Two Fat Ladies

Nigella’s Busts: “Cookbook Errors” Typify Hard Truths

I’VE STUMBLED across a story from a journalist in Brisbane, who relates multiple disasters with a recipe by “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson; this scribe from the Sunshine State isn’t the first to encounter a dud from Lawson and I’m sure she won’t be the last. But it raises some interesting points, first and foremost of which is the fact that even chefs who actually know what they’re doing often publish material that is impossible to elicit a desirable result from.

I hope everyone has enjoyed the festive season break, eaten plenty of turkey, and tried to take it sensibly on the juice this summer; a happy New Year — belatedly — to all, and I don’t mind spelling out my resolution of trying to post a minimum of three articles per week on this site in 2016: more if possible. With Retro Tuesdays already eliciting plenty of traffic (if not comments — hint, hint) and becoming a bit of a fixture, a couple of extra articles on top of that here (plus the five I try to average on my other, political, site) should be manageable.

Nine times out of ten…

Yet speaking of politics (and the obligatory apologies for the segue to that subject once again), the first I’d ever heard of British TV cook and “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson was when I heard the news that Nigel Lawson’s daughter was to be the star of a new programme that was sneeringly billed at the time as heralding the arrival of the “sexualisation of food for mass audiences.”

Nigel Lawson — for those who don’t know — was the second Chancellor of the Exchequer (or “Treasurer” in an Australian government) in Margaret Thatcher’s government, holding the post between 1983 and 1989; Lawson was a Chancellor who rightly enjoyed great acclaim, and with whom only Peter Costello and Paul Keating provide any kind of Australian comparison in a rarefied class of contemporary political royalty.

There are those (and I’m one of them) who believe Nigel Lawson was not only the architect of Britain’s economic successes in the mid-1980s, but that his reforms paved the way for the unprecedented boom that country enjoyed for 15 years from 1993-94 onwards: yet he was a dour, orthodox Tory and as dry as old biscuits, so the idea of his daughter providing any sort of riveting TV experience seemed preposterous, to say the least.

How wrong I was.

Like most of the males who watched her (and in my early 20s when Nigella Bites first aired) I was captivated by her undeniable beauty, but far from finding it tawdry or smutty — as many (probably jealous) TV critics of the day were wont to describe her — I thought Nigella positively oozed class; she radiated sensuality and beauty, with that smooth velvet voice almost luring the viewer into her kitchen and to her table.

Nigella Bites was fun, and whilst much of what Nigella cooked on it left everything to be desired (ham on the bone cooked in Coca-Cola and glazed in half a ton of assorted sticky sugar products, anyone?) it was impossible as a viewer not to want to get in on the naughty little secrets and treats she turned out, week after week.

Lesson #1: if it looks as alluring as it does when Nigella Lawson does it, it is too good to be true.

Lesson #2: if Lesson #1 is in evidence, it’s wise to leave the illusion on the small screen, where it belongs.

Denise Cullen, writing in today’s issue of the Courier-Mail, retells a story of her persistence with a chocolate-cherry cupcake recipe authored by Miss Lawson, and once I got over the initial amusement of a vision of exploding cowpat-style substances soiling the insides of her oven, it struck me that I’ve fallen into the trap of cooking Nigella’s “recipes” myself — not recently by any stretch — and I can’t say I was surprised at all to learn of the frothing, diarrhoea-like “lava” that burst from the confines of a baking tin and set hard enough to take a month to chisel it out of the oven.

It seems Ms Cullen really wanted the recipe to succeed, and (to my amazement) part of her rationale seemed to be that it was a Nigella Lawson recipe: how could one of those fail? What could possibly go wrong?

After all, it isn’t as if Nigella ever won MasterChef (the British version — proper MasterChef — not that abominable truckload of crap broadcast by Channel 10 that also somehow thinks it’s Australian Idol) and it isn’t as if her name sits harmoniously with those of Marcus Wareing and Atul Kochhar and Raymond Blanc, or others among the finest European chefs at the very top of their game: to me Nigella is a cook, a very entertaining identity, and perhaps in her own kitchen even a good cook.

And it isn’t as if she boasts the kind of pedigree of Two Fat Ladies — self-taught cooks who spent years writing about food and cooking it for groups small and enormous — where the ideas might be old-fashioned, but the results were positively alive with symphonies of cooked-from-scratch natural flavour.

But a chef she ain’t.

I got the Nigella Bites DVD…oooh, it must be ten, twelve years ago…and the first inkling I had that something was very wrong — the Coca-Cola-broiled ham-and-diabetes concoction¬† notwithstanding — came with a decision to replicate what I thought was a great way to infuse some variety into the rigours of midweek cooking: Sausages with Lentils, which looked, innocuously enough, like a one-pan winner that would transform the drudge of “quick and simple” into the sort of thing that would inspire a longing for Tuesday night dinner ahead of hump day.

But just like the spontaneously combusting brownies, the sausages came with a catch; and just like the indomitable Ms Cullen, I followed Nigella’s recipe to the letter.

The result? We sure as hell didn’t get to have sausages for dinner, because Nigella’s recipe called for a stipend of red wine to be added to the pan at just the right moment “to cover everything in sticky goodness,” and poured in as suggested, all that sticky goodness vaporised in an instant and covered the walls, floor, the rangehood (and basically, everything within about seven feet of the hob) in a fine spray of crimson mist that took months to fully remove. Every time something in the kitchen was moved, it looked like I’d unearthed a globule of dried blood. And just like Ms Cullen’s execrable brownies, it almost required an industrial strength agent to get rid of it.

Still, I’m a believer that everyone deserves a second chance, so a couple of weeks later I found myself cooking up a preparation of pre-seared lamb shanks with water, Nigella’s “holy trinity” of spices (ginger, garlic, turmeric) and a few other ingredients. It was well seasoned, for — as Nigella had solemnly declared — “under-seasoned meat is absolutely vile.”

