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 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 source of chocolate-the cacao plant. I explained the history of its cultivation, that its seeds are naturally bitter and must fermented to produce cocao, and that chocolate was addictive 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.'