NIGELLA LAW­SON EX­CLU­SIVE: our stun­ning photo shoot and why she says, “Life’s too short to feel guilty”

Nigella Law­son has seen more grief and heartache in 58 years than most of us could imag­ine. But through it all, she tells Sa­man­tha Trenoweth, her kitchen has re­mained the sanc­tu­ary where she cel­e­brates life.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY by PETER BREW-BE­VAN • STYLING by MATTIE CRONAN

Nigella Law­son pit­ter-pat­ters bare­foot across cool tiles in a high-ceilinged Vic­to­rian kitchen. Between set-ups for The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly’s photo shoot, she has slipped back into her sim­ple black slacks and T-shirt and come for­ag­ing for lunch. The larder is stocked with ev­ery del­i­cacy imag­in­able but the queen of Bri­tish home cook­ery goes straight for a crusty loaf of sour­dough bread and spreads a slice thickly with sun­shine-yel­low cul­tured but­ter. She washes it down with a cup of English break­fast tea strong enough to stand a spoon in.

“Per­fect,” Nigella ob­serves with that cryp­tic half-smile she some­times em­ploys on­screen when con­tem­plat­ing caramel. “I’m very par­tic­u­lar about bread and but­ter,” she adds.

Whether mak­ing short work of a bunch of pars­ley with her trusty mez­za­luna or whisk­ing a moun­tain of glis­ten­ing meringue, Nigella’s ap­proach to food is al­ways a celebration of life’s bounty. This seems some­how in­con­gru­ous be­cause, at 58, she has lived more closely with death than most of us would choose. Her mother, her much loved sis­ter, Thomasina, and her first hus­band, the jour­nal­ist John Di­a­mond, were all felled young by can­cer. She was carer to both her mother (who died at 48, when Nigella was in her 20s) and her hus­band, who passed away in 2001.

“I think my food is a celebration of life,” she agrees, af­ter a mo­ment’s quiet pon­der­ing,

“and yes, those things are linked.”

She has car­ried her bread and tea to a quiet cor­ner of the house and curled up on a comfy couch.

“When you see peo­ple lose their life young, it seems al­most crim­i­nal,” she says. “It’s like treating that as if it didn’t mat­ter if you don’t make the most of what is here... I feel that eat­ing is so much about grab­bing the mo­ment. While I’ve been in Australia, if some­one has said to me, ‘Oh there’s a re­ally won­der­ful ice-cream shop,’ then I’ve wanted to stop and try it be­cause what’s the point of be­ing alive if you don’t grab things that are won­der­ful?

“So I do feel this sense of ur­gency some­times. I don’t want to waste life. It feels so un­grate­ful not to take plea­sure. Peo­ple say to me, what’s your guilty plea­sure? And I think, why should I feel guilty about plea­sure? I think the only thing you should feel guilty about is not tak­ing plea­sure. You have to take plea­sure in life while you can be­cause peo­ple have that ripped away from them.

“Also, so many of my mem­o­ries of peo­ple I love in­volve food. I don’t think I would have writ­ten my first book [How to Eat] if it weren’t for my need to memo­ri­alise my sis­ter and mother. That was very im­por­tant for me. My chil­dren [Cosima and Bruno, now in their 20s] didn’t know my mother, so for them to eat her food means an aw­ful lot and that can only hap­pen if I cook it.”

It’s cu­ri­ous that her mother’s home cook­ing ul­ti­mately nudged Nigella towards suc­cess, when it was such a trial to her as a child. Her mother, Vanessa, was beau­ti­ful, elfin in an Au­drey Hep­burn way, born of a wealthy An­glo-Jewish fam­ily in the food busi­ness. She was also de­pres­sive, quick-tem­pered and in­sisted that her chil­dren eat ev­ery morsel on their plates. Un­fin­ished meals were served up again, cold, the fol­low­ing day. As a re­sult, Nigella dreaded meal­times and ate only grudg­ingly, but she learnt to cook, with Thomasina, help­ing their mother in the kitchen, im­bib­ing both tech­nique and in­tu­ition.

