Antonio Carluccio: Shows you how to cook up a perfect Christmas

Through his books, we came to love the food. At his delis we got to eat it more often. Now Antonio Carluccio offers an extra gift: the recipe for the perfect Italian Christmas. Caroline Stacey joins the family at home
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Antonio Carluccio's mamma must have been a hell of a cook. All these years after leaving home, the godfather of Italian cooking is still nourished by the memories of childhood and inspired by her example to communicate the pleasures and purity of Italian gastronomy. He evokes his rural past, preaching the one true path of Italian cooking and respect for mealtimes to an audience of Britons already smitten with the country. We trust our amiable TV Italian to give us dependable recipes and provide a buzzy, well-designed and sensibly priced taste of caffè life that helps every olive oil drizzler idealise the daily routines of shopping, cooking and eating in some old basilica-topped hill town.

He's unravelled pasta, demystified mushrooms, interpreted the seasons, transformed the humblest ingredients - we all had to rethink cauliflower, turnip and cabbage after Antonio Carluccio's Vegetables. And now, in his latest book, Italia, he investigates the customs and recipes of his homeland's regions.

Yet for all his travels, his roots are no longer in Italy. It's at his immaculately rustic, ancient Hampshire cottage, more deeply buried in wooded country lanes than any Tuscan hideaway, that I find him today, recreating a celebratory feast composed of seasonal, regional highlights. Across Italy, Christmas is marked with different specialities such as goose, boiled capon with salsa verde, tortellini brodo, cotechino or zampone with lentils, but the shape of a meal will be the same as usual: "just a better version of everyday food", he says.

On Christmas Eve Italians eat fish: eel, carp or, in Naples, spaghetti vongole. The following day a family will bring out foods they've put away over previous months, preserved in autumn to be feasted on as winter sets in. Salamis, of which there are hundreds of varieties, would have been made the winter before when the pigs were killed in January and February (the coldest months providing a natural preservative).

A selection of these is joined by the red peppers from Basilicata in the far south of the country, and mushrooms pickled in vinegar and oil. No Carluccio, or Italian, meal is complete without fungi. "I use now 60 different mushrooms. The Italians use porcini and little else." Also decorating the antipasti plate that Carluccio arranges as artfully as an Arcimboldo portrait, are artichokes and tiny onions, which could be home-preserved, in oil and parsley and balsamic vinegar respectively. "Are those onions Italian?" asks Priscilla Carluccio, herself a former photographer and furniture buyer, suspiciously. She is as much a keeper of the flame, and even more of a stickler for doing things properly than her husband.

Antipasti is followed by the primi, here the vincisgrassi, adapted from an offal-rich dish served in the Marche region to become what could be a pasta main course for vegetarians. The truffled pheasant from neighbouring Tuscany, a typical seasonal extravagance from a region obsessed with hunting, comes with earthy vegetables, turnips and cabbage. The pheasant itself can be picked up for next to nothing. The recipe uses £50 worth of winter truffle, though summer truffles are half that price. And though you could use diced mushrooms cooked in olive oil and garlic, Carluccio advises against using preserved truffle. "It's more honest to use mushrooms."

The meal ends with nuts, fresh and dried fruit, and sweets to go with the peppery, spicy "salami" of fig and nuts. Only after, that is, the boozy, eggy zabaione from Carluccio's native Piedmont. Add double cream to turn the zabaione into ice cream, he suggests. With an ice cream machine? "No," says Antonio. "Yes," Priscilla corrects.

Stuffed deep-fried olives make a crunchy, salty, juicy, and distinctly labour-intensive snack before lunch to be nibbled with prosecco. The pizza rustica from Teramo in Abbruzzi, rich with whole eggs and extra egg yolks, could be made in advance and eaten on Boxing Day with a carrot salad. Mushrooms, cheese, spinach and ricotta, Parmesan or artichokes can be incorporated into the filling, and a little pizza rustica goes a long way.

