This evening and tomorrow BBC4 is dishing up a delightful combination: first Antonio Carluccio – an Italian chef who has moved to London in 1975 and is renowned for his cafes and writing – explores the life of Count Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and recreates the extraordinary dishes described in the book. Then tomorrow night, BBC4 are showing Visconti’s film based on the novel.
I’ve just watched the first programme. Carluccio starts by giving a quick historical overview of the situation in the 1860s using a map and carefully placed biscuits!
Chocolate bourbons in Naples, Savoy biscuits (better known as sponge fingers) and Garibaldi biscuits (aka squashed flies) in Piedmont, and Nice biscuits in … Nice. Between the Bourbon and Savoy rulers was the Papal States, but Carluccio concedes that the Pope never had his own biscuit! Incidentally, Garibaldi biscuits were invented by an English manufacturer in response to the enthusiasm for Garibaldi’s visit to London in 1864.
As he cooks his way delightfully through the book, Carluccio explores the history and culture of Sicily. He also visits Marsala, where Garibaldi and his 1000 followers landed on 11 May 1860, and touches – too briefly, but perhaps that’s another programme – on the Britsh connections with Marsala. Carluccio states that “wherever you find fortified wine, you find the British who more or less invented it”. Definitely true of Port (Symington) and Marsala (Woodhouse, Whittaker).
There are interesting interviews with David Gilmour, who wrote the only biography of Lampedusa, and Prof Lucy Riall, Garibaldi‘s biographer. As well as more surprising appearances by the comedian John Fortune (of Bremner, Bird and Fortune fame) and Baroness Susan Greenfield.
In a series of breathtaking shots of Sicily’s spectacular scenery Carluccio revisits places from Lampedusa’s own life and those from the novel – passing from Donnafugata (although the palace was destroyed by the earthquake of 1960) to Palma (where you can still visit the Convent of the Rosary) and the Castle of Montechiara.
The novel was rejected twice and the Prince received the second letter while he was dying in a clinic in Rome. In the letter Einaudi, the publishers he had approached, wrote that the book was “old fashioned, unbalanced and too essayish”. Lampedusa never returned to Palermo and died in July 1957.
The book was finally published by Giorgio Bassani, who worked for Feltrinelli, in November 1958 and it became an instant bestseller. John Fortune probably speaks for many of those who love this book when he says, “don’t you feel that by the end of the book, you think … what is life about?”
Now for the film, tomorrow evening.