That in­tu­ition proved par­tic­u­larly use­ful at Ox­ford, where Nigella went on to study me­dieval and mod­ern lan­guages and reg­u­larly fed tribes of poor and hun­gry un­der­grad­u­ates. The in­gre­di­ents of her now leg­endary soups were dic­tated by what was cheap at the mar­kets but pota­toes, onions and im­pro­vi­sa­tion were main­stays.

Nigella re­mains a great im­pro­viser. “For me, cook­ing is very much about left­overs,” she says, “so a lot will be de­cided by what’s in the fridge. If

I had a roast chicken on Sun­day night, then there are so many dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties that can come from that. I think a home cook of­ten starts from the po­si­tion of left­overs, whereas a chef goes to the mar­ket and starts afresh.”

Yes­ter­day, The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly spent the af­ter­noon watch­ing from the side­lines as Nigella filmed an episode of MasterChef Australia’s much an­tic­i­pated 10th an­niver­sary se­ries (re­turn­ing to TVNZ 1 midyear). To be hon­est, we had ex­pected her to be a lit­tle bit pre­cious and princessy. She wasn’t. When the cam­eras stopped rolling and the other judges wan­dered off-set or joked with the crew, Nigella min­gled with the star-struck con­tes­tants, putting them at ease with her warmth and gen­tle chat­ter, of­fer­ing tips and an­swer­ing ques­tions. None of this was re­quired. She could have been sip­ping chardon­nay in the green room.

“Com­pan­ion­able cook­ing is such a treat,” she told them and she ex­pands on that theme to­day.

“I like cook­ing with peo­ple who know me well and know my kitchen well. I used to love cook­ing with Thomasina [who died aged 32]. I loved cook­ing for her and with her and just talk­ing to her while I cooked. I have a very good friend and we some­times cook to­gether, too. It’s a lovely thing to do.

“I also think it’s a won­der­ful way of talk­ing with peo­ple gen­er­ally. A lot of peo­ple are more com­fort­able

“When you see peo­ple lose their life young, it seems al­most crim­i­nal.”

talk­ing when your at­ten­tion is a bit else­where. So, if you have a friend or a child or any­one who is go­ing through a dif­fi­cult time and wants to talk about things that aren’t easy, I think you stand much more of a chance if you’re chop­ping some car­rots at the same time. It’s rather like the way peo­ple some­times feel they have im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tions while they’re driving. Peo­ple are more re­laxed when you haven’t got full-beam on them.

So I quite like chat­ting while I cook. The other per­son doesn’t need to be cook­ing with me. Some­times they can just be there, hav­ing a glass of wine while I’m chop­ping and stir­ring and un­wind­ing. I like that.”

The rest of the world seems end­lessly fas­ci­nated by the evo­lu­tion of her shape and size and, while Nigella in­sists that she’s very com­fort­able in her own skin, she con­cedes that many women’s re­la­tion­ships with body and diet are more prob­lem­atic.

“It’s a huge sub­ject,” she be­gins. “One is ex­pected to be a cer­tain shape and it’s not a shape that many women are nat­u­rally. I think that is dif­fi­cult. There isn’t just one way to be.

“I don’t prize ex­treme thin­ness. I don’t equate thin­ness with health. So many peo­ple want to be un­nat­u­rally thin, which means they are go­ing to have a strug­gle ev­ery day for the rest of their lives.

“My mother had a bit of an eat­ing dis­or­der so, for me, it was very im­por­tant not to be like that... It means a lot to me that my first book is used in eat­ing dis­or­der clin­ics and a lot of young women have writ­ten to me say­ing how it has helped them to make friends with food rather than feel­ing that it’s an enemy. That means an aw­ful lot to me. I think cook­ing helps. It helps to have a re­la­tion­ship with food in as many parts of the process as pos­si­ble: grow­ing food, shop­ping for food, pre­par­ing food... You have to start by learn­ing re­spect for the food and re­spect for your­self, and it can be hard.

