptions of mushrooms or feeling my stomach ache against the front room floor as he would laden ancient bowls with ancient recipes, cocktails of flavour and a good dollop of passion. My heart would sigh as soon as the divine bel canto of Ave Maria would announce the credits and a weeks wait before another late night trip to Italy could be made.

Antonio became our invisible imperator during family cooking sessions. If a disagreement erupted in the kitchen as to the ratio of egg to flour in a pasta recipe, or whether the basil should go in first, middle or last during the construction of a Sugo Pomodoro, Carluccio would be brought down from his lofty place on the shelf and consulted to settle the matter. The last word was always the godfather’s.

A big regret was mine and my dads cowardice at his shop front in 1998. My dad was a fellow disciple of AC. He had managed to get some tickets for the FA cup final between Newcastle United and them red fellas from Manchester. With a fancy West End hotel and a pocket full of overtime money, we were two northern three day millionaires set free in London for the first time. While wandering around Covent Garden looking for Hawaiian shirts, we stumbled upon the Neal Street Carluccio’s, the first one.

I vaguely remember the polished onyx tiles that surrounded the sharp, stylish script marked out in white tiles spelling out “Carluccio’s” in the now famous logo. There was a huge display of mushrooms piled by the door and a window display of delicate hams, ivory mozzarellas, technicolor olives and effervescent oils that would make the most po-faced Puritan minister resign his post and become a devotee to Bacchanalia.

We stood there as if wed both just discovered fucking Petra, the Holy Grail and Lord Lucan in one fell swoop.

I edged up the step a little and looked in, it was busy with what we thought of as “London types” smart and cool, compared to two provincial pirates going buck daft in polynesian threads. My dad followed, we were silent. Without mum to translate, we couldnt work out what to eat. The familiar dishes of Pizza, Spaghetti Bolognese and Veal Escalope had been exiled off the boards and replaced with Fettucine Porcini, Linguine Tartuffo, Amalfi Sea Bass and Venison Ravioli. Like two midgets in a paddling pool, we were well out our depth

“Do you want any of this?” He asks

“I don’t know what it is” I says,

“Shall we go and get some buffalo wings at Planet Hollywood?” He grunts

I says “Yes”

I kick myself thinking on that, and now imaginary rivulets of blood are running across my keyboard as mental kukri knife of shame pierces my hand to the polished silver laptop body.

I must have done something between 1998-2016 that pleased Dionysus as life through me one of its rarely seen lines.

In the Christmas of 2015 I bumped into Antonio, backstage of the BBC Good Food show. He was making the long journey back from the super theatre stage using the cricket net like curtains that divided the hall up like a walking aide.  I was wandering around backstage with a group of fans from The Munchbox, all giddy about seeing Paul Hollywood and a lounge lizard in leather called Gino something or other. Antonio talked to all the children as I held my shit together at meeting my idol. He seemed tired, and rested on his intricately whittled stick. He took my hand in his huge, soft bear like meat hook and shook it, told me a joke and signed a book.   That was it, my professional life was complete, being a telly tart had paid off. But that wasnt to be it.

Saturday Kitchen called me up after James Martin left and asked if I would be interested in being part of an Italian special in May 2016. It would be an all star line up with Gennaro, Jamie Oliver, Anna Jones and Antonio. My shameful retreat from Carluccios back in 1998 would be avenged.

Despite some of the negative press from the broadcast itself, it as two of the best days of my life.

It was like being in the dessert; sand blasted, dried out with no hope, and then, spotting an oasis filled with cold beers, steak and playboy bunnies, and realising it wasnt a hallucination at all. 

The moment I saw Antonio announce me in the credits was like putting the world cup in my hands, or handing me my first born child. I could have cried.

We talked on set about Artusi and his recipe for Budino Alla Napoletana, Antonios time in the navy and the Italian armies recipe for Sugo Finto (tomato cooked with Lardo) He told me some dirty jokes and we talked about wine snobs. We cooked together, prawns with tomato, I did the work, he leaned on my shoulder in front of 2 million odd people. He tasted my cavatelli and beans twice, and TWICE told me the pasta was underdone (once on air that was thankfully omitted) Afterwards we sat out in the garden and drank some booze. It was the best day.

I saw Antonio a couple of times after that, once at his book launch where he kindly signed a copy of his book for me and told me a story about the composer, Giuseppe Verdi, and another time in Gola where I was working as a chef. He was on his own and we chatted a little

Antonio, in front of camera, on a stage or through his written words, was a medium for the food. I never got the sense of self-promotion or ulterior motives (*cough* cash and fame *cough*). He wasn’t a cheque cashing cook who would rely on the wit and skill of others to convey his love of food to an audience, and he didnt make a show about him or his life, but gave centre stage to the food.

He didn’t stand their like a hyde park corner pedagogue, telling you what to eat, how to eat it and how much to pay for it, he was the mof-mof man and embodied his minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour, mantra throughout his life. I trusted Antonio’s recipes, carefully researched, carved out from the annals and learning of great cooks from classical times and shaped like one of his sticks, into something meaningful and tasty to a modern cook. His love of nature complimented his chosen path into the world of gastronomy, and his ability to link his love of learning to this, made him remarkable above many others.

I hope that Boccacio’s Bengodi exists. I hope the Parmigiano is rich, and that there is plenty of “good olive oil” I hope there are dogs for him too and a forest rich in yew trees from which to work his sticks from. He can sit all day talking Mycology between getting involved with the pasta rolling, drinking wine and whisky, pulling on a big Cuban stogie

RIP AC

IN NATURA, VERITAS