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Gennaro Contaldo

It is an honour and privilege to be asked to be ambassador of Citalia. Established over 80 years ago, Citalia is the leading and most respected travel company in the UK dealing exclusively with holidays to my beloved Italy.

 

Who Am I?

Some of you may have heard of me, but for those who haven't, let me take you back to a small fishing village on the Amalfi Coast in 1950's southern Italy. I was born just metres from the sea on a stormy January night where the wind was howling and the waves were crashing against the rocks. The sea was the first sound I heard and I think I must have just fallen in love with it there and then. Growing up in this beautiful unspoilt 'Garden of Eden', the sea was my paddling pool and the mountains my backyard. Food and nature were all around me and, as with most Italian families, food dominated the conversation, not only at the dinner table, but in just about all aspects of life. I was fascinated by everything my environment had to offer - I spent days at sea with local fishermen who taught me all about fishing and how to prepare and cook seafood. My father was a hunter so he often took me out with him and his friends; I learned how to shoot, clean the game and eventually prepare wonderful dishes. My mother sent me to collect wild herbs for soup and taught me to recognise the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms. In season, I knew where the best fruit trees were and couldn't wait to taste the first cherries, peaches, apricots and figs. When autumn came my fingers would be black from shelling fresh walnuts and I couldn't resist pears and chestnuts. I didn't know it then but it was the perfect apprenticeship for a chef and I was developing a passion for beautiful food.

 

Coming to England

I came to England in 1969 at the age of 20 - it was so cool to be in the land of the Beatles and I loved the bright lights and excitement of central London. I also loved the contrast of the peaceful, green English countryside and soon found my way foraging for wild mushrooms, fishing and hunting. Of course there were moments when I was homesick - I missed my family and friends, the warm waters of the Mediterranean and of course home cooking. I remember seeing posters on London buses and in tube stations of Citalia advertising Italy and I couldn't resist popping into travel agents and taking a Citalia brochure home with me so I could gaze at the pictures of bella Italia and dream of the lovely places of my homeland. It made me feel instantly better knowing that I could easily visit Italy during the holidays.

 

As a child, I was always amazed at tourists coming to visit the Amalfi Coast and wondered why anyone would want to do that. We didn't go on holiday. It was only when I came to England that I appreciated going on holiday and of course for me, it had to be Italy. In those early days I travelled by train and it would take nearly two days to reach my home village. It was all very exciting and tickets for the various trains, boat passage and sleeping car were all booked well in advance. The long journey started at London's Victoria station to catch the so-called 'boat train' to Dover harbour where the huge ferry would be waiting to take us across the channel to France. It was at the French port that I boarded the sleeping compartment (shared by 6 people!) but it was fun and you always made friends and, in true Italian style, shared food we had brought along for the journey. As the train rumbled through the darkness of the night across the French countryside, the Swiss Alps greeted us in the early morning. As we approached the Italy border I trembled with excitement and could almost "taste" Italy. A further train change at Milan took me to the south. How travel has now changed - a click of the button and a booking is made. Sometimes I do miss those nostalgic train journeys but am pleased to see that Citalia does organise travel to Italy by train. It is a lot more glamorous and quicker these days with Eurostar and high speed TGV trains or even the luxurious Venice Simplon-Orient-Express to Venice to choose from.

 

Working as a Chef

I worked as a chef in several places throughout the country but unfortunately Italian food in restaurants was not so great in those days. However, I had the good fortune of meeting Antonio Carluccio and working at his Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden. It was here, where a few years later, I had the pleasure to hire the young Jamie Oliver as pastry chef, taking him under my wing and teaching him all I knew about Italian food. We became really close - he was like a son to me and I became his "London Dad."

In 1999, I opened up my own restaurant, passione, on Charlotte Street in London, which for 10 years went from strength to strength and in 2005 was awarded best Italian restaurant in London. It was during this time that my first cook book was published and I began to appear regularly on food programmes and finally together with Antonio Carluccio on the successful BBC2 series Two Greedy Italians, which has subsequently been transmitted in many countries all over the world. Filming for the series was very exciting and took us to many beautiful parts of Italy, from the Alpine region in the north to remote southern villages of Calabria. The contrasts were amazing, not only geographically with diverse landscapes and climate, but also the cultures and traditions of the people and of course the food. I cannot help but be passionate about Italy and I am so pleased to be associated with Citalia, who like me, share the same passion and enthusiasm for this unique country.

It will be my pleasure over the next 12 months to guide you around my home country with its mountains, hills, forests, lakes, coast, the beautiful islands, the ancient historical cities, the culture, traditions and of course the wonderful food. Whilst writing I am transported back to Italy and I thank Citalia for giving me this wonderful opportunity. I hope you will enjoy this journey with me and visit one of the most beautiful countries in the world with Citalia. For now, I wish you all best wishes for the New Year - Tanti Auguri di Felice Anno Nuovo!