SWEAT OFF an onion in olive oil, then chuck in some free-range pork mince, heaps of roughly chopped spinach and a few cups of pearl barley. Stir until it starts to smell like God's own kitchen, then splash in a good slosh of white wine. A few minutes later, start ladling in warm chicken stock, adding more every few minutes until the barley is cooked.
Stir in a little more olive oil and some parsley. Eat immediately. Die with pleasure. "Yes, it really is very good, isn't it?" says Antonio Carluccio, probably the world's best known Italian chef. "I'm very glad to hear that you liked it".
Liked it? I loved it! I made pork and spinach orzotto the night before talking to Carluccio, and as I spooned it into my grateful mouth, I felt like a virtuous Italian peasant, living off the land in some sun-baked Calabrian small holding studded with olive and orange trees, with a few skinny goats browsing among the juniper bushes. In my mind's eye I handed a steaming bowlful to my wife, played by the young Sophia Loren, and she was so overcome by its bold, earthy flavours, she dragged me off to the marital bed before I even had time to follow up with the tiramisu.
You can watch Carluccio and his old mate Gennaro Contaldo make this splendid dish in season 2 of Two Greedy Italians, which screens at 1.30pm, 5.30pm and 9.30pm every Monday from tomorrow on Food TV. There's also a tie-in cookbook Two Greedy Italians Eat Italy (Quadrille, RRP $45), which breaks down the show's featured recipes into sections based around alpine, coastal and inland regions.
"Working with Gennaro's always a huge pleasure," says Carluccio, gazing out from the window of his kitchen on to a typically cold and rainy London night. "I've known him over 20 years. Gennaro was my collaborator for 15 years in one restaurant, then he left to work with Jamie Oliver, who also started his career in my restaurant. Together we have a lot of fun, though he sometimes gets on my nerves, too. He can be very naughty."
Indeed. Anyone who's seen the previous series will know what to expect: The comparatively sprightly Contaldo, 63, plays the clown in a variety of picturesque Italian villages while the older, wiser Carluccio, 75, shakes his woolly white curls and tut-tuts affectionately. The two old friends roll through the nation of their birth in a teensy car, belly-aching about how everything has deteriorated since their childhood and pulling over occasionally to cook something delicious using regional ingredients. Both men shamelessly ham up their culture, frequently coming across like two
ageing Italian stereotypes straight from central casting, but scattered through every episode are some genuinely affecting ruminations on family, tucker, and love.
"Really, we made this series because we'd both been away for 40 years, and we had great curiosity to see what Italy is about now. We discovered things are not so good. The children are obese because they're so sedentary and often eating rubbish. Even in schools, they have snack vending machines! In our day, you had only the food your mother was cooking! Also, Italian supermarkets are also offering a lot of terrible ready-made things these days. These meals may make life easier, but they do not make it tastier!"
The solution? Good traditional cooking, informed by Carluccio's "Mof Mof" motto: Minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour. "The simplicity of Italian food is what makes it special. Every region has its own food that's grown locally, and people cook almost exclusively with those ingredients. They don't go to great lengths to cover the taste of good fish or good meat; you eat what you see and just do a few simple things to enhance that flavour. As a nation, we're not so interested in fusion food - I call it ‘con-fusion' - and we're also suspicious of molecular gastronomy, with all the gases and foams and strange techniques. Italians prefer to make food without undue complication, and we're more concerned with flavour than how something looks."
Born on Italy's Amalfi coast in 1937, Carluccio is widely regarded as the godfather of Italian gastronomy in Britain. The former wine merchant started his first restaurant in London's Covent Garden in 1981, and three decades later is still spreading the word that fresh, simple and seasonal is best.
"Many restaurants are returning now to peasant dishes, because that old-fashioned food is packed with flavour. People are getting their priorities right again. One of my favourite Italian chefs once said that food and procreation are the most important things in life. We should celebrate making love and eating, because without food you die, and without making love there's no next generation, so again, life would end."
He laughs a great rumbling laugh, but it wasn't long ago that the notion of life ending early was pretty appealing to this seemingly jovial man.
In Carluccio's new autobiography A Recipe For Life (Hardie Grant Books, RRP $49.99), a picture emerges of a far more melancholy soul than the gently smiling sage we see on our TV screens. Besides celebrating many personal triumphs, he writes of a lonely childhood, three failed marriages, and the recent closure of his flagship London eatery, admitting he's been plagued all his life by doubt, anxiety and depression. There have been six suicide attempts, the most recent in 2008, when he stabbed himself in the chest with a pair of scissors.
"I wrote that book to investigate who and what I am," he says with a sigh. "The death of my little brother, and the death of a friend - these things were never digested. Also, I missed real love. I lived away from my family, mostly alone, and tried to achieve peace of mind with various women, and that didn't happen, which further depressed me. Creating my Carluccio's restaurant chain was a problem, too.
Once my name was used as a brand, I lost my identity. These things all led to depression, and I tried to cover that up by always joking and pretending to be jolly. But then I finally went and got some treatment for my problems. Now the depression's gone, but the jokes will stay. I am looking forward to the next 30 years, though I'm 75, so that's optimistic, I know! But all the years I have left, I plan to live them well and be happy."
Two Greedy Italians, Monday, 1.30pm, 5.30pm and 9.30pm, Food TV.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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