Monday 4 November 2013

A Tribute to Marcella Hazan

When I heard a couple of weeks ago of Marcella Hazan's death, memories came flooding back and I immediately wrote a heartfelt post about her on my i-Pad. But somehow or other it disappeared into thin air. I was so upset, as I wrote it from the heart when the sad news of her death was still fresh. It is so important to me to write and tribute to her, and so I shall to attempt now to do it all over again.

Marcella Hazan has touched my life in many ways over the years. I have always loved to cook, and was already planning to start my own cookery school. I had several people telling me how wonderful Italian food was, but having never been there, I didn't know where to start. Then one day I found a recipe for homemade pasta in Gourmet, the American food and travel magazine, and I started experimenting with making my own pasta from durum semolina, rolling it by hand, cutting it and hanging it from the front rung of the Aga to dry.

I was longing to learn a bit more about Italian food but didn't know where to turn, it always seemed so exotic. But as luck would have it, not long after, Jane Montant, the editor of Gourmet magazine was staying in Ballymaloe, and Myrtle introduced her to me and told her I was desperate to learn more about Italian food. She was adamant that there was only one person I should contact: Marcella Hazan. She told me about a week long cookery course that she did in Bologna, and gave me her details. I sent away for more information, which eventually arrived back via snail mail. A week long course cost £650, a small fortune back in 1982, but I desperately wanted to go. It was perhaps the first cookery course at that time that offered visits to markets, cheese makers, wine tastings and meals out, as well as cookery demonstrations. Timmy took the last penny we had out of the bank, and maybe even borrowed some money, so that I could take this course. And it turned out to be the best investment he ever made.

Everybody had been raving about Italian food - the markets, the produce, the food - this at a time when no-one held Irish produce or cooking in much regard, and far away hills were far greener then, it seemed. So I took a train from Paris to Bologna. I had a wonderful week, and indeed the food was delicious. But, it occurred to me, not any more wonderful than the produce we grew in the farm and gardens here ourselves. There was a great build up of excitement about the final dinner in a fish restaurant in Marcella's home town of  Cesenatico. I still remember the name, La Gambera, which means 'the prawn' in Italian. And the food was indeed delicious, but once again, no more so than the superb fresh fish we got in Ballycotton. This was a real eureka moment for me. I suddenly really got what Myrtle had always deeply understood: the produce we have here in Ireland was as good as the best anywhere else in the world.

I was the only Irish person that had ever enrolled on one of their courses. Most of the others were wealthy American students, many of whom were regulars on the international cookery school circuit - so both Marcella and Victor were intrigued and amazed as to how they had got an Irish farmer's wife on their course, which at that stage I was, I think that they suspected that I was a journalist incognito!

I came home fired up with enthusiasm, realising that to have a cooking school in the middle of an organic farm and gardens, close to the little fishing village of Ballycotton, was an idea that had real potential.

Almost a decade later, in 1992, I invited Marcella to come to the Cookery School as one of our first guest chefs, and people flocked from around the world to learn from her. The class was over-subscribed - with over 50 people. When Marcella realised it was 50, not 15 as she had thought, she nearly had a wobbly, but her husband Victor managed to reassure her, and we had a truly memorable two and a half days.

Her course was the last of the season, and the next day was our annual staff away-day. It was planned for Heir Island to visit John Desmond's wonderful restaurant, Island Cottage. We invited them to join us, which they sportingly did. There was torrential rain and so we all got soaked to the skin on the little boat crossing from Cunnamore to Heir Island. I remember my husband Timmy brought a bottle of whiskey to warm her up, and I treasure these wonderful photographs of Marcella and Victor walking up the tiny winding path, his arm around her, clutching the bottle of Paddy.

Marcella was always the quintessential coiffured, elegant Italian lady - so it was even funnier when we all arrived wet and bedraggled, hair plastered down by the rain. But she totally entered in to the spirit of it and we all had a wonderful time. I hadn't realised how much she had enjoyed this episode until I read about it in her autobiography, which she let me quote from in my own most recent book, 30 Years at Ballymaloe, so things have come full circle.

A group shot outside Island Cottage. Marcella is to the right of chef-owner John Desmond in the yellow mac, whilst Victor holds an umbrella in the back.

Then almost a decade later, I had already done several successful Simply Delicious series on television. We decided to make the next series in France and Italy in 1992, so we filmed an episode with Marcella in Venice, and then kept up contact. By which time she and her husband Victor had moved there, so any time after that when we visited Venice, we looked them up.

When they eventually decided, in their later years, to leave their beloved Italy to move to Florida, to be closer to their family, they invited some of their friends from around the world to come and see them before they left. So Tim and I spent a couple of convivial days with them in Venice, and as we said our farewells, I promised to come and visit them in Florida on a future trip to America, and really, really, meant it. But years passed, and I wasn't necessarily swinging by Florida on my trips - and my promise was beginning to haunt me, so in September 2012  I planned a trip to visit them in Longboat Key, Florida.

I flew into Sarasota and spent two wonderful days with Marcella and Victor, eating and reminiscing. Marcella cooked us a delicious lunch and dinner even though she was having increasing mobility problems. It felt so good to keep my promise. Little did I realise that that would be the last time I would see her.

I owe both Marcella and Victor a great debt of gratitude for their knowledge and inspiration and I don't know if they fully realised the confidence that they triggered in me.