“How much alcohol is in that glass?” croaks my husband, as we watch Nigella assemble her first, but by no means last, cocktail of the show. I am too busy googling “hire Xmas barge” to answer.
This year, in a break with her tradition of spending Christmas walking round and cooking things in gorgeous twinkly London, Nigella Lawson is walking round and cooking things in gorgeous twinkly Amsterdam. And through the Nigella lens, Amsterdam’s streets and canals really are gorgeous. The shops are gorgeous, and the people who serve in the shops are gorgeous. Several minutes are given over to an attractive man rhapsodising about the creaminess of his cheese.
Nigella arrives dressed all in red, a sack slung over her shoulder from which she produces a much-loved cocktail shaker. Presumably Nigella’s GP knows not to ask how many units she consumes per week.
She enters her barge’s kitchen.. and, no, we have to stop here, because even in this age of Pinterest boards and Instagram filters, her seasonal setup still provokes a gasp. The Santa-red fridge, the ceiling hung with utensils and baubles, gleaming side by side. Everything that can be decorated with fairy lights has been, while the room itself is so dim it’s a wonder she can see what she’s cooking. This kitchen and everything in it is beyond parody and utterly absurd. I want it all.
Another Amsterdam is out there, of course, if you look carefully. Behind the twirling skaters in the Rembrandtplein, we glimpse buses, grey buildings, real life kept just out of focus. But Nigella’s not interested in real life, not right now. She’s too busy mixing mascarpone and advocaat with icing sugar and double cream, and contemplating her personal flask of liquorice liqueur.
Maybe you want to know what she cooked, which both is the point and entirely beside it. There’s a no-bake advocaat and ginger cake, “a divi-i-ine pile up of rich boozy cream and squidgy gingerbread”. There are tulip-shaped biscuits, and, for her Christmas party, an Indonesian biryani. The results obviously go beyond “tasty” and into the realm of “how-do-I-eat-as-much-of-this-as-possible-without-anyone-else-noticing?”. One almost feels sorry for her incredibly attractive and surprisingly restrained guests.
Will I actually make any of this? Probably not. Which is fine by me, because it’s not really about trying to inhabit this barge myself, however accessible her recipes – and even from the depths of my end of year exhaustion, I will admit they do seem eminently achievable. The pleasure is in witnessing Nigella being Nigella.
Nigella, who looks down on her food as though at a lover disrobing; her eyes closing in ecstasy as she murmurs, “The juices from the chicken… drip… into the rice below…” To watch her work is to remember what it is to be in the first flush of romance. At one point she does something extraordinarily intimate to a Dutch mussel.
For Nigella is a person, yes, with chestnut hair and toffeed lips, a woman who looks better cooking in curlers than I did at my own wedding. But more than that, she’s a concept. Nigella is a lifestyle, a plane of existence. She is both adjective and noun.
Look, it’s easy to laugh, or to attack Nigella for creating a fantasy world in which nothing bad can happen. But this is a woman to whom plenty of bad things have happened. She has known suffering. She wants her viewers to know joy.
And for those of us who can’t slather our Christmases in cinnamon and double cream, we do at least have her gift, a golden hour of television, promising that good things are out there. That pleasure is still possible, always delicious, and very softly lit.