Having left home to study in Vienna and worked as a wine merchant in Germany, he has produced Italia after years of revisiting the 20 regions of a country united less than 150 years ago. He relishes the Germanic influences in the north-east, the brodetto for which the Marche is famous, the antipasti of Piedmont, the pasta in Emilia-Romagna, Napoli and Puglia, the way Napoli is libertine, but leaning on the French, while Genoa's food has been shaped by its maritime trade with Portugal and Spain.

"I thought I had a lot of knowledge," he says. "When I start to write this book I find I didn't know that much, and I still was collecting knowledge. This is an unfinished business."

Despite having eaten, appraised and recorded dishes from the more remote parts of his native Piedmont to the furthest tip of Sicily, Carluccio hasn't lived in Italy since his twenties, has never had his own home there, and has no intention of going back. "After 45 years abroad, I don't have friends there. The British don't know what life is like in Italy. It's very provincial."

Off camera, the woodland forager, who carves hazel walking sticks in idle moments, grows borlotti beans, artichokes and pumpkins in his cottage garden, and smokes whatever he's doing, occasionally growling like any expat pensioner. He regrets what's happening to food in his country of origin. "They want to change, but they do it in a horrendous way. They make dishes which does not exist such a thing. Italian meat is not hung for long enough," he grumbles, with a unique grip on the language. He deplores globalisation. Needless to say, the food in his adopted country disappoints. "You have the best ingredients, but not very much is done with these things." But whatever he thinks of British food, we can't get enough of his.

Bad luck for the veteran, though: another upstart book of Italian recipes has just been published. Jamie Oliver's most recent immersion in Italy began only in April this year when he left the school dinners issue simmering at home, and knocked out a television series and bestselling book in six months. Some might say that's indecently hasty. Carluccio is diplomatic enough not to. "Jamie, he has a way that is very pleasant and nice, he has appeal. He's done a lot getting younger people to cook."

Carluccio, himself self-taught, may have helped foster Oliver's love of Italy. Among the brother and sisterhood who cook Italian, Carluccio is the don. His Neal Street restaurant (which, he says, "has always served for me as a platform, it doesn't make money") was where Jamie Oliver worked for six months and met his mentor, Gennaro Contaldo, who now has his own London restaurant, Passione. Oliver went on to be discovered by TV star-makers at the River Cafe where Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers pursue their exceptional take on Tuscan cooking. "Rose Gray," claims Carluccio, "was once my home economist."

"British chefs think it is easy to cook Italian," he adds. "The subtlety of pasta e fagioli needs patience to make it straight and right. Every region has one, but one of the best is Venice." As he's eaten pasta e fagioli in most of Italy, we'd better believe Carluccio; his strictures could make a cook nervous unless they have his recipe to hand. "Half the beans should be squashed and the other half left whole. A good one should have a lovely stream of olive oil. When cooking pasta, the salt you put in the water, the amount of water the pasta is cooked in, the al dente-ness all count." He says he can judge the standard of a chef by his pasta e fagioli.

"The first quality of a very good chef is to be humble," Carluccio insists. Even if Carluccio's European swagger isn't everyone's cup of tea, he takes fewer liberties than many Italian chefs. His first book, An Invitation to Italian Cooking, is still in print and as useful and reliable as ever after 20 years. As a restaurateur, he says, "in 24 years I saw coming and going all sorts of fashion", and never paid it much attention.

Where he adapts recipes he insists it's by matching traditionally complementary tastes in new ways. Thus, for maccheroni alla chitarra (a square spaghetti), he added slithers of roasted red peppers to the traditional bagna calda sauce, on the grounds that roast peppers are eaten with bagna calda. "I showed it to a chef in Turin and he said, 'You come from abroad to show us such things.'" The impressionable Torinese chef apart, Carluccio is almost unknown in Italy. But the Italian government gave him a Commendatore award for spreading appreciation of Italian food abroad.

For the citizens of ever more parts of London and the Home Counties there are the Carluccio's Caffès, which package the Italian experience for a post-spaghetti generation. They were Mrs Carluccio's idea. Originally Priscilla Conran, younger sister of Sir Terence, and formerly buyer for the Conran group, she may not look or act like a saleswoman, but if anyone knows how to make something look perfectly irresistible, Priscilla does.

