Forever Summer with Nigella

Thursday, September 19, 2002 by

As the bellicose, tub-thumping war of words continues unabated over the scheduling of the main channel’s autumn period dramas, then surely it is only fitting that beautiful, bountious praise be sung out for the wonderful 60 minutes that sees the staggeringly successful (though, arguably, phenomenally over-rated) Nigella following on from Rick Stein on a channel-hopping Thursday evening. Regardless of your opinion on either of these – and I hesitate to use the word chef in relation to Mr Saatchi’s squeeze – celebrities, it is manna from heaven for foodies such as myself that we can settle down for such an hour of culinary entertainment.

The publicity machine that feeds the cult of Nigella is utterly impressive to behold. Fuelled by a heady mix of raw testosterone and oestrogen I suspect, the party line appears to be that men want her and women, stimulated by a savvy blend of envy and respect, want to be her. Columnist after columnist, critic after critic, all fall with unabashed, supine fervour at the feet of the Divine Miss L. “It’s sexy!” they shriek. “It’s gastro-porn!” they bemoan animalistically. Yet, for all the gushing praise and bubbling under the surface class appreciation, I can’t help but come back to that pathetically awful (but completely pertinent) cliché of style over substance in relation to this show. No prizes for guessing which is on top.

Perhaps it’s the poisoned chalice of following on from Rick Stein’s Food Heroes but, in truth, Forever Summer is a televisual melange of exotic, quixotic ingredients that just don’t gel. Licking your crimson red lips provocatively and soft focussing on our hostess as she flutters her come to bed eyes does not a good cookery programme make. It seems almost as if there is too much thought given stylistically to the elemental aspects of the show. Indeed, one could be forgiven for assuming that their exists a basic recipe for each show, and each and every ingredient must be given its allotted measurement.

The main problem I have (apart from a previously screened dish of deep friend Bounty Bars – do it in a working class scheme and you’re a thick as pigshit Social Security scrounger but if you’re Nigella, well it’s cutting edge fusion food – go figure) is the overly simpering, verbose manner deployed by our host. Clearly under the impression that her voice is sensual (well, I imagine if you’re Geoffrey Archer banged up in chokey living in fear of Mister Big in the showers, then it possibly could be) every word uttered is layered with, at best, a charmingly clumsy attempt at honeyed sweetness or, at worst, a pseudo-pornographic sales pitch aimed at the hormonally addled-cum-culinary pure. The entire Nigella media train (television, books, interviews et cetera) is couched in this reprehensible manner. Cooking is sexy! is the overtly oxymoronic subtext and, ergo, by association, so is Nigella. No room for subtle nuances here or delicate suggestions there. This is brash verging on brutal.

There is no doubt that Nigella is a reasonable cook. But her recipes are lightweight, wholly unoriginal and executed with little in the way of élan or gusto. Last night’s show – a pink summer theme – was entertaining without being either pleasurable or informative. That her recipes are simple, easy to follow and appetising cannot be denied but therein lies the major bone to be picked. Chilled beetroot soup is an unusual but only slight variation of Gazpacho. That it resembled a raspberry smoothie is completely incidental. The salad of watermelon and feta was, once again, slightly different but nonetheless not exactly unique (sorry, should that be quite unique or very unique?) Likewise, the rhubarb and cream dish. All the dishes were portrayed as being eclectic, funky and exciting. Yet, ultimately, they were really no more than the type of dish that anyone with a soupçon of culinary nous could rustle up with the merest hint of imagination. Let’s be brutally honest here, a halfway decent Home Economics teacher could knock them out to a diffident classroom with ease. Going back to the watermelon and feta dish, Nigella stated that she “couldn’t claim all the credit for this combo” – that’s awfully big of you love. Especially when you consider that the Moors have been feasting on it for around six centuries. Mind you, top marks to her for admitting that the strawberry and rosewater dish was pinched from a reader’s tip in a daily newspaper. Recycling works.

When she is freed from the constraints of patronisation, it is with inevitable predictability that presumed hip ingredients are thrown into the equation. It was only a question of time before Bulgar wheat reared its insidiously dull heads (or ears) and last night it appeared in the guise of supplementing an extraneously dull lamb dish – a dish that was, incidentally, presented in the most horrendously slap-dash fashion. If you are going to preach to us, then please dress your dishes up at least as well as yourself. Slopping out a plate of vomit coloured wheat topped by slices of badly cut lamb reminded me of the canteen scenes in Porridge. All that was missing was Godber to deadpan an ad-lib to camera.

The aforementioned simpering, verbose manner was in jolly hockey sticks overdrive last night. My favourite Nigella’s nightmare neologism (that’s a popular phrase in our house now) was that “red onions shone luminescently”. Her enthusiasm is utterly boundless and makes for a wonderfully entertaining aspect of the show. Thus, her rhubarb and cream fool became “totally dreamy” and “lusciously thick” – shades of Enid Blyton or what. The salad for the lamb dish had a “depth of pungency” and a “feisty dressing”. What ho! And – the highlight, unquestionably – was a strawberry ice cream dish that had “the taste of blue sky and sun on your shoulders. The childhood we wished we all had”. Never mind the quality, hear the depth.

This is not a programme about creating dishes or empowering the culinary backward. This is, quite simply, a lifestyle statement. After all, isn’t Miss Lawson the domestic goddess? From the huge mother of a kitchen to the huger mother of a garden, wherein sit Nigella’s crisp white friends eating their food from crisp white plates that sit on crisp white linen to the overly sentimental shots (slightly out of focus, naturally) of Nigella’s kids picking strawberries, this show attempts to flaunt a way of life to us but one that is resolutely beyond most of our reaches. Deliberately so? I think so, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Always, the undercurrent is that there is clear blue water between our host and ourselves. Forever Summer is a 30 minute passport to Nigella’s world, an existence of exquisite perfection. I’d certainly dine at her table. Whether the food would be sufficient is an entirely different matter.


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