Jamie Oliver returns to screens with the tastes of Italy that are a major part of culture

Jamie Oliver with his mentor Gennaro Contaldo on his new Channel 4 series.

Jamie Oliver returns to our TV screens with a new show about the country where food is such a major part of the culture, writes Gemma Dunn.

Jamie Oliver has made no secret of his desire to educate the masses. In the past two decades alone, the Essex boy-turned-political crusader has tackled childhood obesity, with the goal to shake up school dinners; overhauled sugar intake; revolutionised home cooking; and provided a platform to train apprentice chefs from disadvantaged backgrounds.

All the while building his own empire — worth a rumoured £300 million. Phew.

"If I had a magic wand, if I could make one wish for the planet, I’d want every child, at 16, to be able to cook 10 recipes to save their life,”says Oliver, 43. “I want to teach them the basics of nutrition, and the basics of shopping and budgeting. If you were to gift that to children, we would be in a much happier, healthier, more sustainable place.”

He halts, before adding: “The structure of education in most countries is science, maths, language and they think cooking is this f***ing periphery. A romantic, middle-class luxury: ‘Oh isn’t it cute?’

“But if you look at public health and death, if you can’t cook, then your life has a certain curve to it and you’ll die at a certain age,” he goes on.

“Of course, some people don’t, but if you take 10,000 people that can’t cook, they’re dying shorter than the ones that can.”

The latest target of his epic anti-obesity drive is junk food advertising. A movement that’s seen him call for the UK government to impose a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts. “Kids are bombarded, day-in, day-out, with ads for food and drink that are high in fat, sugar and salt. We’ve #AdEnough,” he tweeted back in April.

“Interestingly, we have all the science and data from the cleverest people you can trust, that say junk food advertising needs to [happen] after nine o’clock at night,” he reasons, resolute in his mission.

“But the heads of the advertising organisations and these channels are saying advertising doesn’t make kids eat more stuff!”

He has another strategy, however: “One of our suggestions is that you shouldn’t be able to use cartoons on cereal [boxes] or food that is unhealthy. They should be used for good, not for bad,” he explains.

“And if you look at all the graphics, the animations and the Disney characters, it’s nearly all of it,” he says. “Disney’s legacy should not be in getting kids ‘iller’, but getting them healthier.”

Point made. But it’s not all campaign trails and government-penned letters for the busy father of five (Oliver shares three daughters and two sons with his wife of 18 years, Jools).

The much-loved star has written enough bestselling cookbooks to fill a small library. Not to mention fronted endless small-screen triumphs. His latest TV foray, Jamie Cooks Italy, is, in fact, the reason we’re sat in his plush North London office today.

Joined by his long-time friend and mentor Gennaro Contaldo, Oliver will travel to eight different regions — from Puglia in spring and the Aeolian Islands in summer, to Tuscany in autumn and Rome in winter — to experience seasonal foodie delights and show the art of traditional Italian home cooking.

Who will put them through their paces? The true masters of the Italian kitchen, of course. The nonnas and the home cooks who have perfected recipes that have been lovingly handed down over generations.

“I love the Italian approach to life - it fills me with such joy!” quips Oliver.

“To be a foreigner in Italy is a real gift; it’s really nice, it’s very simple."

“Italians, generally, are very wonderful people, and as long as you’re polite and you smile, and they can tell that you love food — not because you talk about it but because they know you’re a foodie — they’ll constantly go ‘Try, try’,” he says.

The eight-part series also means quality time spent with his ‘best friend’ Contaldo, who he first met during his time as a pastry chef at Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant in the 1990s.

“He’s 69, I’m 43, I think we’re both feeling a little bit fragile,” Oliver confides. “Not because we’re vulnerable, but we’re just looking at the next 20 years, and his 20 years looks a bit different to my 20 years.

“So we want time together — we’re good together. He looked after me when I was a baby boy, he was my boss. And now I look after him. It’s a cycle.”

On the recipe front? “I’ve got all occasions covered. Fast and slow options, simple dishes for you and a friend, family suppers, weekend treats and epic celebratory feasts,” he promises, with book Jamie Cooks Italy complementing the series.

“I’d love everyone to take a bit of the Italian heart and soul of the nonnas’ approach into their cooking.”

Jamie Cooks Italy starts on Channel 4 on Monday.

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