Nigella Lawson’s family have lived in West London for generations. She says she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else but because her family are Jewish, Nigella knows that her roots must lie abroad.
While Nigella’s father, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, has always been the public figure, her interest lies with her mother’s family. Her mother, Vanessa Salmon, who died when Nigella was 25 years old, was a compelling and beautiful figure with whom Nigella had a complicated relationship.
Vanessa was an heiress of a hugely successful family business: the cornershop, tea house and catering company Lyons. The two branches of Nigella’s family who ran Lyons – the Salmons and the Glucksteins – were outlined in an official family tree, which a family member created in the 1970s but which to date she has never even looked at. Nigella wants to put details to the names on her tree.
Nigella’s brother Dominic remembers their grandfather, Felix Salmon, who died when Nigella was nine. He was a quiet man who was happier buying art than running cornerhouses, who kept himself to himself and who hated the suffocating nature of the family business.
An unconfirmed family rumour suggests that Felix had the traumatic experience of being one of the soldiers who liberated the concentration camp Belsen. Looking at Felix’s war records in the Imperial War Museum, Nigella finds that he was indeed in North West Europe in April 1945, acting as a major in the Catering Corps who were undoubtedly at Belsen.
Returning to the family business, Nigella learns that Lyons was an enormous enterprise (with sites in the present day Trocodero and Palace Regent Hotel, and the recently closed Planet Hollywood), which offered the British public high quality dining for competitive prices between 1898 and 1970. The family constructed a fund to ensure this money was never lost through disagreements or jealousy.
The Salmon and Gluckstein families had begun as travelling tobacco sellers in the east end of London. The tobacco company grew and it was this success that funded their catering business, which took off in the period prior to the First World War.
One of the founders of the business, Barnett Salmon, had beginnings in the impoverished Jewish area of East London; two of his siblings died of dropsy when he was 13. He was officially united with the Gluckstein family in 1863 with his marriage to Samuel Gluckstein’s daughter, Helena, known as Lena.
While Barnett was born in Spitalfields, Nigella traces his co-founder, Samuel, back to the little town of Rheinberg in present-day Germany. The Glucksteins were one of a small number of Jewish families in the town, and Samuel’s father, Lehmann was a well-respected teacher. Samuel left Prussia in the 1840s to begin a new life in England.
An Iberian connection
Nigella is aware that a line of her family also came from Amsterdam. She’s heard that Amsterdam Jews very often originated from Portugal and Spain – in other words, they were Sephardic. In her twenties, infatuated with European culture, Nigella liked to think her roots were ‘exotic’ and Iberian. She learns from the census that it was Samuel’s wife, Ann Joseph who was born in Amsterdam.
On the hunt for her Sephardic roots, Nigella travels to Amsterdam to explore the schismatic history of the city’s Jewish community. The richer, mercantile Sephardic Jews had very little to do with the lower class, cattle-dealing Ashkenazi Jews who came mainly from Germany and Eastern Europe.
In the Amsterdam archives, Nigella discovers that Ann Joseph was born Hannah Sammes and that her father was a Coenraad Sammes, an apprentice shoemaker. With a surname such as Sammes, the archivist tells Nigella she is undoubtedly from Ashkenazi stock. Moreover, the surname Sammes was derived from the occupation of ‘sjamasj’, meaning ‘the carer of the synagogue’. Her forefathers maintained the Ashkenazi Great Synagogue of Amsterdam, and the signature in Hebrew of her great x7 grandfather was found in Jewish community record books dating from 1709.
One final revelation awaits Nigella in the Dutch capital. She discovers the reason that the Sammes family moved to England: Coenraad Sammes was on the run from a jail sentence he had incurred for stealing and fencing lottery tickets. When the time came for Coenraad to be called to his appeal trial, the bailiff was told the whole family had moved to England. This provides an explanation for the family changing their name upon arrival in England.
Nigella reflects on the admiration she has for her ancestors’ drive and ability to change their circumstances through pluck and hard work. Concluding her search, she feels it has confirmed her belief that, while it’s comforting to know about the ancestors who came before you, everyone ultimately has the control to shape their own life.