One is famous for serving up sensuality, the other for foraging, farming and feisty environmental campaigns, but Nigella Lawson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have something surprising in common: their distaste for French cuisine.
Speaking at Cheltenham Literature Festival, Nigella, whose current series Nigellissima champions Italian cuisine, bemoaned the fussiness of Gallic gastronomy: “I think it was probably an Italian who said, ‘Italian cooking draws attention to the food and French cooking draws attention to the cook', and there is some truth in that.”
She went on to criticise the French’s appetite for foamy sauces and finicky plate decoration, although admitted a penchant for baguettes and chocolate éclairs.
“I like food to be food,” she summed up. “Appearance is important to me but not in a restaurant way.”
Two days later, addressing another audience of festival-goers, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall echoed the domestic goddess: “I think good food does usually look very appetising but there doesn’t have to be a high degree of artifice in making it look great.”
And the River Cottage chef isn’t even won over by gooey éclairs. He dismissed over-elaborate desserts, patisseries and viennoiseries as disappointing: “These things often look absolutely incredible and don’t taste quite as good as they look [because] that thing that looked so glossy has a rather strange film of melted apricot jam on top so you can’t quite get at those fresh raspberries.”
“I’d just rather have the handful of fresh raspberries, a big dollop of crème fraiche and biscuit then mix them in the mouth.”
Both chefs also pointed out that they prioritised taste over appearance in their new cookbooks. Nigella confessed this was a first for her. Not so for Hugh: “I’ve never considered myself particularly good at making food look good. But I hope that the food looks good, dare I say it, by virtue of the fact that it is pretty good.”
Most surprising of all was hearing Italophile Nigella heap praise upon British cooking more characteristic of River Cottage.
“People want to sneer at English cooks because we don’t have those traditions…but that gives you a certain freedom,” declared Nigella. “I like the English messiness. It’s very creative. You can mock it, but it’s alive, like a language. I think there’s never been a more exciting time to cook and be British.”