Antonio Carluccio: 'We'd have the wehrmacht at lunch and then the Italian resistance at dinner'

The chef and author on growing up in wartime Italy, and other formative food experiences

My first memory is of my mamma cooking. We were living above the railway station in Castelnuovo Belbo [in northern Italy] where papa was station master, and mamma would send me downstairs to see when the last train before lunch was coming, then within five minutes – just before papa sat down – she'd cook fresh pasta.

I have scarring up my left arm from pulling a pot of coffee off the stove at three years old. I don't remember it, but they say I was very courageous – or traumatised – as the doctor pulled off the burnt skin.

In 1944 we were caught between fascist soldiers and partisan soldiers and mamma would cook for both – the wehrmacht came for lunch and the resistance for dinner. I was a mascot to both and they'd give me chocolate.

The partisans said anyone with two pigs would have to hand one over. That night, my father had one of our two secretly killed, with its blood drained for black pudding. I'll never forget the terrible squealing below my bedroom.  

After the war - without the booby traps - it was safer to go foraging, which I loved. The only thing mamma discouraged was mulberries, because she couldn't wash the juice stains from our clothes. I still often go foraging today. There's so much available and I just can't understand why the British only pick blackberries.

I was called home to discover my 10-year-old brother Enrico had died – which was probably the start of my depressions. I'd taught him to forage for mushrooms and to kill and gut a rabbit and he'd felt like a son to me [Antonio was 23 when Enrico died]. The day after he died I bought a kilo of anchovies and washed and prepared them and made a green sauce with parsley. This took all day and I think was the start of me using cooking to relieve sadness and to bring meaning and purpose.

In west Berlin in the 1960s I went through Checkpoint Charlie to visit a relation of my girlfriend in east Berlin and I took two big bags of oranges, bananas and other things people didn't have there. But when I got there it was embarrassing – he had everything already because he was secretary of the Communist party.

In Italy teenagers go home for dinner – it's where they can discuss their problems. This is something often missing in Britain. Most of my happiest memories are at table. Although I tipped the table on to the floor when one lover said she wanted everything when we split up. 

When I was in Hamburg, working in wine importing, the owner of the house I lived in wanted a party. I prepared a whole table of wonderful food, but while I was out of the room my dog, Yan, jumped on the table and ate or ruined everything. After that he hid under the bed for three days. 

My worst customer was a pain in the arse. Knowing alcohol couldn't be served after 11pm, he would order a bottle of port at one minute to 11 and then take until 3am to drink it. One night I sent the staff home and then exclaimed: 'No! I'm fed up! Go. Go!' The best was Alec Guinness, who would come in, wanting to sit alone quietly at a table with a book and a bottle of wine, and then leave a £20 tip. OFM

Antonio Carluccio: A Recipe for Life (Hardie Grant, £20) is out now


John Hind

The GuardianTramp

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