Josh Storer turns the lights down low for his date with Nigellissima.
The queen of food porn is back, with a new and curiously-named series designed to help “bring the spirit of Italy into the kitchen and onto the plate”. Though as soon as the hazy opening sequence sees her part the shutters of her hotel room, gaze out onto a sun-bathed Florence and float around market stalls whilst buon giornos drip effortlessly from her lips, you can’t help but think that this is probably a lot easier when you have the BBC’s budget to fly you out there.
Nigella Lawson is perhaps the only woman in Britain who can make even the manliest of men skip the Champion’s League build-up for a spot of baking, or the casual stirring of a risotto. True to form, by episode five, the lights have been turned down, the soft jazz has been turned up and I can’t tell whether it’s the camera lens or my steamy laptop screen that’s making everything a bit blurred. It’s like sitting in a romantic restaurant at closing time whilst Nigella spoons sorbet into your mouth from across the table.
Meanwhile, on screen, the olive oil is flowing and our host cuts a sultry silhouette, slinking from pantry to stove as she serves up re-worked Italian classics such as tiramisini, alongside dishes with a more subtle Mediterranean influence, pasta with tomato sauce for example. As the nights draw in and the temperature drops, each generous helping of creamy risotto, stuffed pork tenderloin or deeply-golden roast chicken is more deliciously rich and comforting than the last.
Yet Nigella occupies something of an uncertain space between chef and home cook, and this I find reflected in her confused culinary philosophy – her easiest-ever coffee ice-cream contrasting starkly in attainability against her Farro (an Italian whole grain barley which she concedes can only be found in certain delis). What’s more, one might point out that as our host sneaks in to the kitchen in her night-gown, or sits chatting at an (apparently weekly) dinner party, all of this is taking place on a television set; a temporary kitchen of plasterboard walls and cardboard bookshelves. Alongside the casual trips to Florence for holy-grail ingredients, this kind of falseness lends to Nigellissima an air of delusion. And Nigella claims that French cooking has gotten too fancy.
The truth is, the value of aesthetics has become the bread and butter of all cookery-shows. Nowhere is it more evident than in those which feature females as their figurehead. This tradition was of course kicked off by the incomparable Delia Smith, and the unique Fanny Craddock, but now sees the lip-sticked likes of ex-journalist Nigella, ex-fashion PR Rachel Khoo and ex-model Sophie Dahl as their modern day equivalents. With a host so easy on the eye, the food can easily be pushed onto the backseat.
Of course these women can cook, but against the most ubiquitous of male chefs (not to play-down the charms of Jamie, Gordon and co) the credentials of these ‘ex-models’ do pale somewhat in comparison. Yet, in watching the esteemed Angela Hartnett, and the downright terrifying Monica Galetti (of Masterchef: The Professionals fame) we know that female, culinary high-flyers do exist, and these two bulldozers are not the type to playfully cosy-up to the camera.
All we’re asking is for a little less of Rachel Khoo’s lipsticked-pout, of Lorraine Pascal’s toothy model grin, of Gizzi Erskine’s bizarre barnet, and a bit more of proper, old-school Mary Berry cooking. Plus, Nigellissima really is fairly embarrassing – even Saatchi shouldn’t have to put up with that.
Nigellissima is on BBC2.
Words: Josh Storer