Life & Culture

I want to soothe people with food

In a rare interview, Nigella Lawson talks about the recipes that have transformed her tumultuous year


The sun has just burst through the clouds on the Cote D'Azur and this is not a good moment to be Nigella Lawson's PA, or should I say the small phalanx of PAs who busy themselves, i-Phones pressed to ears, like honey to the bee. Nigella you see, has a problem. A PA is hurriedly dispatched in my direction.

"Is it possible to do it out of the sun," I'm politely asked in that way that sort of renders the question mark irrelevant. "She said she doesn't really want to be in the sun at all."

To be fair to Nigella, she is quite the trooper as a parasol is produced. You can imagine her being the tomboy as a teenager, the wing man par excellence in adulthood. She likes to feign occasionally mild protests throughout our chat but it merely reinforces the impression, as if needed, that Nigella is incredible fun to be with.

So here she comes, the Damsel in Solar Distress, shielding her eyes, (no big pair of shades for Nigella). She is immediately open, honest, engaging, vivacious, and not unlike current Bond girl Monica Bellucci in ways too adult to go into in this esteemed publication.

The hand she proffers is porcelain white, as she seeks the safety of the our makeshift shade:

"Bonjour Nigella…"

"I'm just going to stay out of the sun because I've not really got skin to go in the sun, Andrew," she tells your auburn-haired interviewer free of irony.

"And I don't really want to fall over into the sea either," she adds, looking over her shoulder at the 10ft drop into the Mediterranean.

Oh dear, the South of France is absolutely choc-full of perils today. But she effortlessly relaxes, allowing herself a smile so devastatingly disarming you understand just why the BBC were so keen to have her back in the kitchen cooking up those impressive viewing figures for the channel with her new Monday night series, Simply Nigella.

She settles into a rhythm of promoting the show (of course) but all the while revealing the slightly vulnerable side we have come to see more of since, well, you know who and those infamous paparazzi snaps over lunch.

It's lunchtime here, too, and Nigella automatically raises her game, as if being in the land of gastronomic excellence does that to champions.

I'm immediately disarmed by her razor-snap wit when I ask her why she's here. "Wow, what is my reason for being here, well that's a big existential question." She chuckles. The mind is alert, and obviously this is how it has accounted for millions of male hearts since she was a teenager studying modern and medieval languages at Oxford.

"It's a return to my own programmes really, which are always what I loved doing. There has to be something that connects through and I suppose my voice and my recipes are that."

Ah, yes, the voice. In spite of her background, her vocabulary somehow comes over as anything but posh; again, she works this fine line where it is her accessibility that makes her so appealing.

"It's a very uplifting environment for the way that I'm cooking and I think this is really important because what I suppose I really want to talk about in this series - and I do both through the food and my wittering - is that food can be such a wonderful way of helping us to de-stress from a busy working day.

It helps us people relax and I feel it's really important to show how that can be achieved through the food, but also I like the fact that it is reflected in the way the programme is shot in terms of all of the ingredients."

I'm about to raise the dreaded C word but she beats me to it: "We could class a lot of what I am making these days as comfort food and going back to how food can have a soothing quality, particularly at the end of the day - well, any time of day actually

Is that a fair comment, though, to call it comfort food, I ask, realising that the word itself has negative connotations.

Aware of her immediate surroundings (we could throw a fishing net over about three Michellin-starred hotel restaurants where we have arranged to meet), Nigella is ready: "My food is comfort food but not in a way that people think - because people think that comfort food is stodgy, maybe quite bland; you know, pies, heavy food, but I think it takes on many manifestations. Sometimes, for example, I cannot stop roasting cauliflowers."

Roast cauliflowers? Now that's new…

"Sometimes, it can be a really wonderful spice-and-roast-cauliflower salad; sometimes, it's a bowl of soup; sometimes, it's something rather sprightly. I think a lot of Asian food is, in that way, quite comforting. And I guess sometimes it may be a take on an old favourite like Shepherd's Pie but made with lots of Indian spices and sweet potato on top rather than the normal potato.

"I do that, actually, because it's much easier to do and you just bake and you don't then have to peel and mash."

So is this a new lazier -sounding Nigella?

"Well, you know, laziness and patience is the driving force rather than any other concern. It's comfort food but comfort food that doesn't then make you feel like you can't get up from the sofa.

"It's comfort food and yet you feel like you can jump up and embrace the world with joy." (And I swear she actually tip-toes slightly in unison with her words.)

I tell her that I need to ask how, at the age of 55, she still looks amazing. How she reconciles the eating of comfort food with staying fit herself? Or is there a simpler way, does Nigella just eat less and less the older she gets?

"You know, it's a terrible thing to say but you do eat less and less the older you get.

However, what I do believe in is just eating what your body needs. Anything you need and what makes you happy. The pattern of eating does but I think I've always been someone who likes to eat and savour meals. I don't like non-stop grazing."

Does she think sleep issues are as important as food the older we get?

"I don't know because sleep is always important but I've never been a great sleeper. I feel old people seem to sleep less and less actually."

What's the real Nigella like?

"Well I'm very inquisitive about meeting people. I love meeting people and I really like that any chance I have to talk to people or meet people or eavesdrop on conversations is very good and I'm happy.

"Really, the only thing I'm not brilliant at is the sun so, while everyone else adores being in the sun, I really need to be in the shade at all times, otherwise I will dissolve into the pavement if I am in it too long. I believe also that nature can be savage as well as soothing."

She winks at me (or at least I think she did), in full playful Nigella mood now. And I see again how so many male hearts have been shattered since those early days under those dreaming spires.

And how those almost guilty-pleasure TV shows have men sometimes needing to grab the cushion as they watch with their wives or girlfriends.

Nigella's appeal is universal, though oddly enough not here in France where she is looking forward to lunch en plein air (shade permitting) without fear of intrusive paparazzi long lenses.

Oh, let's not even go there. The comeback Queen of British television might not be able to dim the sunlight or hold back the waves but she's in her element in this culinary paradise and suddenly launches into a hilarious critique of French cheeses:

"French cheeses are beautiful in every way but I can't choose between French cheeses.

"I love Conti and Roquefort. I'm yet to meet a cheese I don't like." It's significant that as we say our Au revoirs she name-checks maybe the most famous, and resolute, of Frenchwomen.

Thank you for being so kind to chat to in the shade today Nigella.

We share a birthday - January 6 - by the way.

"Yeah we do… with some lovely people, but you're much, much younger than I am by several years.

"Yes, we share a birthday with Rowan Atkinson and Angus Deayton and sadly we missed Elvis Presley by couple of days." And - the pièce, or perhaps femme, de resistance - "Joan of Arc of course, she is also the sixth, don't forget her."

As if we ever could. Joan or Nigella…

'Simply Nigella' continues on BBC2 on Mondays at 8pm

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