EVERY now and then a giant sweeps through the food world, bringing a clear personal vision. Elizabeth David was one. She changed our larders, cookpots and vocabularies.

So, too, in a gentler, earthier way, was Jane Grigson. Their somewhat dreamy American counterpart was the New Yorker essayist M F K Fisher. Eduard de Pomiane and X Marcel Boulestin represented the French approach with wry, highly cultured radio lectures and cookbooks.

Since Mrs David and Mrs Fisher died last spring, some chefs have stepped into the breach, among them Pierre Koffmann of La Tante Claire with his lovely book, Memories of Gascony. And, from the academic quarter, Yan-kit So, a giant in the making, has produced fine books on Chinese cookery. Yet how sorely we miss those legendary grand dames.

This makes it all the more heartening that there is still one giant thundering across the horizon. She is 68 year-old Marcella Hazan. Her stomping grounds are Venice and New York, but she visited London earlier this month to launch her latest book.

She braced herself for an onslaught of journalists with tumblers of Irish whisky, squinting critically from behind a more or less constant plume of cigarette smoke. The irony cannot escape her that, after 20 years work promoting authentic Italian food, her books are suddenly in serious vogue.

They are: The Classic Italian Cookbook (1973), The Second Classic Italian Cookbook (1978) and Marcella's Kitchen (1987). Published in the UK last week, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (MacMillan, pounds 20) combines the first two books with extensive revisions and some 50 new recipes.

Curiously, the first thing she stresses is that there is no such thing as Italian food. There is, she insists, only regional food - the subtle fish dishes of the Veneto, the pungent sauces of Naples and so on.

The new book contains an excellent section on fundamental ingredients and tools. Handling instructions are given in concise and direct language: 'the most useful thing to know about basil is that the less it cooks, the better it is . . .'

If an exacting diktat, she offers rewards: 'Good home-made pasta is not as chewy as good factory pasta, it has a delicate consistency and feels light and buoyant in the mouth.' There are realistic concessions, too. The barley soup might call for extra-virgin olive oil and finely chopped fresh herbs, but it admits a stock cube, too. Do not, however, rely on Mrs Hazan for convenience. To her, cooking and eating well are not a chore but a sensible way of life.

'If you think food is important,' she says, 'you try to learn the food and the principle of food. If you think it is not important, but you try to make a wonderful dinner, the two things don't work.'

I told her that on two occasions, once while forming gnocchi and once hand- stretching pasta for tortelloni, I had been reduced to near hysteria and had created only pounds of rubbery gunk.

She was unmoved. 'It's not always easy at first. You're learning a craft. A few pounds of flour and a few eggs - it doesn't cost so much.'

Mrs Hazan certainly knows about learning a craft. Born and raised in Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy, she took degrees in natural sciences and biology at the University of Ferrara. She then married, moved briefly to New York and had a son.

Suddenly the scientist was a housewife, but she did not know how to cook. She knew, however, how to eat. 'Food in Italy is a very normal thing,' she says. 'You are supposed to eat and you

are supposed to eat good food.' So

she taught herself to cook.

She moved back to Italy when her son was three-and-a-half, and now spends most of the year there (the rest of the time is spent in New York). On the top floor of a 16th-century palazzo in Venice, she runs an exclusive cookery school which offers eight week-long courses a year. They cost dollars 1,750 ( pounds 1,114) per person.

So, at pounds 20, her book is an economical and useful alternative. And, as readers, we owe those rich students a great measure of gratitude; after noting their insecurities and shortcomings, Mrs Hazan became the most exact and sensitive cookery writer working. 'While teaching, I realised I had to say things which were obvious to me but were not obvious to my students,' she says.

They were not obvious to her husband, Victor Hazan, either. He pestered her to be exact when he began, 20 years ago, translating her works from Italian into English. 'He used to demand to know how certain steps were done. I would think, 'My goodness, they're just done]' and I would have to re-do the recipe to think it through. Even then he used to interrupt me to measure a quantity, or to ask why I was doing a certain thing.'

A series of eager hosts booked her into a succession of London's Italian- style restaurants during her visit. She had some good food and some bad - such as porcini mushrooms cooked in wine. 'Porcini, when they are cooked, throw out water,' she says. 'So these were boiled. They were lovely before the cooking. I felt very sorry for them.'

Thinking through the chemistry of cooking is typical of her approach. 'If you get into the kitchen and you are tense,' she says, 'try to think. If you have a vegetable with a tough stem and delicate leaf, first you do the stem and then the leaf. If you want to draw the moisture from something, salt before cooking. If not, don't. If one starts thinking, it is really not such a big production to cook.'

Her husband interjects that there is also the question of talent. Some people have it, some do not. She nods, but adds: 'Everyone has one basic ingredient and can use it. It is common sense.'

Marcella Hazan's halibut

THIS IS one of the recipes in Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. It serves 6-8 people.

When young and locally caught, halibut is a fish of exceptionally fine texture. It is rather short on flavour, however, and can become dry in cooking. The preparation described here preserves all of the fish's natural moisture, and its shyness of taste is overcome by cooking it over a tender, densely savoury stew of squid braised with tomato and white wine.

Ingredients: 900g/2lb whole squid or 675g/1 1/2 lb cleaned squid, sliced into narrow rings

85g/3oz onion, finely chopped

8tbs extra virgin olive oil

2tbs finely chopped garlic

3tbs finely chopped parsley

150ml/5fl oz dry white wine

1/2 tsp deseeded and chopped hot red chilli pepper

675g/1 1/2 lb fresh, ripe, firm tomatoes, skinned raw with a peeler and chopped, or 400g/14oz tinned Italian plum tomatoes, cut up with their juice

salt

1.5kg/3 1/2 lb halibut cut into steaks 1in thick

Preparation: Slice the squid sac into rings a little less than 1cm/1/2 in wide, and separate the cluster of tentacles into two parts. Whether cleaning it yourself or using it already cleaned, wash all parts in cold water and thoroughly pat dry with a tea towel or kitchen paper.

Choose a saute pan that can later accommodate all the fish steaks in a single layer without overlapping. Put in the onion and olive oil and turn the heat to medium-high. Cook the onion, stirring once or twice, until it becomes a pale gold, then add the garlic. As soon as the garlic becomes a very pale gold, add 2tbs of the parsley, stir quickly once or twice, then add all the squid.

Turn the squid over completely two or three times, coating it thoroughly. Cook it for 3 or 4 minutes, then add the wine. When the wine has simmered for about 20-30 seconds and partly evaporated, add the tomatoes with their juice, turning all the ingredients over completely. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down to minimum and put a lid on the pan. Cook until the squid feels tender when prodded with a fork (about 1 hour). If, in the interim, the cooking juices become insufficient, replenish with up to 100ml/4fl oz of water when needed. Add salt and chilli pepper and cook for 1 or 2 minutes longer, stirring frequently.

Put the fish steaks over the squid in a single layer without overlapping. Sprinkle with salt, turn the heat up to medium and cover the pan. Cook for about 3 minutes, then turn the steaks over and cook another 2 minutes or so. The fish should be cooked all the way through - so that it is no longer gelatinous - but you must stop the cooking while it is still moist. Taste and correct for salt and chilli pepper. Transfer the contents of the pan to a warm platter and serve at once.

For information about Marcella Hazan's Venetian cookery courses, write to: PO Box 285, Circleville, New York 10919, US, or ring 0101 914 692 7104.

(Photograph omitted)

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