If Stylist could pick one person to cook our Christmas dinner it would be Nigella Lawson. We couldn’t swing that, but we did persuade her to reveal her seasonal must-haves
Words: Helen Bownass
Photography: Simon Emmett
She’s as traditional as sherry and mince pies and as festive as wrapping presents to the Carols From King’s. So when it came to choosing the star of Stylist’s first-ever Christmas food special, there was no better choice than Nigella Lawson.
If you’ve been too busy second-guessing London Spy to notice, the original domestic goddess is back. Images of Nigella’s sweet potato mac and cheese are being #shared all over Instagram. The debut episode of her new TV show, Simply Nigella, had 4.6 million eyeballs earlier this month and the accompanying cookbook Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food is an Amazon bestseller and has spent 70 days (and counting) in the top 100, despite only being released 49 days ago (thanks to healthy pre-orders). In fact, as I’m travelling to meet Nigella, I spot her face shining down at me from a poster the size of a bus. Nigella is well and truly back and this domination is no bad thing; she has been away for a long time. Three years too long.
Of course Stylist and Nigella have a long relationship together. Most famously, she poured salted caramel over her face for our iconic December 2011 cover (“It took a long time to get it out of my hair,” she recalls. “I was very uncomfortable and very sticky by the time I got home. But it was a good idea at the time!”). We’ve also pelted her with fake snow, she’s cooked croquettas with Miriam González Durántez, modelled retro eye make-up looks and was one of our keynote speakers at our inaugural Stylist Live event.
But it’s my first experience; I’m a Nigella virgin. And thanks to a leaky jar of kimchi, we’re laughing together within seconds. Nigella has brought her own snacks to the shoot, including an avocado (“I suspect it’s going to be quite brown on the inside,” she says disappointedly), chickpeas, her own Typhoo teabags and said jar of kimchi, which has escaped into her roomy, leather handbag. She is utterly unfazed that her bag now has fermented cabbage swilling around the bottom. I soon learn that’s a Nigella trait. She’s unflappable. Later, there is an equally brilliant moment involving a cup of coffee. She’s wearing a beautiful silk shirt and is worried about dripping her flat white down the front. We offer to find a towel or apron but she eschews both. Instead Nigella casually finds a tote bag, empties it and hangs it around her neck to use as a bib.
And it’s this practical, pragmatic nature that has given Nigella a firm place in our hearts – we know we can rely on her to guide us through any culinary occasion. Indeed, Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food reads like a tick-list of what we’ve been consuming in 2015: pork buns, roasted cauliflower and avocado toast. She says it is food to make her feel “physically strong”, “nourished” and “absolutely alive”. It’s no surprise she craves this type of sustenance after a hard couple of years.
But that’s in the past – Nigella is looking firmly to the future, and with that in mind Stylist invites her into our shiny Christmas wonderland to talk about staying power, social media and her festive must-haves.
Given it’s Stylist’s Christmas food issue, let’s talk Christmas: does it still feel as exciting as ever?
I like it but I keep it under control. I feel it’s really important to have a proper Christmas dinner; last year I went to Thailand for Christmas so I had a family Christmas dinner before I went. I wouldn’t have felt right not having that.
When do you start your Christmas shopping?
Some things I get for people but then put them away and forget so I get them another present and then later on I find the original present! It’s very annoying, so I am going to try and make a list of all of the things I have got in my little boxes. I am Marie Kondo’s [author of The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up] nightmare.
You’re known for your big group gatherings. Is that something you still enjoy?
I think larger numbers are good. I had 35 [guests] the year before last. Once you’re over 10 to 12 people it doesn’t make a huge difference – you just get a bigger turkey. I hired tables, nothing matched, a few people had to sit on boxes but that is what it’s about. Sometimes when the focus is small the anxiety is greater. It’s like a stiletto heel – there is more pressure on that small amount, whereas when you’ve got nothing that matches and too many people for the table you know from the start that nothing is going to be perfect so you don’t worry.
What is the one taste at Christmas you can’t get enough of? And you have to pick one…
But the whole point of Christmas is that pile up! It has to be the turkey with the cranberry sauce with the bread sauce with the roast potatoes with the gravy… But I will say that the smell of bread sauce being made, that, for me, says Christmas.
Simply Nigella is your 10th book; How To Eat came out in 1998. Do you still get pleasure in seeing people making and sharing your recipes?
