Antonio Carluccio believes the British have a serious problem with food. And this problem - more and more pronounced with each generation - is damaging not only our diet and health as a nation, but also our family lives, he says.
Carluccio, the larger-than-life Italian chef responsible for a string of eponymous delicatessens and restaurants across London and the South-east, has warned that a national "laziness" in failing to keep family meal times, particularly Sunday lunch, is a destructive British trend which needs to be stopped.
"So many people don't give a damn any more," Carluccio says. "The entire art of cooking - of going out to buy fresh food, then preparing it and serving it - just isn't there any more in this country. People prefer to get ready-made food; they prefer complacency. This is to the detriment of cuisine and to the detriment of family."
Carluccio, 69, has joined other celebrity chefs to support the growing IoS Sunday Lunch Campaign. It is an initiative he feels passionately about.
"Sunday lunch is extremely important," says Carluccio, who has lived in Britain for nearly 30 years. "In this country, lunches and dinners are supposed to be social cement, where families are supposed to gather and children are supposed to learn from their parents and grandparents. In an egotistical world where everybody seems to be thinking of themselves, it is very important to have lunch on a Sunday and gather the family all together."
So if we want to stop our family ties disintegrating, says Carluccio, who is married to Priscilla, younger sister of Sir Terence Conran, we should take a leaf out of our Italian cousins' book. "Any possible occasion, they get together as families. Things are changing there too of course, but not as much as in England. In England there is a big problem. If you live like that, it produces sterile families."
Carluccio, who usually has up to 10 guests, including friends and extended family, for Sunday lunch at his weekend cottage, said it was important to include as many branches and generations of the family as possible in weekend meals."In Italy, they like to have the feeling that the elderly are not treated like an old rug," he says. "They are very useful, and the children learn a lot from them over dinner. It is all about teaching. Everything I learnt, I learnt from my family. I didn't even realise I was learning, but later in life I appreciated that it made me who I am.
"You may have rows, but that is important too. The social nucleus of the family thrives and survives on that: it needs that contact. Otherwise, each one has his own flat, his own car, his own life, his own holiday, and they don't have a family any more."
Carluccio's country retreat, a cottage near Petersfield in Hampshire, is packed at weekends with his wife and as many of their five grandchildren as possible. Each Sunday morning he picks vegetables and herbs from the garden to be cooked with the meat - usually beef on the bone - that he has invariably bought from the local butcher.
His grandchildren fetch fresh produce from his garden, a ritual he describes as "collecting from the green department of nature".
Carluccio, who also ensures he has a "sacrosanct snooze" after every Sunday lunch, is a big believer in fresh local produce. This, he says, is a crucial ingredient in good cooking.
"Supermarkets are huge distributors of mediocrity," he says. "All their stuff is just half-baked, as they say. I call them the equalisers: they flatten the tastes of everybody and get them all to eat exactly the same thing."
Carluccio, who believes that "producing good food is an act of love as well as necessity", was a wine merchant in his native Italy. The son of a stationmaster, and with six siblings, he grew up in Piedmont. After working in Austria and Germany in his twenties, he arrived in Britain in the mid-1970s.
A talented amateur chef, it wasn't until he met Priscilla that he seriously considered cookery as a career. After he married her - his third wife - in 1981, his brother-in-law Sir Terence asked him if he wanted to run a restaurant he owned in Covent Garden. That was the launch of the Carluccio brand, and later, the venue where he gave a first break to a young Jamie Oliver.
Polpettone al sugo: meat loaf in tomato sauce
Serves 10; 1.5kg minced beef; 300g finely chopped lean lamb; 200g crumbs from stale bread, coarsely ground; 3tbs finely chopped parsley; 80g freshly grated Parmesan cheese; salt and freshly ground black pepper; 6 eggs; oil for frying.
For the tomato sauce:
3 onions, finely chopped; 8tbs olive oil; 3-4 bottles of passata or peeled plum tomatoes; 10 fresh basil leaves; 0.5 litre red wine.
Mix the minced beef with the crumbs, add the parsley, Parmesan, salt and pepper and mix thoroughly. Lightly beat the eggs and add them. Form it into an oval meat loaf. In a large cast-iron casserole, heat the oil and fry the loaf until it is a crisp golden-brown all over. Set casserole aside.
In a separate pan, fry the onion and lamb in the oil. When they turn golden, add wine and let evaporate, then add the tomatoes drained of some liquid. Cook sauce over a medium flame for 10 minutes, stirring. Season with salt and pepper, add basil then pour the sauce on the meat loaf, and put the lid on the casserole. Simmer for an hour or put it in a hot oven (200C) for an hour. Turn loaf from time to time. Remove lid after 30 minutes to allow the sauce to thicken. The loaf should cool for 10 minutes before it is sliced. Serve with roasted peppers and cubed new potatoes fried with garlic and rosemary.
Antonio Carluccio (recipe is from 'An Invitation to Italian Cooking', 1st Edition published by Pavilion)