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Ask just about any person in the UK if they know who Nigella Lawson is and they’ll look at you as if you’re a bit mad. They may even be insulted. Who doesn’t know who Nigella Lawson is? She is, as Anthony Bourdain once put it, ‘the woman who taught England to cook’. Just type that quote into Google and see what comes up.
Cook, author, food critic, TV host and mother to all of England, she is one of the nation’s darlings – a national treasure that must be protected at all costs. The chances are that at some point, you’ve even cooked up a dish using one of Nigella’s recipes. So, how did all of this come about?
Nigella Lucy Lawson was born on the 6th January 1960 in Wandsworth, London to parents Nigel Lawson (former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Margaret Thatcher government) and Vanessa Lawson (a wealthy socialite whose family own the J. Lyons and Co food and catering business). By her own admittance, she had what she described as an ‘unhappy’ childhood. Her father Nigel Lawson was a prominent political figure and she struggled with some of the judgements and preconceptions that were formed about her.
She moved school no less than nine times between the ages of 9 and 18, describing these years as difficult. “I was just difficult, disruptive, good at school work, but rude, I suspect, and too highly-strung”. Being out-spoken and unafraid to ruffle feathers, she admitted in 1989 that she had voted Labour in an election (directly opposing her father’s Conservative Party) before going on to criticise Margaret Thatcher in print.
It was clear by this point that she was good at writing and journalism. She had graduated from the University of Oxford with a second class degree in Medieval and Modern Languages which indicates where this talent and understanding of the written language came from. Immediately, she was working under publisher Naim Attallah, before beginning her career in journalism at the age of 23 when invited to write for The Spectator. Initially, she learned the ropes writing various book reviews before becoming a restaurant critic for the magazine. In 1986, she became deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times – rather impressive considering she was just 26!
Interestingly, she made it clear that she did not want to become an executive editor as this would take up too much of her time. “I was on the wrong ladder. I didn’t want to be an executive, being paid to worry rather than think”. She chose instead to embark on a freelance writing career, often writing for The Daily Telegraph, The Observer and The Evening Standard. She found her food column in Vogue magazine and a makeup column in The Times Magazine to be big hits. The domestic goddess England knows and loves today was now in the making.
It was after observing a seriously distraught dinner party host (apparently they were in tears because a crème caramel hadn’t set properly!) that Nigella decided on writing her first cook-book. In 1998, she published ‘How to Eat’, covering the pleasures and principles of good food. It sold over 300,000 copies throughout the UK with The Sunday Telegraph lauding it as “the most valuable culinary guide published this decade”.
‘How to Eat’ was not so much a cookbook as a collection of Nigella’s thoughts on how to cook and her philosophy on food. Sometimes, you have to dig around to find what you’re looking for and some ‘recipes’ are as simple as her telling you what she would toss in the pan, carefree, including some spices, of course.
It has an intimate approach which is established by herself in the preface: “I am not a chef”…“my goal is to make you feel that I’m there with you”. This was similarly reflected in her second book ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’ which was, again, defined by an intimacy and warm friendliness, as if she were there with you in the kitchen. Rather than issuing strict instructions in the classic way we are all so accustomed to when it comes to following recipes, it felt more like she was coaxing you with gentle suggestions.
It is no doubt this style that helped fans get to know her in what felt like a very personal, intimate way. This connection and style naturally translated very well to TV. From 1999 to 2001, she hosted her own cooking show on Channel 4 called ‘Nigella Bites’. The very fact it was filmed in her house in West London only added to the homely, real-life connection the audience felt with her. People often remarked about how she could be cooking the most simple of dishes, yet her satin voice and the way she described the food and ingredients with such love and passion made you feel she was creating the most delicious dinner on earth. She had a way of hypnotizing people with her words, never failing to make the art of cooking a sensual, poetic experience.
The show averaged 1.9million viewers and won her the ‘Guild of Food Writers Television Broadcast of the Year Award’ and ‘World Food Media Gold Ladle Best Television Food Show Award in 2001’. Meanwhile, ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’ won the title of ‘Author of the Year’ at the 2000 British Book Awards as Nigella fended off fierce competition from the likes of J.K. Rowling!
These formative years acted as the springboard for the rest of her career. She went on to organise a formal dinner for then-American president George W. Bush at Downing Street in 2002, as well as hosting several more TV shows across the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. In America, she was also a big hit. Her books became bestsellers and her TV work was favourably received.
Out of her remarkable list of published work, we are particular fans of ‘Forever Summer with Nigella’, published in 2002. This is an ode to summer, the idea being that in the depths of a grey, cold winter (something we can all relate to), you can still induce those summer feelings of sun, warmth and light through cooking up some beautiful, simple summer dishes. She takes inspiration from a number of warm climates including Southern Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Some of the spices in this book include our very own! It’s a great read and at many times it feels like you’re having a conversation with her. See page 117 for Moroccan Roast Lamb with our very own Ras-el-Hanout spice blend or page 134 for Za’atar Chicken with Fattoush.
Another hit is ‘Feast: food to celebrate life’, published in 2004. This is one of her most festive books, offering a brilliant mix of savoury, spicy and delicious recipes for all occasions from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Hanukah to Eid, New Year to Passover, Easter and more. She offers you little tips and tricks in her signature way, ensuring that the book is a joy to revisit again and again. There’s even the use of Herbs De Provence in the mouth-watering St. Tropez Chicken.
Throughout, you can feel her love of food and you connect with her in the way that she’s simply not afraid to stand in front of the fridge, eating or drinking something straight from the carton, the juice dripping down her chin. She doesn’t care. That is her unique selling point. She is one of us. She’s not a trained chef or high-end cook. She does this simply for the love of food and eating…“I have nothing to declare but my greed”.
So, what is Nigella up to today? We love to see Nigella cooking with spices. She continues to keep busy, with more brilliant book releases and media work. In the modern day of social media she has, unsurprisingly, done extremely well on Facebook and YouTube, garnering large and devoted audiences. Her unique presenting style, her charm and way with words are all still there. For example, watch the following YouTube video:
You’ll notice Nigella cooks with our very own Ras-El Hanout! Scrolling through the comments, you can also see the impact she continues to have. Some remark ‘she makes me relax’ and ‘Nigella is the best. The way she describes the ingredients!’ It’s clear that talent and class is permanent. No matter how the media landscape evolves, Nigella is here to stay for many more years, continuing to cook and coddle the nation in the joys and comforts of food.
Whilst not endorsing any particular products you will find good advice on her website how to buy and store spices properly.
Looking for more Moroccan recipes using Ras-el-Hanout spice blend click here.