Food & Drink: Good cooks, good looks and good taste: Nigella Lawson surveys a vintage year for cookery books and finds that our renewed fascination with Italian cucina remains undimmed

ANOTHER year, another batch of cookery books, but the story remains the same: unchanging, undiminished Italian. A few years ago, people stopped eating garlic bread and started on bruschetta, and they can't seem to give it up. The rebirth of Italian cooking - or at least its rediscovery over here - could at first, at least, be explained by the vagaries of fashion, as a reaction to the itsy-bitsy refinement of an ageing nouvelle cuisine. Urban sophistication gave way to an idealised back-to-the-land peasant culture, a super-rusticity which seems ever to whet the appetite it feeds. Tastes, for once, have not palled.

There are many reasons for the continuing favour Italian cooking enjoys, quite apart from the quiet fact of its insistent superiority over flashier cuisines. It is simple. It has no quarrel with the contemporary, and increasingly obsessive, notions of health; neither the appetite nor the liver become jaded from frequent indulgence. There are no fussy techniques to learn, no displays to master in order to dazzle. French cooking may be about showing off the skills of the cook, but Italian seeks only to draw attention to the food. The ingredients are not daunting, nor the preparation involved lengthy.

But the particular virtues of Italian cookery provide the very reason why a great number of books on the subject are not necessary. This is not to say the list that follows is redundant: wallowing in the familiar is in itself pleasurable. And, as much as a year can be a good year without something from Anna del Conte, this is a good year.

If I cannot have Anna del Conte, I am satisfied - more than - with Marcella Hazan, her counterpart in America. The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Macmillan, pounds 20) may be too familiar for some - it is not exactly new but a reworking of two earlier titles, The Classic Italian Cookbook and The Second Classic Italian Cookbook - but her text is as fresh as the food for which she stimulates such an appetite. A new chapter on 'fundamentals' teaches cooks and keen eaters all that is necessary about embarking on this cucina, which is not so much a strict and uniform repertoire as a shared attitude towards the ingredients that constitute it.

Marcella Hazan is a stern but fond teacher and her principles are sound. She despises the ridiculous, and fashionable, assumption that 'fresh' pasta is superior to factory dried pasta. She insists on the best produce and will never advise innovation at the cost of sense or taste. Above all she explains. Her recipes are not necessarily short, but they are straightforward and extend far beyond what we might consider the traditional repertoire. If this were the only cookbook you owned, neither you nor those you cooked for would ever get bored.

Donaldo Soviero's La Vera Cucina Italiana: The Fundamentals of Classic Italian Cooking (Souvenir Press, pounds 16.50) will not tell you anything that you will not already have learnt from Marcella Hazan, but he has a cheerful, anecdotal turn of phrase and a particular Italo-American jauntiness that endears rather than irritates. Its main drawback for the British cook is its use of cup measurements, which surely impede the progress of cooks of all nationalities. At least he does not expect you to mash butter down in a cup before cooking, which is what some of his fellow American cookery book writers demand.

Valentina Harris's Complete Italian Cookery Course (BBC, pounds 16.95) is the book of the television series, and the enthusiasm and almost rambunctious liveliness she exhibits on screen are gleefully conveyed here. This is a handy volume for the inexperienced cook, as instructions are short and no great expertise is expected. This is more for the kitchen shelf than for bedside reading. But still, its luscious illustrations stimulate appetite as well as activity. Like Marcella Hazan, she invites the reader to try perhaps as yet untasted dishes - spaghettini with butter and lemon, rabbit with apples - and her recipes for turkey breast with mozzarella and turkey stuffed with green olives, Italian sausage and chestnuts might well enliven jaded appetites at Christmas.

This has been a productive year for Valentina Harris and her second publication, Instant Italian (Conran Octopus, pounds 15.99) satisfies the appetite for Italian food and also no-nonsense, quick-fire cookery. Beautifully presented, with illustrations of just-within-the-bounds artiness (plates of risotto are photographed on a mosaic floor, a spinach, prosciutto and avocado salad against a fresco) this book will give you an enjoyable enough time even if you do not want to cook from it.

The cooking itself is anyway minimal: bresaola, the air-dried beef fillet, with spring onions; grilled goat's cheese wrapped in vine leaves; broad bean and pecorino salad. Some of the recipes stray towards a distinctly un-Italian gimmickry - she insists that melon and rocket salad tastes better than it reads, but I remain unconvinced. It is more the sort of book you would buy as a present than for yourself, which says more about its allure than its durability.

And if it is beauty you are after, this year has no shortage of shiny and lavishly illustrated large-format books which bring together the art of the travelogue with the craft of the cook - or at least intend to. If you have a Tuscan farmhouse or wish to pretend you are in one, Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Tuscany (Stewart Tabori and Chang, pounds 25) provides recipes and ambience. John Dominis's photographs are positively operatic in their display, though I am not entirely convinced as to the effectiveness of picturing, for example, a bowl of chickpeas with the Duomo filling the skyline behind. As ever, though, Bugialli's recipes are sound and unpretentious.

Charting the same territory comes Florentines: A Tuscan Feast (Pavilion, pounds 12.99) though there is a great difference in scale and style. This small book is by way of an album of the still lifes of the artist Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) to which Lorenza de' Medici has added recipes, prefaced with snippets from Castelvetro's Brief Account of the Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy written from exile in England in 1614.

Robert Freson's Savouring Italy (Pavilion, pounds 25) is perhaps the obvious coffee-table cookbook to choose. He was the photographer who published A Taste of France almost a decade ago, and he remains the starriest of all the glossy procurers of the beautiful image. But the obvious choice is not always the best one, and certainly not here. The standard of writing is uneven: some of the 'essays' are no match for the pretty pictures and, overall, the tone of the book is reminiscent of the texts that accompany the photographs in airline magazines.

For the same price comes a distinctly superior buy: Giorgio Mistretta's Italian Gourmet (Ebury Press, pounds 25) is quite the best book of this sort I have come across. Beautiful photographs show food as food, not camp props or soft-focus artefacts, and the recipes make you actually want to cook rather than merely decorate your kitchen with tasteful bunches of dried herbs and painterly haunches of ham.

All books available from: Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 (071-221 1992).

(Photographs omitted)

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