“Also, if you can give your­self per­mis­sion to eat, then I think the rest does fol­low. Be­cause of the way a lot of women think of them­selves and their bod­ies, and be­cause of the way so­ci­ety en­cour­ages us to think so de­struc­tively, it’s not al­ways as easy as it sounds, but it is a les­son that can be learnt. I eat healthily be­cause I eat a bit of ev­ery­thing and I eat what my body tells me it wants. I don’t de­prive my­self.”

Nigella be­came some­thing of a cause célèbre for young fem­i­nists when she left her sec­ond hus­band, the ad­ver­tis­ing and art gallery mogul, Charles Saatchi, in 2013. The im­pe­tus was the pub­li­ca­tion of a pho­to­graph in which Charles was ap­par­ently try­ing to throt­tle Nigella at a May­fair restau­rant dur­ing his birth­day lunch. There fol­lowed a quick di­vorce and a lengthy, grubby court case, dur­ing which two em­ploy­ees were ac­cused of fraud and Nigella of drug use. Through it all, her rep­u­ta­tion re­mained, mirac­u­lously, barely sul­lied and to­day she will speak about none of it.

She is hope­ful that this next gen­er­a­tion of young women (many of whom jumped swiftly to her de­fence when Charles’ ap­par­ent at­tack was made pub­lic) will keep reimag­in­ing fem­i­nism with gusto. “It’s in­ter­est­ing,” she sug­gests, “to have a gen­er­a­tion of women who have not been brought up to, as Vir­ginia Woolf said [in

A Room of One’s Own], re­flect ‘the fig­ure of man’ back at ‘twice its nat­u­ral size’. I think that’s good.”

Nigella is quite the kitchen philoso­pher. In her most re­cent book, At My Ta­ble, she quotes the 19th-cen­tury Dan­ish the­olo­gian, Kierkegaard, on whether to im­pose or­der upon cook­books or life. “I don’t be­lieve there is a di­vine pur­pose,” she says, “or I think much of our pur­pose is to do with our re­la­tion­ships with one an­other. I think a moral code is im­por­tant but I think the uni­verse is chaotic and ran­dom.”

Nigella con­sid­ers her­self an athe­ist and for the most part, she says, she doesn’t try to make sense of life. “I don’t know that life makes sense,” she shrugs. “Isn’t that why we read? Be­cause the ran­dom­ness of life has to some­how be cre­ated into some­thing that has a nar­ra­tive force and a nar­ra­tive arc. That’s what we look for in fic­tion but I don’t know how much life has of that re­ally.”

If the lives, deaths and up­heavals around her have taught Nigella any­thing, it is that the surest place to find mean­ing is in the mo­ment. “One of the rea­sons I like cook­ing is that it forces me into the mo­ment, and that’s good,” she ex­plains, “as I’m rather an anx­ious per­son.”

What life can de­liver, she main­tains, in quiet, con­scious mo­ments, is an abun­dance of joy.

“I feel, and maybe this sounds triv­ial,” she says, “that joy can be so pro­found. It can be ly­ing with some­one you love or hav­ing your arms around your chil­dren. Yet it can also be a blue sky; the per­fect bit of bread and but­ter; fresh, crisp, clean sheets. It doesn’t have to be big and se­ri­ous. Joy is of­ten in those tiny mo­ments that be­long to the world of the senses, and I think that’s where I’m hap­pi­est.”

“I eat a bit of ev­ery­thing and I eat what my body tells me to. I don’t de­prive my­self.”

ABOVE: Nigella with John Di­a­mond and their chil­dren, Cosima and Bruno. RIGHT: Nigella’s mother Vanessa, fa­ther Nigel and sis­ter Thomasina.

With MasterChef Australia judges (from left) Ge­orge Calom­baris, Matt Pre­ston and Gary Me­hi­gan.

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