At 17, Nigella Lawson fell in love -- with Italy. The love affair turned out to be more than a just another teen romance. Decades later, the author of Nigellissima shares her stories about the country and its food.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I'm looking at your new book -- it's Italian food and I had to chuckle. Somewhere in the beginning you said at 17 you decided to become Italian. What happened?
Nigella Lawson: I don't know, because most people wanted to be French when I was a teenager. Everyone was reading French paperbacks and wearing berets and striped tops. Maybe it was my way of rebelling against my Francophile parents. But when love happens, it happens, and I just fell in love with the idea of Italy before I fell in love with Italy. So it could have been just a teen romance that was going to blow itself out, and yet I find myself several decades on as passionate about Italy as ever. I lived in Italy as a 19-year-old and have been back every year since.
LRK: When you got to Italy as a 19-year-old, were you disappointed?
NL: Not at all -- slightly afraid. I got there and I said, “I will do absolutely anything to earn a living, except clean restrooms.” Consequently I got a job as a chambermaid where, of course, my job was to clean restrooms. So I learned the equivalent of streetwise Italian. Then the reason I actually did want to learn Italian is that I wanted to go to Oxford University and study medieval and modern languages, which I did. I had done that in French and German, but really wanted to learn Italian. When I got back, we were translating Bertrand Russell into Italian, and this poor professor said to me, “The grammar is all fine, Nigella. But I just don't think Bertrand Russell would have sounded like a Florentine green grocer.”
I learned Italian because I wanted to speak to other people. This sounds like a very cheesy thing to say -- but I'd been a very shy and reserved person in English and in England, and moving to Italy and learning Italian made me much more open and less timorous. So I suppose for me, Italy represents a coming into myself rather than just the acquisition of a foreign tongue.
LRK: What about the food? Were you prepared for that?
NL: Fantastic. Chambermaiding has never been a lucrative way of earning a living and remains like that. So, in a way, I learned about food the interesting way, which is with a very, very tight budget. That's when you taste real food, because you don't have the money for fancy restaurants that tourists go to. The simplicity of just a fantastic broth with some tortellini, which is really frankly all I could afford when I went to a restaurant, was fabulous. I learned to cook things such as Eggs in Purgatory, which is a can of tomatoes, and you almost poach an egg in that, along with some chili flakes and some parmesan.
I feel like I'm telling lies when I'm telling the truth: Where I was chambermaiding, there was a granny there. She got quite lonely in the daytime because her children -- her very, very beloved son and daughter-in-law -- would go back to their farm in the countryside in the daytime and her grandson was at school. Although as staff we were forbidden to go into the private parts of the pensione, she was lonely, so I used to go into the kitchen and keep her company. I actually learned to cook by watching her cook. I feel I learned in the old-school way and it was inspiring.
LRK: She sounds like she was straight out of central casting.
NL: She really was. She was what they call a pocket battleship. She was feisty to the max and had a glorious head of dyed hair, obviously, chestnut, and wore a fitted apron with a front and back at all times -- always ready to be in the kitchen.