And it is.

But so is limp, languid meat fashioned in a voluminous mixture of rendered fat and turbid liquid with the consistency and appearance of water from the River Thames, and one bite (the obligatory taste-test even when you know the rubbish bin is the only suitable destination for the mess) was all it took to know that this was a very, very big fail.

And I can cook: certainly not in the league of Messrs Wareing and Kochhar et al, but well enough to know I would no longer be out of place in a lot of successful commercial kitchens.

Nigella Bites? More like Nigella’s Busts. And needless to say, Miss Lawson has never featured as a contributor to (or inspiration for) my repertoire since.

Cullen was nonetheless stoic in her defence to the end, God bless her, insisting the problem was that she lacked a key ingredient for her brownies — Morello cherry preserve from Sainsbury’s — and even went to the lengths of repeating her experiment when someone sent her a jar of the stuff. The result, it pains me to say, could have been foreseen.

And anyway, anyone who’s been to a British supermarket knows that what passes for “a supermarket” in the UK and what is offered by Coles and Woolworths in Australia are two vastly different encounters altogether; I’ve never shopped at one of the “posh” chains in England (Morrisons, Waitrose) but Asda and Tesco are basically what we used to know as Franklins and Bi-Lo, minus the pall of gloom and dreariness. There are options cheerily downmarket from those that make me shudder just to think of them. Sainsbury’s is very much the best of the mainstream bunch, but even then, my last encounter with it in Putney some years ago made me cringe. The notion of a jar of own-label jam from Sainsbury’s rescuing a dud recipe seems ridiculous.

But lest anyone think I’m just knocking poor Nigella, I’m not, although perhaps her shows are best left for entertainment purposes only, rather than trying to emulate them.

The truth is that all chefs (and certainly the top chefs I know or follow who publish cookbooks) do, at some time or another, put their names to something that is a guaranteed debacle just waiting for someone to try to cook it.

I have a six-year-old daughter who is totally addicted to (of all things) steak and kidney; the recipe I use is from one of my favourite chefs, John Burton Race, who I spent some time chatting to when I was in Devon in 2008. (That was before his horrible ex-wife sold his restaurant in Dartmouth out from underneath him while he was in Australia shooting I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! for ITV, although that’s another story).

For reliable ideas for home cooks, some of the simpler options in John’s books are fantastic. But this one, followed to the letter, results in little tough bullets in an insufficiently combined “sauce:” instead of simmering it for two and a half hours, John’s cooking time in the book is half that time.

Another chef, who participated in a contest to cook for the Queen when she turned 80 ten years ago, published a recipe for a lemon tart that included an incorrect oven setting so high that it boiled the contents of the pie crust and curdled them.

(A rolling boil. Not a gentle simmer but waves and turbulence. It was a sight to behold through the oven door, watching surf form on a lemon tart, I can assure you).

And speaking of the Two Fat Ladies — who first sparked my interest in learning to cook by making the food experience exciting, after I’d flubbed my way through seven years working in restaurants (including three in management) with great and misplaced pride that I still couldn’t cook a thing — Clarissa Dickson-Wright published so many different versions of some of her recipes that it was only by trialling all of the permutations one found that only one version of each recipe actually worked (Jennifer Paterson was the food brain in that outfit, but to complicate things, Clarissa contributed some of the nicest savoury dishes. Her Salmon with Blood Oranges and Red Wine, properly made, is almost worthy of killing for as a main course).

Rosemary Shrager — a sadly underrated chef in the eyes of many, who simply remember her as the cookery teacher from Ladette to Lady — has published a series of books over the years that are easy to follow, and “idiot-proof” in her words, for producing haute cuisine dishes at home that would wow any entourage of dinner guests. But without the publicist-generated profile of an entertaining bomb-out like Lawson, the books are generally only found in the homes of the most ardent aspiring cooks. In Australia, at any rate. And that’s a pity.

But in all of these cases, there’s an explanation or some redemption. In Nigella’s case, it is very hard to find an excuse that withstands scrutiny.

Of course, food-based entertainment has reached saturation point, in the UK, here in Australia, and across the world: truly innovative formats are growing harder to devise, and are even harder to make successful commercially. I’ve spent several years looking for commercial funding in my business to produce something that discards excessive styling in favour of a more authentic and attainable viewer experience, but the well, to mix metaphors, is all but dry.

Even so, those who were known when the explosion in the genre started to take off 15 years ago — and Nigella is one of them — will always command a slice of the commissioning budgets of terrestrial broadcasters simply on account of who they are, and were, whereas newer identities and ventures are forced to rattle the tin for advertiser funds directly.

The irony, of course, is that for every beautiful, smooth talker who is enjoyable to watch, another potential celebrity misses out because nobody thinks they should have to foot the bill for producing their shows, even if the airtime tied up in them (and the media deliverables that can be embedded) is worth millions to whatever company fits with the format and could stump up the cash.

I sympathise with Cullen greatly, for I’ve been ensnared by Nigella Lawson too: falling victim is one thing. Knowing when to move on and cut the apron strings, however, is another matter altogether.

But nobody is perfect, and there are plenty of cookbooks floating around by far, far better authorities on food than Lawson, all replete with their own goals and errors and fatal mistakes that are only ever going to be discovered if you set out one weekend to cook them.

Before you do, stop off at the bakery of your choice — and buy a good stash of the richest, most decadent brownies you can find — and have these to hand as “rewards” for your labours, and never mind about the explosive formula offered by Nigella Lawson.

Morello cherry jam — from Sainsbury’s or otherwise — is a strictly optional accompaniment, of course.