With the release of At My Table imminent, we take a tasty chunk from the waiting time by revisiting one of our Nigella favourites, 2012’s Nigellissima.
Fired up by Valeria Necchio’s new book Veneto, North Sea Scullery has been rifling the stacks of Italian Cookbooks, in particular to find an old favourite, Nigella Lawson’s Nigellissima.
Nigellissima was two things at the time – first, a really playful and I felt respectful take on Italian food, and second, one of her best TV series. Nigellissima on screen really was a vibrant and glam production, Italy looked amazing and the whole enterprise was an entertaining dram of dolce vita express for the long nights in. The complete package – lit by an incredible soundtrack you could play in your own kitchen – was pretty much irresistable.
What Nigellissima wasn’t trying to be though was be an Italian Cookbook, and I think Nigella makes that completely clear. “I’m not attempting to pass recipes off as Italian,” she says, aware most likely that this was exactly the risk she was running. She was just evoking the “spirit on the doorstep.”
Authenticity in food is both a joy and a curse, but Nigellissima had real heart-on-the-sleeve clarity of purpose – a celebration of Italian food, a lovesong for the cuisine, the country and the people, but also fun & free experimentation. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with books on the minute details of Italian Regional Cooking – I have some – but I also have absolutely no problem with having a go, doing stuff differently.
I have no problem for instance with a cook in Naples experimenting with the basic gist of Cullen Skink, or Mince & Tatties – go for it, I say – so I’m not going to get too uptight about Nigella’s redcurrant jelly or, for that matter, her infamous meatzza. For amateur cooks this kind of thing is liberating. Indeed, when I was testing for our review of the excellent The British Table by Colman Andrews this exact issue came up – and Nigellissima. The best moment of resistance: “garlic oil is absolutely abhorred by purists,” she says, “but it delights me.”
Several of the dishes in Nigellissima are now staples in North Sea Scullery’s “internal cookbook”. Especially her Lamb Ragu – I cook this at least once a month, if not more. Now I know that redcurrant jelly and Worcestershire Sauce are unusual at best in Italian Cookery, but I’m totally fine with it. I love the sweetness of the dish – on blue days, cold haar-ridden North East Coast of Scotland blue days, there is nothing better than a batch. It’s like a Mince & Tatties alternative – a hot rich dish from the same soul food source.
Christmas 2016 seems a long way away now. Time has done its marching thing and there are snowmen biscuits down the Co-op local already. But one of the highlights of last Christmas was Nigella’s fabulous Anna Del Conte documentary, The Cook Who Changed Our Lives. North Sea Scullery is prone to gushing, but truly, this programme is just fantastic. I wish they would do more together. Like a lot of people I expect, it was Nigella who introduced me to Del Conte in the first place so seeing them both make ragu, go shopping, sip coffees – it was all pretty brilliant. If there can be any doubt whatsoever on the genuineness of Nigella’s love of all things Italian, this documentary puts it to bed three-ways – just like her Panna Cotta.
Nigellissima is full of great recipes. Other staples around here are the ‘Peas & Pancetta’ and the combination of same with Orzo in ‘Pasta Risotto with Peas & Pancetta’. Until I saw Nigella cook it on TV, these tiny rice-like pasta shapes were untried. Another classic is her tangy ‘Ruby-Red Plum and Amaretti Crumble’ which is properly lovely. The list goes on – I frequently make her ‘Chocolate Hazelnut Cheesecake’ for instance – digestive biscuits, Nutella, toasted hazelnuts … “I don’t know if I should apologise for this or boast about it,” she says.*
The overall coolness of the Nigelissima combo is captured in two great scenes in the TV series. One, she is sitting in an cafe in Italy, reading a book. What’s the book? Il chichibio, ovvero Poesia della cucina. Ricette semplici per la tavola d’oggi by Gioacchino Scognamiglio. In the original Italian? But of course. This is Nigella we’re talking about. Snort if you must, but she has a degree in Modern Languages from Oxford. And two, she is walking through an Italian marketplace, a stallholder staring after her as she goes as if Anita Ekberg has just wandered past his produce. All in black, Nigella sweeps through the place like Neo in The Matrix. It’s brilliantly filmed, brilliantly done.
Nigellissima is superbly written as always – we’ve spoken on the Scullery before about just how naturally funny she is – and the book is peppered with her usual asides and quips. Her ‘Squid Spaghetti’ has “all the swagger and gusto of old-fahioned gangster food”, for example, and “there are no official writings on traybakes in Italy, or none that I am aware of …”
This natural gift with language continues onto the TV, where porcinis have a “dramatic architectural beauty”, quantities can be “scant” or “ludicrous”, pine nuts are to be harboured and linguine always falls in “blond tresses”. Chili flakes are added as “crimson confetti”, tomato puree in “an ungainly squirt.”
“I have never met anyone who doesn’t like crumble,” she says at one point, “and I don’t want to.”
Underneath though, I have always felt there is something deeper going on with Nigellissima. Nigella is completely open on her passion for Italy and its food, unfailingly generous in her debt to Del Conte, and she accepts more than anyone that Nigellissima is perhaps not quite the book she intended. She talks of the book being a really long time on the back burner and how one day she would write her “Italian Book”. Nigellissima is an Italian Book – and I love it – but it’s clear what she means here. My prediction is that she will write the ‘Italian Book’ one day, or a book that plainly inhabits the spirit of that intention. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least – just as I was not surprised at all to discover Julia Turshen is a poet – if Nigella’s notebooks aren’t filled with drafts of such, or a memoir, a novel …
“I suppose I regard Italy as my gastronomic and dare I say it – I know I shouldn’t but I’m going to say it anyway,” she says anyway as the TV series opens, “but my spiritual home.” It’s really easy I suppose to mock this, but I can’t. Like many, I’m right there. When I was listening to Pavarotti on a little cassette player in a tiny 80s flat, cooking up my ‘Pollo e vino bianco’ from my Marshall Cavendish Regional Italian Cookery – in a wok no less – I didn’t know it at the time, but this love of Italian food wasn’t going to let go. Years and years later, Nigellissima seemed to be speaking up for the Dolmio, Nessun Dorma and Italia ’90 generation who maybe got exactly what she was saying.
“Food, like language,” says Nigella, “is a living entity: how we speak, what we cook, changes over time, historically and personally, too.”
Forza Azzurri to that. Or, as she says to the guy in the wine shop in one episode: “I’ll be seeing you soon.”