While the Carluccios champion artisan Italian producers and rue the influence of McDonald's, they had no hesitation about rolling out the brand of deli-cum-caffès. The formula of simple but original food identified by Antonio, designed and marketed by Priscilla, "was always intended to be big business, to spread quality to all places", she says. The privately owned company has 23 branches, 1,000 employees, and no plans to stop there. With such a winning concept on their hands, and City reports of a flotation, this hard-working couple in their sixties could choose to retire rather comfortably. Even so it's hard to imagine them slowing down. They make a formidable team at work and at home. Today, they've hardly tidied up from yesterday's teddybear's tea party, held for a grandson's eighth birthday. Priscilla sits there writing the Carluccio's Christmas catalogue while Antonio cooks. It sums up the division of labour. "I'm an observer; I interpret for the market," she says.

And has Mrs Carluccio's own cooking been influenced? "Yesterday I made casserole of leg of lamb with parsnips, little carrots and onions from the garden. I made very, very good baked apples with lots of butter and dark brown sugar - they did of course explode - and apple jelly with some solid cream," says Priscilla, who has the Conran grounding in eating. "We grew up in a foodie house, with the pleasure of ingredients." Now the children are grown up, the two of them with their companionable work ethic and shared obsession with food, the brand and the business, are more likely than ever to hunker down together on Christmas eve with truffled eggs and champagne. And you can take the Carluccios' word for doing it properly as the Italians would.

'Italia' by Antonio Carluccio is published by Quadrille, £25. Order a copy for the special price of £21, including p&p from 08700 798897/ www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Recipes

Peperoni Mandorlati
(pan-roasted peppers with almonds)

Serves 4

I like to eat these as part of an antipasto. Sweet, meaty peppers are essential.

6 yellow peppers
6tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
20g caster sugar
40g raisins
30g slivered almonds
3tbsp white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper

Halve, core and deseed the peppers, then cut into strips. Heat the oil and fry the peppers, stirring from time to time, until starting to caramelise at the edges (20-25 minutes). Add the garlic, sugar, raisins and almonds. Stir-fry for a few minutes longer, then add the vinegar and let it evaporate. Season with and serve hot or cold.

Pickled mushrooms in oil

Makes 2 x 1kg jars

2kg fresh mushrooms
Olive oil (not extra-virgin)
2 dried hot chilli peppers (optional)

For the brine

1.2 litres good white wine vinegar
600ml water
2tbsp salt
5 bay leaves
10 cloves

Clean then slice (or cut, according to size) the mushrooms. Combine the brine ingredients in a large, non-corrosive pan and bring to the boil. Add the mushrooms and boil for 5 minutes (for small mushrooms) and 10-12 minutes (for larger ones). Drain and, without using your hands, spread on a very clean cloth to cool and dry for a few hours. Put a few mushrooms into a sterilised jar using a spoon, pour in a little oil to cover them and mix gently so that the oil reaches all parts of the mushrooms. Add more mushrooms and oil until the jar is full and add the chilli peppers (if using). Close the lid and keep for at least a month before use (or up to a couple of months). Once a jar is open, use fairly rapidly.

Vincisgrassi (little lasagne)

Serves 6

This is my own vegetarian version of vincisgrassi. In the Marche, the dish is quite rich as it's made with sweetbreads, brains and livers. Here I use mushrooms - porcini in autumn, otherwise oyster or shitake, plus 20g soaked dried porcini.

120g butter
50g plain flour
500ml milk
Salt and pepper
2tbsp olive oil
500g mushrooms
2tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
200g Parmesan, grated

For the pasta

400g Italian '00' flour, plus extra to dust
4 large, fresh eggs
Large pinch of salt

For the pasta, pile the flour in a mound. Break the eggs into a well and add the salt. Combine with a fork, then your hands, until it's a coarse paste (add flour if too moist). Flour your hands and surface, knead until smooth and workable (10-15 minutes). Cover with a cloth and rest for 15-30 minutes. Divide the dough into 4 or 5. Roll by machine or by hand until it is 3-4mm thick, then cut into 15cm squares.

Heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Melt half the butter in a pan, stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute, then add the milk gradually, stirring to make a smooth sauce. Heat remaining butter and oil, add the porcini, garlic, parsley and sauté until soft.

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente (about 4 minutes). Layer the vincisgrassi in a baking dish. Start with a thin layer of bechamel, then pasta, then mushrooms. Add another layer of bechamel and scatter plenty of Parmesan over. Repeat these layers, finishing with bechamel and cheese. Bake for 15 minutes until golden and bubbling, then serve.

Fagiano tartufato (truffled pheasant)

Serves 4-6

2 cock pheasants, boned (leave bones in the legs and wings)
80g black truffle
200g Parma ham, finely chopped
1tbsp flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper
8 slices pancetta (or streaky bacon)
Olive oil to brush
50g butter
150ml double cream
3tbsp brandy
Few drops of truffle oil (optional)

Tuscans eat this during the hunting season, and it makes a wonderful festive dish. Ask your butcher to bone the pheasants. For the stuffing, grate 30g of the truffle and mix with the Parma ham, parsley and some salt and pepper. Put the pheasants flat on their backs, spread the stuffing on top and roll to enclose. Wrap 4 pancetta slices around each bird and tie with string to form sausage shapes. They can be left overnight in the fridge at this stage.

Heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Brush the birds with olive oil. Heat a frying pan, then add the birds and brown for 2 minutes on each side. Take out the pheasants, wrap in foil and bake for 20 minutes. Put the pan to one side. Slice the remaining truffle, then cut into tiny strips. Put into the frying pan with the butter, cream, brandy and truffle oil. Add salt and plenty of pepper, and gently reduce a little.

Take the pheasants out of the foil. Cut into slices and arrange on warm plates. Pour the truffle sauce over the meat and serve.

Rape alla Friulana
(turnip the Friulian way)

Serves 4-6

800g young turnips, peeled and diced
1tbsp caster sugar
70g butter
3tbsp white wine vinegar
1tbsp plain white flour
250ml chicken stock, hot
Salt and pepper

Put the sugar and butter in a pan to melt and caramelise a little. Add the turnip, stir and cook for 10 minutes. Add vinegar, flour, salt and pepper and stir gently, then gradually add the stock. Cook until the turnip is tender. Adjust the seasoning, and serve.

Cavolo verza con pancetta (Savoy cabbage with bacon)

Serves 4-6

500g Savoy cabbage (cleaned weight), finely sliced
60g smoked streaky bacon, cut into matchsticks
4tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 dried red chilli
Salt and black pepper

Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the bacon, adding the garlic and crushed chilli, for 2 minutes - the garlic must not brown. Add the salt and pepper, cabbage, pepper and 300ml water. Mix and cook, lid half on, for 10-15 minutes until the liquid evaporates and the cabbage is cooked.

Salame di noce
(chocolate and walnut salami with candied fruits)

Makes 2 x 750g rolls

Dolci, or sweets, are generally reserved for festivities. This one, from Molise, has some similarities to panforte di Siena.

300g shelled walnuts
200g caster sugar
100g dark, bitter chocolate, broken into small pieces
150g candied orange peel, finely diced
150g lemon peel, finely diced
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/2tbsp ground cloves
1tbsp ground black pepper
200g dried figs, roughly chopped
200g dates, pitted and minced
2 sheets of rice paper

Crush two-thirds of the walnuts, leaving the others whole. Put the sugar in a pan with 2tbsp water and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Continue to heat until the sugar syrup just turns golden.

Meanwhile, combine all the other ingredients, including the crushed and whole walnuts, in a bowl. Add the sugar syrup and mix well. Divide the mixture in two and spoon each portion along the middle of a sheet of rice paper. Roll up in the paper shaping each into a "salami". Leave in a cool place until set. Serve thinly sliced - for adults you can serve with either Moscata or coffee.

