“I am so pathetic I even crave the approval of my toothbrush,” Nigella says. If she’s a good girl and does a two-minute job on her film star teeth, she gets rewarded with a smile from the brush in question. “Sometimes I do try and defy it by stopping at 1.59 but I just can’t.” She owns up to being an habitual people-(or toothbrush-) pleaser, but Nigella hates the popular notion that somehow she’s a shameless television coquette, a finger-sucking flirt. “I really don’t understand this stuff about the comedy of innuendo.” It’s male journalists, she says, who hunt for the wink-wink-nudge-nudge double entendres. Women come to her book signings, and want their picture taken with her because, she claims, they find her unthreatening – no kind of vamp.
Part of me wants to groan, “Oh come on, Nigella.” But then I’d watched DVDs of her wandering the streets of Florence in her latest TV series about Italian food called Nigellissima (which might be translated as “Extreme Nigella”) and then back home in her kitchen blitzing up an anchovy, olive, caper and lemon sauce for a spelt pasta; sticking one of those sticky fingers in the liquorice pudding; and, somewhere over the dark Sargasso Sea, I think well actually this is just the Nice Jewish Girl I’ve known for years – all warm-blooded exuberance, husky laughs, a bit of a high-minded blue-stocking under all the sexy merriment – not so much a tease as a playpal. “We’re both talkers,” she says to me and I interrupt her, adding how no one understands that Jews communicate by mutually agreed interruption. “Yes, yes,” she interrupts back, “and this is going to sound a bit weird,” she says, “but I’m an evangelical. I just want people to share my enthusiasms and my thoughts. If left to myself I just wilt.” Do we high talkers overdo it in the land of the sardonic understatement? “Maybe that level of energy is intoxicating for a short time but at the same time draining … If I go on too long they have to go away and lie down in a darkened room – and so do I! I find myself exhausting.”
In spite of the high-voltage radiance, Nigella claims to be a bundle of anxieties, “driven by fear”. “Poor you,” her husband Charles (Saatchi) says, “always so fraught.” She doesn’t really do religion, but some mornings she owns up to saying, “Please God, get me through the ordeal that is today.” Sitting in the autumn sunlight, by the handsome kitchen that is both workplace and playground for Nigella’s cooking, stainless steel surfaces, arrays of pots and knives that occasionally spring up unprovoked and wound her, it sure doesn’t seem like much of an ordeal for her or anyone else.
Beyond the kitchen are her husband’s latest acquisitions: group portraits of astronauts. I’ve known Charles off and on for longer than I have Nigella. In our bar mitzvah years, kitted for sharpness, a gang of us would hang around the same salt-beef bars in Jewish northwest London, where I thought of him as the king of barefaced effrontery, slickly stylish, champ of the loudmouth loafers (I was in the running). At Jewish club dances, we’d aim for long-lashed, big-voiced, dark-haired curvy girls, first drafts of Nigella, though in my case with decidedly mixed luck. Nigella married Charles in 2003.
I tell her what I’d noticed on the DVDs, that over the years her voice has got so Jewish, the Golders Green diphthongs all nose and cheeks. She laughs and doesn’t disagree. “It’s my Jewish husbands.”
It might look like the perfect life, but nothing is, and if her account is currently full of happiness, who could begrudge it? Nigella has had enough real pain in her life to earn good fortune with interest. Three of those closest to her have all died cruelly young of cancer: her mother (at 48); then her sister Thomasina (at 32) and her first husband, the journalist John Diamond, at 47 in 2001. He was one of the wittiest people I’ve ever known and stayed that way, at least amid friends. When the throat cancer had ripped out his larynx, John scribbled jokes on a notepad, waiting with a puckish grin for our laughter. Nigella had met him on The Sunday Times, where they became friends before anything else. “I didn’t think he was my type. I was used to going out with effete intellectuals, so when he changed the bumper on my car I thought again. I’d never had a Jewish boyfriend before and then I ended up with two Jewish husbands.”
John’s famous articles tracking the inexorable advance of the cancer were hard to read and harder not to admire. But I often wondered whether shoving a private and family trial (they had two children together, Cosima, now 18, and Bruno, 16) into the public glare might be tough on Nigella. And it was. “He agreed to the TV documentary without asking me, just saying ‘Well, it helps me’, so of course I said, ‘All right, if it does.’ People said John was confronting his illness but I thought, no he’s made it into a work problem and of course at the end he was so angry, but look, who wouldn’t be?”
