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America has Martha Stewart and the UK has Nigella Lawson. But, being legends in their own rights, these two domestic goddesses are incomparable. For the past decade, Lawson has imbued the kitchen with a sexiness that not only titillated viewers endlessly, but also earned her the title of “queen of food porn”. Now she returns with an Italian option in BBC Lifestyle’s Nigellissima. Debashine Thangevelo found out how the gourmand plans to seduce viewers’ taste buds this time around …
HER unfussy, fun and almost aphrodisiacal approach to cooking propelled Nigella Lawson into the limelight and has kept her on a pedestal since 2000, when she debuted with ‘Nigella Bites’.
She created such a voracious appetite for her books as well as her cooking programme that it lent itself to an array of more signature shows.
The 52-year-old TV celebrity’s latest exploit, Nigellissima, garnered a mixed reaction overseas. Some critics applauded her twist on Italian cuisine but the purists dismissed it as an unfortunate departure.
But that is an argument best left alone, even though Heston Blumenthal has proved that experimenting with food can produce some gastronomically fantastic delights.
On the germination of her latest show, Lawson shares: “I never get programme ideas, I just get book ideas and once I’ve done the book, I start thinking how to make the best programmes possible. Obviously, book and TV are separate media and I don’t try and make the programmes a television version of the book. I give it its own integrity and personality; but obviously, the two are firmly inter-related.
“At the heart of both is a lifelong love of Italy in general and Italian food in particular. However, I didn’t want to tread old ground – and my previous series are rich in Italian recipes.”
Lawson continues: “Food is always going to be the star of any programme I make. I want viewers to be inspired to cook and to see how easy it is to create beautiful dishes without stress, complications or lengthy procedures. It’s not about authentic Italian recipes from a historical or traditional perspective, but about being inspired to bring a little Italian touch of flair to everyday cooking and entertaining.”
To put viewers in the picture, Lawson’s love affair with Italy and its cuisine took root at the age of 19, when she spent a gap year between school and university in Florence.
“I was about to read for a degree in Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford University and had studied Latin, French and German, but felt instinctively that I needed to learn Italian; can’t explain why exactly but some part of my teenage self – and this had started some years previously in my mid to late teens – wanted to be Italian. So I went to Florence.
“I implied to the university that I would study at the British Institute in Florence, but, in fact, I went there to work. The job I got was as a chambermaid. Anyway, I loved this beautiful, intimately sized city and felt it was an important rite of passage. I feel linked into that connection in an enduring way that colours my whole life.”
Naturally, she has her all-time favourite Italian dishes, which include spaghetti or linguine alle vongole in bianco, any type of risotto, bistecca alla Fiorentina, suckling pig and zabaglione.
For viewers who want to whip up Italian dishes pronto, some key ingredients are needed.
“I will, as requested, limit myself to just five, though it’s hard,” says Lawson.
“Lemons, as long as they are organic or unwaxed, as the grated zest is where all the aromatic lemoniness resides.
“Vermouth – the Italians have wonderful red, white and also pink vermouth, which I use in my cooking constantly. They tend to use them in cocktails. But, for me, they are invaluable as they give gorgeous wine flavour without having to open a bottle specially.
“Crushed dried red chilli flakes. Italians use these judiciously, but I am a bit more heavy-handed with them as I love fire in my food.
“Pasta – well, it’s obvious. I am inordinately fond of fusilli lunghi.
“And pancetta; I don’t mind if it comes in a slab or already cut into cubes, but this Italian version of bacon is a numero uno must in my kitchen.”
Passionate about retaining her originality, Lawson says she tries to avoid tuning in to other cooking shows – although the magnetism of ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ compelled her to bend her own rule.
Last year, Lawson fielded oodles of praise from the fashion police for dropping from a voluptuous size 16 to a size 12.
She admits: “I don’t have any secrets and I don’t stay slim. Like many women, my weight goes up and down. And anyway, I don’t eat more when I make a TV series at all, as this is the food I make in my everyday home, though it’s true that dessert features much more regularly in my TV shows than at home, as at home I serve dessert only when we have guests, or if it’s a special lunch or meal.
“But I do have rules – I eat proper meals and don’t go in for the around-the-clock grazing (though I sometimes break that rule at night when I need a little snack to keep me going) and I do exercise regularly. I never used to. But I know I can’t diet – it’s a necessary trade-off.”
In capturing the essence of Italy with her cooking, Lawson delivers another bellissimo series.
‘Nigellissima’ airs on BBC Lifestyle (DStv channel 174) on Tuesday at 8.30pm.