Zabaione (zabaglione)

Serves 6-8

This Piedmontese classic is said to be named after the patron saint of patissiers, San Giovanni di Baglion. It's a terrific dessert and very simple. This version is one of the oldest, dating back to a chef of King Carlo Emanuele I of Italy.

180g caster sugar
12 egg yolks
100ml aged Madeira or Marsala or Moscato Passito di Pantelleria
Pinch of ground cinnamon

Using a balloon whisk, beat the sugar and eggs together (preferably in a round-bottomed copper bowl), to a whitish foam. Add the wine and cinnamon and mix well.

Stand the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water on a low heat and continue to beat and stir until you have a thick, almost firm, foam. Pour into glasses.

Serve at once, while still warm or allow to cool and then chill before eating.

Olive farcite all' Ascolana
(deep-fried stuffed olives)

Makes 50

These can be made as an antipasto, but they make a great snack for Boxing Day too.

50 Ascoli olives
Olive oil for deep-frying
Flour to coat
2 eggs, beaten
Dried breadcrumbs to coat

For the filling

3tbsp olive oil
50g butter
100g lean pork, finely minced
100g lean veal, finely minced
50g boneless chicken, minced
Salt and pepper
3tbsp dry Marsala or sherry
1 small black truffle, diced
Few drops of truffle oil
30g Parma ham, finely chopped
3tbsp finely chopped parsley
1/2tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 egg, beaten
50g Parmesan, freshly grated
A little milk (if necessary)

To make the filling, heat the olive oil and butter in a pan. Add the minced meats and fry, stirring, for 5-6 minutes until well browned. Season with salt and pepper. Add the Marsala or sherry and let it bubble to reduce down. Take off the heat and cool, then transfer to a food processor.

Add the truffle and truffle oil, ham, parsley, nutmeg and zest. Process briefly to mix, then add the egg and grated cheese, and whiz to combine. The mixture should be firm enough to use as a stuffing but not too dry; soften with a drop of milk if necessary. Taste for seasoning.

Starting from the top, cut each olive in a spiral to reach and remove the stone, keeping the spiral intact. Take a little filling and enclose it in the spiral, pressing a little to regain the original olive shape.

Finish and cook the olives a few at a time. Heat the olive oil for deep-frying in a suitable pan. Dip the olives in a little flour, then into the beaten egg, and then roll them in breadcrumbs.

Deep-fry the olives for 2-3 minutes until brown, then drain on kitchen paper. Serve hot, with little lemon wedges if you like.

Pizza rustica
(rustic pie)

Serves 6

This speciality of Teramo in Abbruzi is great for Boxing Day.

For the pastry

400g plain flour
1tbsp fresh yeast
2 eggs, beaten
5tbsp olive oil
1tsp caster sugar
Salt and pepper

For the filling

100g scamorza cheese, in cubes
60g ham, cubed
12 hard-boiled egg yolks
70g pieces dry sausage (with chilli)
100g pecorino, grated
4 eggs, beaten
1/2tsp cinnamon

Put the flour into a bowl (or pile into a mound on a surface) and make a well in the middle. Mix the yeast with a little water and add to the well with the eggs, olive oil, sugar and seasoning. Gradually incorporate the flour and mix with your hands to make a smooth dough. Cover and leave to rest for 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Mix all the ingredients for the filling and season with salt and pepper. Roll out two-thirds of this pastry on a lightly floured surface and use it to line a 25cm flan tin, which is about 3cm deep. Spoon the filling into the pastry, spreading it evenly.

Roll out the rest to make a lid, brush the edge with water and position on top of the pie. Press the edges together to seal and make a hole in the middle to let the steam escape. Bake for 30 minutes, then lower to 180C/ gas mark 4 and bake for 15 minutes. Eat warm or leave to cool.

Pickled mushrooms in oil is from 'Complete Mushroom Book'. Cavolo versa con pancetta is from 'Invitation to Italian Cooking'. All others from 'Italia'. © Antonio Carluccio

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