Feast your eyes on this

Hunger and passion ... Nigella Lawson's new show delves into Italian cooking.
Hunger and passion ... Nigella Lawson's new show delves into Italian cooking.

It is an analogy that seems apt for the food industry: what came first the chicken or the egg? Or, did food-themed TV explode because of society's changing approach to food, or has society changed its approach to food because of food-themed TV?

''It's a good question, and I do wonder what comes first - was it that people started to get more disposable money and food became a bigger part of people's lives, and that was reflected on the telly?'' the British food TV producer Pete Lawrence says.

''It almost feels like something you can relate back to World War II, to rationing, then to the next generation, into the 1970s and then the boom of the 1980s. I suspect it's as much tied to that as it is to the rise of TV chefs.''

In any event, he adds, food is the new rock'n'roll. ''It's interesting to see how food trends now,'' Lawrence says. ''I almost equate it to the fashion industry in that sometimes what's happening out there in restaurants seems way out, but it does filter through.''

Lawrence is one of Britain's most accomplished food television producers. His credits include The Hairy Bikers' Best of British, The Prison Restaurant, Nigel Slater's Simple Suppers, The Good Cook and, most recently, the Italian-themed Nigella Lawson series, Nigellissima.

Lawrence says Nigellissima begins with one essential, simple ingredient: British food journalist, broadcaster and amateur cook Nigella Lawson. ''The series, the ethos behind it, it all comes from Nigella,'' Lawrence says.

''Nigella has a close affinity with Italy; she speaks fluent Italian, she worked there as a young adult, she has a lot of close connections with Italy. When we started talking to her about a series, she'd been working on the ideas behind it for a long time.''

The spirit of Italy, he says, is one of confidence, tradition and simplicity. ''You couple that with the smells and visuals of Italian food, it's spectacular, but beautifully simple.''

At the same time, he is at pains to point out this isn't a series about Italian food in the strictest sense. Nor is it the story of Lawson's own Italian journey. The feeling was that those ideas - the chef's journey through a foreign land and cuisine - were tired and played out within the cooking genre.

Instead, this is Italian food interpreted and prepared by Lawson in London. Its emphasis is on simplicity and easily accessible ingredients. No obscure vegies from a small Italian market here. This is capital ''I'' Italian, with a contemporary twist.

''You could take Nigella travelling around Italy and do authentic traditional Italian, but that's been done so many times,'' Lawrence says. ''We want it to feel like Nigella brought that back home, ingredients you can buy on your doorstep and the kind of food she cooks on a regular basis.''

What makes Lawson's technique so captivating is Lawson herself: eloquent, sensual, even flirtatious. Unlike some programs where the food precedes the host, here the host is as as important as the food she is preparing.

''When Nigella talks she has this mesmerising quality that you want to listen to her,'' Lawrence says. ''I have done a wide range of food shows and you try to design the show around the personality of the person you're working with. And Nigella oozes personality and charisma. She is captivating.''

She also has a well-established brand, which Lawrence kept in mind when producing Nigellissima. ''She has a certain style and a certain look, it has to be classy, it has to feel warm and it has to be aspirational,'' he says. ''So once you put all those ingredients together, the show evolves.''

The most pressing question with food- and cooking-themed television programs is balancing the genuinely instructional with the purely fantastic.

''I think there are two types of people when it comes to cooking, and everyone I meet tells me they're one and their partner is the other,'' Lawrence says.

''There are people who follow recipes to the letter, and there are people who cook by instinct. I think the same is true of cookery programs. There are people who probably do want more instruction, but the truth is they can go off and find the recipe after the program. With television, you're trying to cut and tighten, to make things pacy.

''Most people are there to look for ideas and inspiration. Maybe some do go out and buy the pans and ingredients and cook them the same way, but I think a lot of people just want to be entertained.''

One of the most interesting aspects of Nigellissima is its soundtrack: an acoustic signature that does not, as you might expect, delve too deeply into Italian traditional music and opera but rather remains distinctly British, with a hint of jazz.

''We had a lot of discussions in the edit,'' Lawrence says. ''We wanted to make that differentiation. This isn't Nigella travelling around Italy, this is Italian-inspired food that Nigella is cooking in London, so we didn't want to make it sound faux Italian.

''It had to feel Italian, but our focus with the music was less on Italy itself and more on creating a mood for the show: warm, intimate, glossy, jazzy. On the Christmas program we introduced a little more Italian music, but when we used too much Italian music in the series if felt cliched, like we'd seen it before.''

What it does deliver, however, is the kind of ''food porn'' that fans of Lawson's programs have come to expect. The food photography is sumptuous and Lawson's sensual interaction with the ingredients is, in the food TV realm, almost without peer.

Lawrence laughs when the phrase ''food porn'' is brought into the conversation. ''I think it's almost an unfortunate phrase because of the sexual connotation to it, but what is true is that there is no point in doing a food show where the food doesn't look great,'' he says.

''You want people to watch the show and feel hungry, and people are not going to feel hungry if you just drop something onto a plate and stick any old light on it. So as soon as you go down that line, wanting the food to look as good as it can, you spend a lot of time and money on that and getting that look absolutely right.''

Television may not be able to convey smell and taste, but it does convey sight and sound, Lawrence says. ''So we have to entice people in and make them want to eat it.''

Nigellissima airs on Thursdays, ABC1, at 8.30pm.

This story Feast your eyes on this first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.