Amid the mess she spies her new book, Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food, and asks, “Have you tried the trick with red onions?” I have; you slice and then soak them in red wine vinegar and by some culinary alchemy a violent enemy of the palate becomes its ally. “That’s very poetically put,” she says, settling her brown eyes on me. “I’ve never heard it so exquisitely described.” I’m blushing and we’re only on onions.
Officially we’re in a photo studio in south London to talk about the book and its accompanying series and nothing else. But with Nigella Lawson it’s seldom just about the food. It’s about our strange but continuing national affection for a woman who isn’t like most of us at all. A woman presently worth an estimated £15 million who, when I point out the yawning wealth gap between her and her public, says, “Yes, but if a recipe has white truffles in I try and substitute them with something less expensive.”
Yet she is just like us She buys limes “in the spirit of hopefulness”, which, if ignored, then harden into “green ping pong balls.” She comes downstairs in the morning to find, inexplicably, that there’s an awful lot of cleaning to be done,” and she likes to moan. “Low-level moaning,” she says.”The sort of moaning about things that don’t matter, and you have to think, ‘Get a grip!'”
And then there’s the very public private life that went spectacularly awry in 2013 when her then husband, Charles Saatchi, grabbed her by the throat outside a restaurant in Mayfair. The resultant divorce gripped the nation. The fraud trial of the couple’s personal assistants, sisters Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo, that followed left it gob-smacked when her previous cocaine use was revealed to the enthralled press gallery.
She must, over the years, have found the front pages tough. “When I’m at an airport and see a headline about somebody else I think, ‘Goodness me, what a funny, strange way of talking about someone! And there’s shorthand that people will use when they are writing about me. But that doesn’t matter.” Really? “Well, it’s not that it doesn’t matter. I don’t know if I take myself seriously enough. There’s a circus act element, which really makes me cringe. I’m not actually a performer.
“Early on I understood that you would be a monster if you believed the good things that were said about you, and a complete wreck if you believed all the bad things. There’s no excess of bile out there. It’s important not to be contaminated by it.”
In the introduction to Simply Nigella, Lawson writes that the gifts of “hopefulness and playfulness have been restored to her. She sounds very contented. “contentment is very different from complacency,” she says. “There’s a certain purring contentment I get from being in my kitchen, and it can translate generally. That’s why I want to share it again. I’m not saying that cooking is never drudgery, because meals have to be done day in, day out, and that’s part of it; I suppose I just try and make that part of life enjoyable.”
Part of the fun, for us, is she makes it easy. “I don’t do recipes that you have to rigidly focus on, but you have to focus a certain amount – and that in itself is calming. The modern world so often thinks that the way to relax is by doing absolutely nothing, and I’ve never really understood that. I think doing a bit of gentle pottering is my idea to relax, and then lying down on the sofa afterwards.”
She tells me that the kitchen is “an intimate place and yet it’s where one is very connected with the world.” What does she mean? “In the sense that the ingredients come from everywhere, but also you open it up to other people. That openness is quite modern. When I was a child, when it was more just women cooking, a lot of women would say, ‘Don’t come in and mess up my kitchen.’ Women were often marginalised; it was the one area that we could control. It’s still very important to me that everything is where I want it to be in the kitchen.”
This includes an array of bottles around her cooker. “White vermouth, red vermouth, Marsala, sake and Chinese rice wine.” It sounds like a cocktail recipe that would send her back to court. “It’s not to drink. It’s if I want something to make pan juices.” Doesn’t she have a bottle of red on the go when she cooks? “I’m not a big drinker. I’m an aqua-holic; I like water and builders’ tea. Though it’s probably quite snobbish to say builders’ tea now.”
Her previous shows haven’t been big on builders’ tea, but rather Nigella suggesting we “encourage the strawberries to yield their gorgeous juices” or eyeing up spurting pots. The new series is relatively staid, all plain white shirts and very little slurping and licking. She claims she has been misinterpreted and she isn’t saucy at all. “My family wouldn’t recognise that version of me. And people think I do double entendres most of the time. Usually I don’t even understand what they’re talking about. Really!