Yes! What I find really interesting about social media is that while it is new technology and new forms of social and human interaction, it actually comes the closest to the olden days when people would swap recipes – tear them out, tell people about them, write in their recipe book… It is about a recipe becoming part of somebody else’s life and that is the thing that makes it really important to me.
It seems writing cookbooks is a fairly autobiographical process for you…
They feel like that to me. There’s something so intimate about sharing the food you love. When the book first arrives, it makes me smile when I look at it. It’s almost like a photo album for me.
Is writing cathartic then?
No. I was a journalist; writing is just how I express myself. I am not in search of catharsis anyway but I can’t think of a better way to express what I want. I am mediated through my own words and I like language; I am a chatterbox.
Do you think much about the meaning of food?
I do. I also write about the meaning of food – my feeling is that the meaning lies in the process and that is very important. There is a literary theory that says when you read a book, you bring to it every other book you’ve read. I certainly think that when you eat something, you bring to it every other thing you have eaten. That is why no two people will respond in the exact same way to a bowl of soup.
At this stage of your career, do food trends play a big part in your life?
I do sometimes get captured by the enthusiasm [laughs]. I buy five books on fermenting at home and fermenting pots and get interested in those sorts of things, but there are some fads that pass me by. I have yet to feel moved to spiralise.
In the book you say it is just as important to cook for ourselves and nourish ourselves as to cook for others…
Absolutely, I have always liked cooking for myself. There are certain people who think it is only worth cooking for other people. I think that is a very sad statement of where they think they fit in. Which is not to say I always cook!
Other than food, what else gives you nourishment?
I have always had a huge narrative hunger – I don’t feel nourished if I’m not reading. I’m a very fast eater and sometimes I find that I’m a very fast reader too. It’s that greedy gobbling down of all the words. I’m currently reading Spring Chicken [by Bill Gifford] about people’s obsession with capturing youth; it’s quite frightening the lengths to which people go.
There have been positive comments about how the images aren’t perfectly styled in your new book. Why was it important for you to show that?
I want to encourage, I don’t want to intimidate. I like the beauty of imperfection. For me something that is too styled loses what it is about. I suppose some people said about the tin foil [Nigella often uses disposable aluminium trays when cooking on TV], “Why are you encouraging people to use it [as it’s not environmentally friendly]?” I’m not encouraging people to use it, I’m just saying what I do.
Social media seems to have become a big part of your life, not least with your Instagram ‘follow of the day’ suggestions. Who chooses those?
Me, of course [she looks horrified at the suggestion she wouldn’t]. I go through a lot [of accounts] when I’m travelling and I store all the pictures I like in a special album called FOTD [she shows me as proof] so I have all the ones I like in one place.
When you serve someone food, are they allowed to take photos to post on Instagram or do you like them just to dig in?
No, no, I am not in a position to say, “Don’t take photos”, I’d drive everyone mad. But I do mind if the lighting is bad.
What’s the best light for taking food pictures?
Daylight is best but not glaring daylight. It depends what time of year and whether you are south-facing or north-facing. In winter, I’m afraid anything after 4pm doesn’t look very nice.
One of social media’s – and your – biggest obsessions in 2015 was the avocado. Can you tell with just your eyes whether an avocado is good?
Do you get told off in the grocer’s for squeezing them?
Squeezing doesn’t necessarily tell you [it’s good], sometimes it just tells you that it is bruised on the outside and not ripe. The life of avocado reading is absolutely rife with disappointment – too hard, too soft… it’s a bit like running a bath or a boiled egg that is not right. Simplicity is often the hardest thing to achieve.
You’ve also been obsessed with bowls. In 2015, it seems to have reached full tilt with an entire section in the book dedicated to ‘Bowl Food’…
Everyone says it’s terrible that people don’t sit down to eat at the table any more, but I do have to come clean and say sometimes it’s important to be on the sofa eating out of a bowl too. So you’ll sometimes just have a bowl of cereal when you can’t be bothered to cook?
I have an equivalent, but I wouldn’t necessarily want a bowl of cereal. I don’t have an enormously sweet tooth. I like my savouries: toast and butter or toast with really good olive oil soaked on the bottom and the top. Or I might have granola and yoghurt. It goes back to the idea that I don’t think you’re morally superior because you cook. People always want some sort of hierarchy of goodness – who is better and who is not as good – and it is so disabling and draining. Why do that?
