Nigella Lawson has made a name for herself with the almost impossibly eloquent way she talks about food – and yet she’s not reading from a script.
Lawson says the unique descriptions she’s known for just pop into her head as she films – out of “fear” more than anything else.
“It’s fear filling the silence,” Lawson, 63, admits. For the food writer and TV cook, these elaborate descriptions are key to conveying just what her food will smell and taste like.
“I think often in cooking, metaphor is a better conveyor of taste and texture, which in a way, are not that easily pinpointed in concrete words – because it’s an atmosphere, or the connotations a particular taste might have.”
Then Lawson stops herself, and says: “But as you can tell, I just waffle on until someone stops me.”
Lawson’s unique style is ripe for parody – but in a loving way, as seen in drag queen Ella Vaday’s impersonation on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK in 2021, which Lawson at the time said she was “charmed” by (she says her own drag name would be ‘fat patty’) as well as the more X-rated video compilations of her accidental innuendos.
Sometimes her own words even take her by surprise.
“I don’t have a script, so when Dom Cyriax, my director, says action, I just start blabbering. I have an idea of certain things I need to say in terms of the cooking, but I’m not always sure beyond that. Sometimes I think, ‘why did that come out? Why did that happen?’ But it does.”
Lawson’s charm on TV has won her legions of followers, from her first cookbook How To Eat in 1998 to 2020’s Cook, Eat, Repeat and the 2021 accompanying television show – which garnered a BAFTA nomination for her hilarious pronunciation of ‘microwave’.
She’s no stranger to going viral, but Lawson says: “I never really think ahead to how people are going to respond to something, because that would make me feel too self-conscious doing anything.”
She doesn’t work “in a way that is about getting attention just for its own sake – that actually would be pretty depressing for me. I want to do a recipe because I love it”.
Now, Lawson is lending her way with words to her latest festive special, Nigella’s Amsterdam Christmas. The Londoner has been going to the Dutch capital since 1987, making regular wintertime trips there from the late 90s.
Thinking back to her first festive trip there, she says: “It was freezing. Things are warmer now – when I first went, the canals were frozen and people were skating there. It looked like a dream Christmas.”
Over the years, Lawson says she’s tried all kinds of Dutch signature dishes, including elvers, “Which are like very small eel – I don’t even know whether they do that now, because it probably isn’t allowed.”
An elvers recipe or the complicated – but delicious – bar snack bitterballen, a type of meatball, don’t quite make it into the Christmas special (“I’m a reasonable woman!” Lawson proclaims). But plenty of others do – including speculaas biscuits, Dutch mussels, a no-bake advocaat and gingerbread cake and an Indonesian-inspired biryani.
For Lawson, including the biryani was a must. “I always get the desire for something with a lot of fire and heat, because Christmus lunch – which I adore by the way, an English Christmas lunch or British Christmas dinner is wonderful – but it’s not that spicy. So when you carry on with that food, I think no, I need some fire now.”
After filming so many cooking shows and having “the same crew for 100 years”, Lawson treats them as she would her friends. “I’m always trying to make everyone eat something while I’m filming it,” she beams.
“It’s a very small crew, so it does feel a bit like we’re having a family Christmas while we’re doing it” – and she even tested some of her liquorice recipes on her director, who is very much not a fan of the sweet.
While he did like one of the mild, entry-level liquorice recipes featured on the show, Lawson says with a laugh: “He has not quite recovered from the fact that I made him try some of the salty liquorice liquor in my flask. He thought that was the most disgusting thing ever.”
Whether it’s her crew or at home, she says: “I’m a feeder by nature, and I’m an enthusiast.”
And she’s certainly enthusiastic about showing the festive side of Amsterdam. “There’s something about seeing lights, water, this extraordinary city – it’s uplifting. It’s tough at the moment for all sorts of reasons, for pretty much everyone in the world – we’ve got frightening things going on.”
So she creates Christmas specials to bring “a bit of enchantment”, she says, speaking as if describing her latest tasty dish.
“They’re there to be so uplifting and beautiful, something for the mind to luxuriate in. That’s what I like in life – that beauty and that sense of cosy cocooning is something that lifts the spirit, especially at this time of year.”
Nigella’s Amsterdam Christmas is on BBC One and BBC iPlayer from 8pm on Thursday, December 21 2023.