There’s a wistful pause in the bubbly river-run of merriment. I ask to see some photos of the young Nigella and out comes a whole sheaf of them: Oxford Nigella, fancy-dressed as Queen of the Night in snagged fishnet arm-length gloves and murdered-starling feather hat. But there are many more of the kid Nigella, in sailor suit with her brother Dominic, doing her Utmost to be Happy. Much of the time she was not. The two things we all love her for – talking and eating – she didn’t do at all. “I never ate. I just read and talked to myself, anything else I found inhibiting. My mother thought I was autistic.”
That mother, Vanessa Salmon, of the Anglo-Jewish food dynasty that owned J. Lyons & Co – an immense institution in postwar Britain – was, as the photos show, slight, dark, beautiful, and for her first daughter, dangerous and forbidding. “I never thought I could please her.” “Was she frosty?” I ask. “No, not at all! She was funny but depressed and so sensitive to noise. The sound of a plastic bag being crinkled would send her deranged. She’d shout at all of us and say, ‘I’m going to hit you till you cry,’ and so I never would cry. I still don’t. It wasn’t a calculated thing; it was hot-blooded hitting, a thrashing out of things. Once she had to stop hitting Dominic as she hurt her hand. She just didn’t like me; maybe because I came after Dominic the princeling and I was my father’s girl she was jealous, I don’t know. I would say I’m sorry for whatever it was, some mess, and she’d say, ‘Why do you think being inconsiderate is an excuse?’”
And the handsome father, Nigel Lawson, destined for great things in Thatcher’s government, but then a hard-driving journalist? “Oh the background music to my childhood was the sound of a manual typewriter and my mother’s ‘Be quiet darling, Daddy’s writing.’ In the morning he’d stretch out like a pasha on the chaise longue with the newspapers, and in the evening when I was doing A-levels he’d come home and since he didn’t like drinking alone would say, ‘Darling, come and have a drink with me while you’re doing homework, a whisky or a campari soda.’ So I did. Great upbringing, right?” Where Vanessa was all unpredictable, mercurial fury, Nigel was easy-going vanity and clever charm. “I was so naughty at school but so quiet at home that when I got the bad reports my parents were convinced they must be talking about the wrong child. But then my father said, ‘Oh darling I’m so glad you’ve got it that way round; much better to be naughty at school and good at home.” When both of them failed ever to show up for parents night, Nigel's response was to say, “But that’s a good thing as the teachers will be sorry for you having such awful parents.”
The odd meal with parents at home in Chelsea was tense; waiting for the fell swoop of Vanessa’s rage. “It was like children of alcoholic parents who know right away when they’ve been drinking, we always would know in an instant if it was going to be bad.” But when she was elsewhere the abundant Nigella capacity for happiness, the elfin grin of the little girl in the photos, switched on and lit up. Around the ages of nine and 10 she spent time in the flat occupied by the German lesbian nanny and her girlfriend, who ran the children’s department at Dillon's, the Bloomsbury bookshop. Then came Sissel, the Norwegian who took Nigella away three years in a row for summer holidays at Kolbotn near Oslo (“Yes, Nigel thought it was funny too”), where she learnt enough Norwegian to do without the subtitles in (Swedish) Ingmar Bergman films.
Fortunes crashed, including J Lyons’. The trouble was, Nigella says, that it was men running the business, men of the second generation who weren’t hungry for achievement any more. “You know them – small, quiet people who go off to the office whereas the women are powerhouses, but they weren’t allowed to have anything to do so the men got stupider and went broke.” She says this with much feeling and I know a bit about that story myself. Hard times liberated my own loud and accomplished mother to get into the workplace and do good, but Vanessa had been brought up to be a deb and “stayed childlike”. After she and Nigel had divorced, there was a reconciliation of sorts with her daughter when Nigella was 19 and, later, the twentysomething daughter, now off and happy and independent in her own life, cared for the terminally sick mother. But if the shouting had died down some extraordinary things would still come out of Vanessa’s mouth. Wasting away, she told Nigella it was the only time in her life she wasn’t depressed and the only time she didn’t have to worry about food. “I’m so relieved you’re grown up,” she told her over lunch, “because now if I want to commit suicide it won’t matter like it would if you were a child.” “Can you imagine talking to your child like that, however old? But at the end she said, ‘You’d better put in the papers it was cancer, otherwise everyone will think it was suicide, which you and I know it is.’”