We’re now dying to know if you have a favourite bowl…
I do eat a lot from a kind of oval one that is quite shallow. Other times I want something much more capacious like a noodle bowl so it really depends on what I am eating. Then also it can be about what colour I want. The other day when I was making my spinach and parsnip soup I had to have a pink bowl; I like pink and green together. There are certain times where I want something on a dark slate and that looks lovely.
Is there a psychological reason why you are drawn to particular things?
I am very mood driven. When I have a mug of tea, I think very carefully about what mug I want from my drawer – I have a mug drawer! – and all these coloured plastic spoons. I have to think, ‘OK, which mug and which spoon?’ It has to match the mood I am in. It depends what tea I’m drinking, what kind of day it is…
So, the whole process of eating and drinking is very considered?
Everything, for me, is judged on an instinctive level. I like the feeling of materials in my hands when I cook. It’s the same with clothes – I like things that feel gorgeous or comfortable. I was reading a fascinating book over the weekend called The Thoughtful Dresser [by Linda Grant]. The author was saying how some people have ‘the eye’, which she doesn’t have because her primary sense is not visual but musical. I feel that my primary sense is feeling.
What else feels good at the moment?
Clean sheets. Sometimes I don’t sleep and I just think, ‘I am so lucky to have the feeling of this sheet.’ I operate in that sphere of senses so when people say to me, “What is your favourite this or that?” It’s tricky to answer. It depends on the mood I’m in and what I need at that time: do I want the feel of pottery that is slightly rough against my hands or do I want delicate bone china? And I cannot bear a really thin, skinny mug.
What would be your secondary sense then?
Hearing – which is why I find TV quite difficult. But I love listening to people’s conversations. Sometimes I am talking to one person and I can hear another conversation and I’ve done the ultimate thing in rudeness which is turn around and say, “No, the cost is actually…” I do have to make myself switch off the noise, but it is hard because I can hear it and some people just can’t.
Learning to switch off sounds rather like mindfulness. Has that become part of your life? Do you meditate?
I don’t think I am quite ready for meditation. I think it is a noble aim. It sounds a bit too lofty for anything I do, but it interests me. A lot of people think relaxing is doing nothing but to me that is not relaxing. What I like about simple cooking is when you are doing a task that requires a bit of concentration but not too much – that is my version of meditation.
From Elf to fairy lights, discover how to make the most of the festive season like our cover star
The food gift I will be giving
“Well, I feel I do have to give my friends a signed copy of my book – this is not to give a plug but just how it is – but I like to give it to close friends with an extra accessory or ingredient or two. So, I’ll be adding a heritage bundt cake tin for those who love to bake. And for those who don’t, I’ve already ordered several tubs of Lakrids Chocolate Liquorice Almonds from allthingsliquorice.co.uk and it’s always been part of my tradition to give a beautiful Williams Sonoma tin of Peppermint Bark. This year I’ll also be gifting the beautiful Nopi cookbook [by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully]. The gold-edged pages make it look like it’s already a part of the Christmas decorations. I am also planning an evening session to make a batch of Thai pickled peppers from Simply Nigella and putting them in pretty jars to give to people I’m seeing over the Christmas period. Great for zhuzhing up the post-Christmas-lunch cold turkey on the days ahead!”
My all-time favourite Christmas song
“I know it’s a bit dreary, but I absolutely love O Come, O Come Emmanuel as well as In The Bleak Midwinter. But mostly my sense of kitsch dominates, so it has to be Wham! with Last Christmas.”
My must-have seasonal Accessory
“I can’t be without my fairy lights – they adorn my kitchen and almost everywhere in the house has a twinkle.”
My go-to christmas shopping destinations
“Heal’s and Selfridges are my favourite places for Christmas shopping, although I have to say that generally I’m a bit of an online shopper. I get all my wrapping paper and any seasonal bits and pieces from christmastimeuk.com.”
My favourite festive film
“It’s not original, I know, but I find it hard to let the season go without at least one showing of Elf. But our most-watched family film, year after year, has to be The Sound Of Music – it is just perfect for a sofa slob-out after Christmas lunch, although this year I might try and fit in a bolstering walk first!”
Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food (£26, Chatto & Windus, itunes.apple.com) is out now; the TV series of the same name continues on BBC Two at 8.30pm on Monday
Make-up: Caroline Barnes at Frank Agency using Max Factor
Hair: Peter Lux at Frank Agency using Bumble & Bumble
Nails: Jenni Draper at Premier
Hair and Make-up using Sisley Hand and Bodycare
Styling: Cheryl Konteh