When I first heard of the public exposure of Nigella’s cocaine habit I must confess that I felt a pang of guilt, as it was I who had properly introduced her to the substance. Not physically, as a taker or pusher, you understand, but intellectually, as a chemist, neuropathologist, economist and social historian. We were seated together at a charity dinner, at which I had agreed to be the guest speaker, while she and Charles were hostess and host. She was a charming companion, in a simple sort of way, and evidently wired with an addictive bent, as she would root in her capacious handbag every few minutes to extract large lumps of chocolate from what I took to be a jumbo catering bar. It seemed a largely unconscious habit, as she fed the lumps into her mouth rather as an automaton might, and appeared unaware of her own compulsive actions until I questioned her about them.‘Oh, God, sorry.’ She said. ‘Have I been doing it long?’
I thought I would let the brown smears around her mouth answer her question when she next faced a mirror, and instead I began to tell her about the cacao plant, the history of its cultivation, that its seeds are naturally bitter and must fermented to produce cocao, and how that substance had addictive properties, owing to the presence of tri-glyptotheramides. Evidently she harboured a misunderstanding that cocoa was also the source of cocaine, appearing to believe that cocaine itself was merely some purified and more intense form of white chocolate.
Of course I put her right at once. I explained that the coca and cacao plants were quite distinct; that cocaine, or more properly benzoylmethylecgonine, acted as voltage-gated sodium channel blocker in the brain, thus priming the limbic reward pathway. I warned her that owing to these remarkable properties the substance was not to be sniffed at, but alas I fear she misinterpreted my words, and the rest you know.
Her addictive nature was revealed in other ways following our discussion. She imbibed wine in oceanic quantities, though with a surprising lack of discernment for a celebrity chef. When she saw me perusing the label of what I felt to be a rather pugnacious and combative claret she remarked that Charles had specially laid on her two favourite wines.
'Really?' I asked. 'Which are they?'
'Red and white.'