Nigella Law­son tells Sarah Cather­all about Christ­mases past and why she’s not plan­ning give up any­thing for 2019

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS -

Nigella Law­son has one par­tic­u­lar Christ­mas that she will never for­get.

It was in Lon­don, 25 years ago. She had given birth to her first daugh­ter, Cosima, two weeks ear­lier. She hadn’t made a name for her­self as a food writer then, nor had she writ­ten a sin­gle cook­book. She and her first hus­band, John Di­a­mond, also a jour­nal­ist (he died of throat can­cer in 2001), had moved into a new home and their kitchen was a con­struc­tion site.

The ex­hausted new mother walked into the sham­bolic kitchen and turned on the toasted sand­wich machine. Speak­ing in that dis­tinc­tive voice — plummy, choco­lately, slightly breath­less and sexy — she sounds al­most sur­prised re­call­ing it.

“We had a toasted sand­wich and a bag of crisps for Christ­mas and that was quite nice. I was pretty ex­hausted, two weeks into be­ing a new par­ent. I did put a bit of cran­berry in the toasted sand­wich to make it feel a bit more Christ­massy.”

In truth, though, the kitchen siren puts a lot of thought into Christ­mas. One of her 11 cook­books is ded­i­cated to Christ­mas, fea­tur­ing recipes like choco­late Christ­mas pud­ding and marzi­pan cake. She also fronted her own Christ­mas cook­ing show on tele­vi­sion. Her in­flu­ence was so huge that when she lauded the im­por­tance of goose fat as a Christ­mas in­gre­di­ent in 2006, su­per­mar­ket sales of goose fat dou­bled in the UK.

Be­fore our in­ter­view, she posted a photo on In­sta­gram of her “Ul­ti­mate Christ­mas Pud­ding” recipe on “Stir Up Sun­day” — the tra­di­tional day for be­gin­ning the Christ­mas pud. When she re­turns to Lon­don, the best-sell­ing au­thor will head straight to her home kitchen to make hers. “I will be jet-lagged when I make it,” she sighs.

She talks about her up­com­ing New Zealand tour early next year but there is a ban on any “per­sonal ques­tions”. Over the past five years, Law­son has had her share of boil-ups — a court case with her sec­ond hus­band, Charles Saatchi, fol­lowed by their bit­ter divorce; al­le­ga­tions of her drug use; and a fraud trial

I al­ways ad­vise peo­ple to in­vite some­one who you don’t know well enough to not be­have badly in front of.

Nigella Law­son

in­volv­ing two as­sis­tants whom she says she treated like fam­ily.

The past is an­other coun­try. Law­son likes to live in the present. When asked what she might give up for New Year’s res­o­lu­tions there’s a sharp in­take of breath down the phone from Syd­ney.

“I think that’s a dismal way of look­ing at it. I think more about what I might add.

“I would never give up food, not in any shape or form. Ab­so­lutely not.

“I al­ways tell my­self to live more in the present. But cook­ing does that for me. One New Year’s res­o­lu­tion would be to stop just hav­ing the ideas and to start do­ing some writ­ing, which I enjoy.”

FOR LAW­SON, Christ­mas gets un­der­way when she has the pud sorted. She makes ed­i­ble Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions to hang on the tree, a rit­ual she be­gan when her two chil­dren (son Bruno is 22) were lit­tle. Law­son makes gin­ger­bread dough and carves it into fes­tive shapes: stars, bells and snowflakes. Her voice qui­etens. “I call them ed­i­ble but I’m so hor­ri­ble that when the chil­dren were lit­tle I used to put lots and lots of ground pep­per in them, oth­er­wise they wouldn’t have stayed on the tree. They’re only no­tion­ally ed­i­ble.”

On Christ­mas Day, you might ex­pect Law­son to be at the stove, serv­ing her fam­ily a feast. This year, she will spend Christ­mas Eve cel­e­brat­ing with im­me­di­ate fam­ily. On Christ­mas Day, she and her chil­dren will join friends at a friend’s home. In­vited guests will divvy up the food. Law­son will bring the glazed ham, the pud, and brandy but­ter.

“I love do­ing the cook­ing but I won’t be in my own house. You can’t im­pose your­self too much. We will be at my friend’s house and she’s a very good cook. Her son is a chef, so we will do it all be­tween us.”

She will also whip up three Christ­mas cakes for her home tins — a marzi­pan cake (her favourite); her choco­late fruit­cake recipe, and a third, yet-to-be-de­cided cake, so she has some­thing to serve visitors. “Christ­mas cake is al­ways es­sen­tial, as is Christ­mas pud­ding,” she coos.

Christ­mas Day, and the build-up to it, can be a pres­sure-cooker time. “You’re bring­ing two things to­gether that peo­ple feel stressed about — fam­ily and food. I al­ways ad­vise peo­ple to in­vite some­one who you don’t know well enough to not be­have badly in front of.”

Has she done that? She skirts the ques­tion, sim­ply an­swer­ing that her per­fect Christ­mas Day is a “more the mer­rier” ap­proach. “I think it doesn’t mat­ter if some­one has to sit on a stool or if the ta­bles don’t quite match. I think that’s part of the joy of it.”

Law­son de­cided at a young age that she wasn’t go­ing to take Christ­mas Day too se­ri­ously. Daugh­ter of the Lon­don so­cialite and heiress Vanessa Salmon, she watched her mother un­der stress prior to Christ­mas, nerves rat­tled from cook­ing and shop­ping too much.

Law­son says she had a frac­ti­tious re­la­tion­ship with her mother. She tells Can­vas: “My mother would burst into tears near Christ­mas … I was de­ter­mined to not take things so far. I wanted to make things eas­ier for my­self. It was much harder then. In those days, shops closed so early and you had to get so much done in such a short time.”

