Framed by a red backdrop, sat on a red chair and – except for her bare feet – dressed completely in red, Nigella Lawson holds a halved pomegranate and looks momentarily concerned.
“Should we get rid of some of the membrane, so there’s more red and not quite so much yellow?” she says, to no-one in particular. Yes, comes the answer from the assembled members of team Stylist at the photo shoot, after a considered beat. Yes, we absolutely should.
It’s a small but telling reminder, as if we needed it, that first and foremost – beyond the TV persona, the 10 million global book sales, the four Stylist covers, the cookware range worth £7million and the indelible imprint on the British culinary landscape – Nigella is an exacting customer when it comes to all things food. More specifically, this is a woman who knows her pomegranates. Because it was Lawson who, by throwing those ruby seeds over shredded slow-cooked lamb in 1999’s Nigella Bites, instantly added a move to every dinner party cook’s repertoire, and singlehandedly boosted UK sales of the fruit by as much as 109%.
But it’s not just her fondness for the Middle Eastern staple that makes Lawson the perfect candidate to ruminate on the power of red food. Look through her near-20-year career and it’s a constant touchstone; a colour that speaks to the vivid boldness of her pleasure-first approach. From the Tabasco sauce bottle she’s been known to carry in her handbag (on the day of our shoot her bag contains Maldon salt, Colman’s mustard, three Vegemite sandwiches and her beloved Typhoo tea bags) to the pavlova weighed down by vibrant strawberries, slow-cooked ‘moonblush tomatoes’ and Aleppo pepper flakes that feature in her new title, At My Table.
“I don’t tend to wear a lot of red,” says Lawson after the shoot, having changed back into her signature “uniform” of black T-shirt and jeans. “But it actually felt like quite a powerful colour to me.”
It turns out that red, in our lives and on our plates, can connote all sorts of things. Power, comfort, allure, intensity. So here, in her own words – and journeying from soothing youthful bowls of Heinz tomato soup to festive Campari cocktails – Nigella Lawson tracks her gastronomic love affair with all things crimson.
“I remember thinking, when I was growing up, that jam tarts were the stuff of nursery rhymes. They are something I like and – because it wasn’t the sort of thing we had at home when I was a child – I rather got into them when my own children were little. Then there’s Heinz Tomato Soup, which – served with undercooked, pale toast and a lot of butter – is what I equate with feeling slightly under the weather as a child.
Another food that reminds me of my childhood is pomegranate. When I was younger, I would only ever get them at Christmas – in my stocking – which made them special. But I do, of course, like pomegranate and I use it an awful lot. I’m forever scattering those seeds: ‘Oh, a cake, let’s put some on. A salad? Let’s put some on.’
I like it because it’s got that particular fragrant, sour, intense sweetness. It’s a bit like passionfruit and preserved lemons, which I now use a lot. Anything that’s very fragrant and sour. Some people have a sweet tooth, but I very much have a sour tooth. I like that bit of tang. And that’s why pomegranate works particularly well with savoury dishes. It just adds that bit of sharpness.
They are also incredibly beautiful. Sometimes, especially if I go to a Turkish supermarket or somewhere where you can buy pomegranates more cheaply than in a regular supermarket, I get them instead of flowers for the table. Just put them in a bowl – and then you can use them afterwards.”
“Going to Florence in Italy for my gap year when I was 17 changed me in a lot of ways. Italy is a very good place to learn how to cook, because the ingredients are so good and the Italians take it so seriously. I was with a schoolfriend, working as a chambermaid – we shared a job so we didn’t have a lot of money. We would buy a kilo of tomatoes every once in a while and a bottle of wine every day. There was olive oil and salt, so we would just have tomato salad, wine and bread. That was what we lived on.
As far as I can tell, it’s very difficult to get a good tomato in this country. That said, I have got a fantastic tomato salad in At My Table. By happenstance, I had some horseradish and so I put it with tomato. It really brings out that sweetness, because the horseradish is so hot.
If I’ve got a lot of cherry tomatoes, I slice them in half across the equator, put the oven on very hot, add some oregano or thyme, a teensy bit of sugar, some salt and some olive oil, put them in the oven, turn it off and leave them the flavour and gives you these incredibly tasty tomatoes. It’s quite a good thing to do with tomatoes that perhaps aren’t at their best eaten raw.”
