The British Medical Journal published a report last week which claimed that quite a few celebrity chef recipes are not as healthy as some supermarket ready meals. The timing was delicious.
The PR teams for Jamie Oliver and Lorraine Pascale cooked up their responses (bland, stodgy). But those wags at the BMJ must have known the super-chefs would be required to issue their apologias in the same week as their Christmas telly specials, which traditionally are booze-sodden, cream-laden rebukes to self-restraint and "healthy eating".
At the time of going to press, Nigella Lawson hadn't publicly attempted to defend her recipes against the report's findings. Which, on the evidence of Nigellissima: An Italian-Inspired Christmas, was probably just as well. This wasn't so much a Christmas cookery programme as a gorgeous waking dream of culinary excess. The photography was as saturated as the fats on display. So deep, rich and luxuriant was the focus that I found myself nodding appreciatively at a generous end credit for the focus-puller. Love your work, Francis MacNeil.
We were transported from Venice, where Nigella groped exotic vegetables at sunset markets, to the gloaming of her kitchen, and then to the notional Christmas party itself, where guests mingled and clinked and wondered where the dimmer switch was. Nigella could have hacked off a finger into her Renaissance salad but under those feeble lights, it would have passed off as a particularly crunchy radicchio heart.
"Seductive" was the well-worn palette here, in case you hadn't guessed, and Nigella sashayed obligingly. The camera, meanwhile, periodically took up position behind a house plant, spying on this domestic goddess in her stainless-steel bower. In this overheated atmosphere, the producers knew how far to push their employer's brand of indulgence. Christmas, we were told, couldn't be Christmas without cranberries/chestnuts/panettone. "I must have them all," cooed Nigella. Only occasionally did this sauce curdle into something a bit ickier. "It looks small now," she said of her cappuccino pavlova mix, "but it really does swell."
It was probably Nigella's Italian Christmas pudding cake that had the authors of the BMJ report reaching for the warfarin: a confection of panettone, mascarpone, double cream and marsala. Frankly, this looked great, and Nigella was unapologetic.
Over on River Cottage: Three Go Mad at Christmas, another of the chefs fingered in the report was overseeing some artery furring of the most refined kind. Actually, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was a little distracted, looking mildly put upon by his three actor guests, Stephen Mangan, Kathy Burke and Mark Heap. In the event, it was one of his underlings, Tim Maddams, who interrupted Burke's preparation of wild mushroom croquettes with fried oak moss: "I could explain how healthy this is – but I'd be lying, ha ha ha!"
Such moments were unfortunate, no more. Less forgivable was the show's collective inability to get in the mood. A bit of festive greenery nailed to the mantelpiece, some plinky-plonk festive music and a-robin-in-a-tree shot does not a Christmas make.
In the face of such Yuletide indifference, Burke's admitted dislike of Christmas at least came across as honest. F-W, you sensed, felt much the same filming this special in mid-October, by the looks of the trees, but he had to grit his teeth. Mangan joshed amiably, and Heap was beguilingly odd. Burke, though, was the star.
Her antipathy seemed to extend to the very idea of F-W's middle-class rural idyll. She wandered, bemused, across fields, swayed on fishing boats, and downed a foul-looking mulled vodka drink. Each time she was prompted for her gushing approval of some part of the programme's alternative festive menu, she would pause, twitch the corner of her lips, and finally offer her agreement. But she kept us guessing.
I wanted to close this review with approving reference to Wartime Farm's Christmas show. You know, ingenious Second World War recipes fashioned from powdered egg and elbow grease. But Ruth Goodman and Peter Ginn looked appalled by their carrot fudge and potato beer. Let's hope there was enough left over for the BMJ Christmas do.Reuse content