Her up­bring­ing was priv­i­leged and she lived in ex­clu­sive Lon­don suburbs like Chelsea, Kens­ing­ton, and Hol­land Park. How­ever, Law­son re­mem­bers her child­hood Christ­mases be­ing sim­pler and more ba­sic than they are to­day. “I’m al­ways driv­ing my chil­dren mad by say­ing things like, ‘When we got stock­ings they had a few sat­sumas in them.’ We’d get a pomegra­mate in our stock­ings. Christ­mas was much sim­pler. Foil-cov­ered coins, that kind of thing.”

Her mother, who died of liver can­cer when Law­son was just 25, taught her daugh­ters how to cook. How­ever, she didn’t teach Law­son how to bake or how to make pud­ding. Her mother also didn’t like to eat.

She did ad­vise her daugh­ter to cook both a ham and a tur­key on Christ­mas Day to al­low for left­overs, though.

“It’s a very Jewish thing to want to pro­vide a big spread. I al­ways cook for eight but make enough for 30,” Law­son re­veals in her bi­og­ra­phy.

TWO DECADES ago, Law­son pub­lished her first cook­book, How to Eat, en­cour­aged by Di­a­mond. A best seller, she hails it as a ca­reer high­light.

“Noth­ing ever com­pares to the first time you have a book to hold in your hands that you’ve writ­ten,” she says. “That never fades. That’s the thing I love, the con­nec­tion I have with other peo­ple.”

That book and the fol­low­ing one, How to

be a Do­mes­tic God­dess, launched her tele­vi­sion ca­reer, and her TV show, Nigella Bites, which ran on Chan­nel 4 from 1999 to 2001.

On the cover of her third cook­book,

Nigella Bites, Law­son is pho­tographed with eyes down­cast, a piece of food poised be­tween full, parted lips. Through­out her ca­reer, she has been crit­i­cised for serv­ing up “food porn”. When Nigella Bites pre­miered in the United States, a New York Times critic said she was too flir­ta­tious. “Law­son’s sexy round­ness mixed with her speed-de­mon tech­nique makes cook­ing din­ner with Nigella look like a pre­lude to an orgy.”

In in­ter­views, she said her style was “in­ti­mate”, not flir­ta­tious.

With three mil­lion-plus cook­book sales so far, she says her cook­books have served as mark­ers of where she is at in her life. She talks about this in the video pro­mot­ing her 2015 cook­book, Sim­ply

Nigella, say­ing: “For me, the recipe is a highly charged, au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal form … Here is where I am now. This is my food. This is what my life is tast­ing like now.”

When asked how the food scene has changed since she started out in 1998, she says: “In a way, I’m very happy to say that I don’t have to busy my­self too much with the culi­nary scene. I’m a home cook, and that’s re­ally what slightly mo­ti­vated me to write about food. It’s re­ally been taken over by the pro­fes­sional. You know, you don’t have to be qual­i­fied or have any par­tic­u­lar skills to be able to cook.

“I would like to think that peo­ple un­der­stand that home cook­ing is dif­fer­ent from restau­rant cook­ing. The home cook has ac­cess to so many dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents and in­flu­ences to­day. I think home cook­ing has changed. A lot of peo­ple think that home cook­ing is just what your mother and grand­mother made but that’s not true. Home cook­ing is any­thing that you cook at home, and it means ven­tur­ing out, in a way.”

SO­CIAL ME­DIA has al­lowed her to con­nect with her fans in new ways, al­though her book read­ers out­num­ber those she meets through Face­book, Twit­ter and In­sta­gram. She loves the two-way exchange with her fans, who send in pho­tos of her dishes.

“I love to see what other peo­ple are do­ing with my recipes so it turns it more into a con­ver­sa­tion — and that’s what I like.”

It’s part of the rea­son why she is bring­ing her live show, An Evening with Nigella Law­son, from the West End to Aus­trala­sia: it is a chance for her to share her story about her life as a food writer; to talk about the im­por­tance of food and the part that food plays in our lives.

“Food sus­tains us. But it plays such an in­tense emo­tional part in our lives. It’s part of the story of who we are and how we ex­press our­selves. Food is a repos­i­tory for mem­ory. It’s that whole other side of food that isn’t just about the bare bones of it or the prac­ti­cal side of food.”

Less than a month from 2019, what does Law­son hope the New Year will bring?

“Do you know what?,” she con­fides. “I’m not a plan­ner. That’s one of the rea­sons why I’m happy to have my [live show] so un­struc­tured.”

She has two cook­books on the burner. She will pot­ter about in her kitchen and see what sim­mers. It seems sur­pris­ing she doesn’t have a pub­lish­ing dead­line, but she says: “I don’t have any­thing ab­so­lutely fixed. All I know is that I have these ideas and I need some time to have a bit of a play. I’m not sure when or how they will be­come books.”

Her 59th birth­day is just af­ter the New Year, on Jan­uary 6. How does she feel at this point in her life, in the last year of her 50s?

“Do you know what? I’m not re­ally a birth­day per­son. I don’t re­ally re­flect on that. I think I’m just lucky to be alive.

“I think life al­ways moves for­ward. When it stops do­ing that, you’re dead. I think in a way that’s what makes it ex­cit­ing. You’re con­stantly aflux.” NIGELLA LIVE ON STAGE: AUCK­LAND, JAN­UARY 22; WELLING­TON, JAN­UARY 23; CHRISTCHURCH, JAN­UARY 25. FOR TICK­ETS TO HER SHOW, GO TO NIGELLALIVEONSTAGE.COM.

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