“While I love tomatoes, I’m not a ketchup person – it’s too vinegary and too sweet for me – and my children were never ketchup-on-everything types. It’s not a snobbery thing. Since I put English mustard on everything, I’m not in a position to complain if people do the same with ketchup. But also, I’m not judgemental in that way – I hate that sort of puritanism. I think, ultimately, people should eat what they like.
When someone says ‘red food’, I also think of chillies, because I love heat and spice. Harissa, dried chillies, red chillies and the Aleppo pepper, which I hadn’t used until about a year ago – I do rather like them. I had eaten a version of the Turkish eggs that are in At My Table – which have Aleppo pepper, or Turkish red pepper, in them – at a restaurant in London called The Providores, and that made me look up what they were. They’re wonderful, partly because they’re beautiful – they look like glinting little chips of terracotta tile – but also because they’ve got that sort of fruity warmth, which I like.
Sometimes, when I’m on the road, I take dried chilli flakes to sprinkle on food, because you can never be quite sure that what you’re given won’t need a little something. It’s well known that chillies are quite good when you’re hungover. Apart from the fact that I did have three martinis last night, I’m not really a huge drinker. I think for a hangover you need chillies, fat and carbohydrates. So a toasted sandwich would be the thing. And, if you’re hungover, you just have to eat nonstop anyway.
There’s also a roast red salsa – which, in a way, is a kind of spicy, very smoky ketchup – in my book. You put red onions, red bell peppers, red chillies and garlic cloves in the oven and roast them all and then blitz it. Actually, when I put them all on the tray, they looked so lovely that I had to run over to the book photographer and say: ‘Would you mind taking a picture?’ Then, when they came out and I put them in a bowl, I just loved seeing all those different reds and that oil-slick glossiness.
Read more: Nigella's exclusive-to-Stylist recipes
I’m keen on red onions, too. If I’m not cooking them, I like them steeped in vinegar. It takes away that acrid burn and makes them a very bright shade of Bollywood pink. We are meant to eat a good range of colours, I think. Obviously, colourful food is a big feature of Instagram, but I think that’s something that can be both inspiring and problematic. In a way, Instagram is a wonderful form of social history, if people are taking pictures of all food. I am aware that it can’t just be the province of people who style well, have a good camera and know how to light. But it’s difficult, because it’s human nature. If you take a picture and it doesn’t look good, you don’t really feel you want to post it.
I think those pictures should be posted, but Instagram can make people feel that it has to be perfect. I posted a stew recently and it got far fewer likes than other things I post. But it doesn’t matter. Someone did comment, saying, ‘That looks horrible.’ I replied to him and said: ‘That is as may be, but it tastes wonderful.’”
“I also love red drinks, Campari and soda in particular. I particularly like a drink called an Americano, which is like a negroni without the gin: it’s red vermouth, a slice of orange and some fizzy water. I also make a fantastic big red jug of negroni sbagliato, which is prosecco mixed with red vermouth. It’s like a nice, festive negroni version of a spritz. This year for Christmas I’m adding cranberries to my red cabbage, which turns them into a cross between red cabbage and cranberry sauce. It’s good because you get the sweetness with the sharpness.
In the past, I’ve made my Redder Than Red Cranberry Sauce recipe, with the Christmassy addition of cherry brandy. The lovely thing about home cooking, whatever time of year, is the way something that is a custom or tradition in my life will make its way into other people’s lives and become significant for them. I’m a nosy person so I like to know what people cooked when and for who. The whole thing is extraordinarily intimate and full of meaning for me.
Take strawberries with black pepper. My grandfather ate them together – it was an Edwardian thing. So, for the book’s pavlova recipe, I kept that flavour combination, but changed it a little bit by putting black pepper and rose water in the meringue, before arranging the strawberries on top. Like balsamic vinegar, it all helps to bring the sweetness of the strawberries to the fore. I also steep them in passionfruit juice, so they’re very red and glossy.
Red is probably a colour we’re all drawn to naturally.”
Read the full interview in this week’s Stylist.
Nigella wears a blazer (£69.99), jumper (£19.99) and trousers (£39.99), all from zara.com.
Images: Neil Bedford