By this time, though, Nigella was out from under the maternal shadow, though she worries sometimes that she’s inherited some of her mother’s demons, even the depressive temper (something I’ve never seen) but which she says would send her into “anhedonia – the inability to take pleasure in anything”. She fought her way out of the blues by making her own intellectual life at school. When the family fortunes were lost she was taken out of posh schools, including a boarding school. (“Darling,” Nigel had said,“how would you like to go to boarding school?” “I wouldn’t.” “Right, you start next term.”)
The school was conveniently near his constituency, even though it was for “the mentally retarded daughters of Midlands industrialists”. She loved the teachers and they returned it with wisdom and encouragement. Godolphin & Latymer, where she went after the fortunes flatlined, was even better. And she worked whenever, wherever she could, lying about her age (14) to get a job at Ravel, the Kensington High Street shoe shop; then assistant filing clerk in the aviation division of Shell, temping and waitressing. To this day Nigella, at 52, is fiercely proud of earning her own way in the world. In her gap year she went to Florence with a schoolfriend, knowing no one, and got a job as a hotel chambermaid, picking up Italian along with a boyfriend, Fortunato. “At the bar where we had breakfast they’d say ‘Fortunato? E veramente fortunato!’”
So the outgoing, confident, food-loving, ideas-hungry, intellectually adventurous Nigella had already emerged from the chafing chrysalis of family sorrows, but Oxford completed the metamorphosis. Spurning the “spotty boys who just wanted to talk about A-level results” and not wanting to cruise on the languages she already knew – German and French – Nigella read Italian, where she wallowed (“I loved the wallow”) in Dante, Petrarch and Cavalcanti. She would settle into a tiny reading room in the Taylorian Library, and let it be known she would Receive during the hours from two to six.
In her second year she began to cook: vat-loads for the young and hungry, buying sacks of onions and potatoes from the covered market along with a breast of lamb for 25p: “Just fat, you can’t get it now, it goes to the kebab shops.” Every so often the cook would spike the soup with a shot of … Benedictine. I look horrified: “Well, we didn’t have wine”.
The undergrad Nigella, presiding over a bunch of ravenous chums, is the one we would recognise. For it’s not the gorgeousness of her (powerful magnet though that is) that’s the secret of the affection the readers and viewers have for her, it’s her deep well of authentic, unstuffy friendliness. That’s what her cooking is about: if I can do this, so can you and stuff the protocol along with the turkey. It’s not a chore; it’s a joy and it will up the happiness quotient more than you can ever imagine. “I say to Charles every morning, so would you like this or that to eat tonight, and he says ‘Oh whatever’s easiest for you’, and I don’t understand why it wouldn’t matter whether this or that gives you pleasure to eat.”
Happiness – from ideas, writing, cooking, eating – is, she reckons, a serious business; the only one that’s worthwhile. She worries sometimes that notwithstanding all the bad bits she’s been a spoiled child of fortune. But then again her grandma, Rosemary, who lavished love and food on her, used to say when Nigella protested mildly that she was being spoiled: “The thing is, darling, you can’t spoil a really nice character”. Amen to that.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor
‘Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration’ is published by Chatto & Windus, £26. Scroll down for a recipe from the book
Serves two hungry people
250g trottole verde or any curled pasta of choice
Salt for pasta water, to taste
125g Gorgonzola piccante, crumbled or chopped
100g baby or salad spinach leaves
Freshly ground pepper, slightly coarser than regular if possible
3 x 15ml tbsp
Chopped pistachio nuts
● Heat water in a pan for the pasta, salting it when it comes to the boil, then add the pasta and cook according to packet instructions, but checking 3 minutes before it’s meant to be done. This needs to be really al dente because it will carry on cooking as you make the sauce.
● Before draining the pasta, remove a cupful of pasta-cooking liquid, then tip the drained pasta back in the hot pan with 2 tablespoonfuls of the liquid, the crumbled cheese and the baby spinach, and give a good grinding of coarse black pepper. Put the lid on the pan – off the heat, though back on the stove – and leave to stand for 2 minutes.
● Remove the lid, turn the heat back on low, and stir the pasta, cheese and spinach together, along with as much of the cupful of cooking liquid as you need – I find 100ml total is about right – until the cheese is melted into a light sauce and the spinach wilted.
● Take off the heat, toss with about two-thirds of the chopped pistachios and divide between two warmed bowls, sprinkling each bowl with the remaining nuts. Serve immediately.
Recipe taken from Nigella’s ‘Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration’