I’ve fallen in and out of love with Nigella Lawson cooking on TV. When she stormed on to our screens way back in 1999 with Nigella Bites, it was mesmerising. After the rather dour seriousness of TV cooks like Delia Smith, Nigella was revolutionary; her attitude to food was a revelation. Cooking for our families, for ourselves, for our friends, was no longer about perfect little recipes to weigh out, carefully measure and time, solemnly prepare. Food was something to love; food was something to feel passionate about. Food became something just a little bit naughty. Entertaining, feeding our nearest and dearest was no longer about perfection but just making our very best effort and enjoying the process as well as the end result. Nigella wasn’t someone you liked; Nigella was someone you loved. And love her I did.
But as time went on, I have to confess I loved her a little less. She messed around with Italian cooking which is only ever meant to be simple; lavish desserts were too sweet and OTT for my taste. She continued to be the darling of other cooks, who have always loved her. She continued to attract the admiration of many of my friends. But I started to feel uncomfortable watching her; she was becoming almost a caricature of herself. Well, of course, now we know of her problems. The light and bright days of marriage to the wonderful and late John Diamond gave way to the less happy days with Charles Saatchi. The Nigella on our screens was no longer happy, and I think that came across.
To mention her ‘troubles’ – well known anyway – is only to acknowledge the subtle reference she makes to them herself in the opening episode of her new TV series, Simply Nigella (BBC2 Mondays at 8.30pm): she refers to being settled into her new kitchen and ‘where my life is right now’. The really great thing is her being ‘settled’ shows in how she is in herself. This is more like the Nigella we first met; this is a more relaxed and clearly happy Nigella. It’s a joy to watch her again.
What I really like about watching Nigella has less to do with her recipes than her attitude to food and cooking. It’s ‘not possible to live well without eating well,’ she tells us; she wants to cook ‘food that makes me feel good’. She says ‘a little bit of stirring helps me to decompress at the end of the day’, which instantly made me think of how I love cooking risottos, of that long slow wind down as you add the hot stock ladleful by ladleful and gently stir until that moment of perfection – and then you eat it straight away! Yes this is how I like to cook; how I think about food.
It’s easy to relate to Nigella. Sure, her kitchen and home are obviously far removed from what most of us live in. But that’s not the point. The point is that Nigella is truly passionate about her food and how she cooks it; and she loves cooking for family and friends. She’s serious about her food but she’s not over-serious about how she makes it. She throws things in rather than measures them out (unless it’s baking); she tells us as she makes a simple meal of mashed avocado on toast that she seasons it according to the time of day and what she feels. This is how we really cook – according to mood and what’s to hand. ‘What and how we cook can make us feel more alive,’ she says. With Nigella, cooking is part of life and to be celebrated. We watch her shop: ‘little rituals are so important’. And this is true: rituals, some kind of structure in our lives is grounding; it makes us feel more secure and that in turn makes us happier and calmer.
There were recipes: a rather complicated stir fry – complicated because it had so many ingredients that you’d have to live on it for weeks to make buying everything worthwhile; a very gorgeous salad recipe of feta, avocado, red onion and Nigella seeds; a teasingly messy dish of slow roasted lamb ribs that need to be eaten with hands; a delicious spiced cauliflower and chickpea salad. And a fabulous apricot and almond cake where all the ingredients were thrown into a food processor, blitzed and then put in a cake tin and baked. ‘Baking is uplifting and calming,’ Nigella tells us. Well certainly for me if it’s that easy with such a wonderful result!
I almost didn’t watch this evening but having seen Nigella on a number of shows recently, I realised I liked her, respected her and really related to her views on food and cooking. I’m so glad I did watch. It’s Nigella back on form; great form, wonderfully passionate and sensuous about food as ever; and fabulous entertainment for us food-loving viewers.