Romancing the Scone
The Great British Bake Off’s Prue Leith chats to Natalie Anglesey about her career in cookery, from teaching to presenting and how she’s even ventured into writing romance novels.
“It was The Great British Bake Off that led me back to enjoy baking again and inspired me to write my first cookery book in twenty-five years,” Prue Leith tells me. Titled simply ‘Prue, My All-Time Favourite Recipes’, it’s exactly that - apart from a small addition from her husband John.
Their marriage has been making the news simply because Prue was 76 when they met and married shortly afterwards. She met him at a party and discovered they’d been neighbours for years and their children had even gone to the same schools.
“This has turned out to be a particularly happy period of my life which I did not expect.” Prue smiles. “John is really good with my grandchildren and has even built them an amazing adventure playground at the bottom of the garden complete with zip-wires which is great- as they love coming here at the weekends.”
Happy wife, happy life is a well-known saying. But not only is Prue the proud possessor of a CBE, she’s also Chancellor of Queen Margaret’s University in Edinburgh and a respected businesswoman. She also happens to be one of the most popular women on television where she co-hosts The Great British Bake Off with Paul Hollywood.
“When the programme moved from the BBC to Channel 4 in 2016, the presumption was that Mary Berry would go too,” Prue reminds me. “I must admit I hadn’t even seen it when it was on the BBC! But I’d already done quite a bit of television, judging shows like Take Six Cooks, The Best of British and The Great British Menu. I felt comfortable in front of the cameras and wasn’t intimidated by some of my fellow judges who were usually male.
“However, when Bake Off was offered to me I knew it was very important that Paul Hollywood and I would get on well. Fortunately, we just clicked and it’s become something of a mutual admiration society. Sometimes he may sound a bit abrasive to the bakers but that’s only because he’s a perfectionist and he’s really just a big softie!”
Hollywood has retaliated by going on record describing Prue as “a sachertorte, as sweet on the inside as the outside.” While Prue adds: “With Paul, Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding we’re a good team. But I also have the utmost admiration for the bakers we had in that tent this past season, particularly during our very hot summer. They had to contend with the heat and about eight camera crews - as well as we judges asking questions often at crucial stages!”
Bake Off is gleaning audiences in the region of 8 million and, in spite of the unfortunate incident when, in a different time zone, Prue congratulated the winner before the show was aired, she is grateful to the public for accepting her apologies and her new role.
Born into a life of privilege in South Africa, Prue was intent on leaving to further her education. ‘I knew early on I was mad about food and Europe so Paris seemed like a good option on my way to the UK. My father was a director at ICI and mother was an actress, so for a time, I toyed with the idea of following in her footsteps but my passion for food won in the end.
“I came to the UK in the sixties when I was 18 and set up Leith’s School, a catering business which became fairly successful. Eventually, I gained clients like Glyndebourne and would cater for large parties at Hever Castle. I was on several boards and life was good.”
Married then to South African writer Paul Kruger, Prue was busy working as a chef and running a business. Acknowledged by her profession, she successfully opened the Serpentine Restaurant in Hyde Park, and in the seventies, her famous restaurant Leith’s won a coveted Michelin star. It was frequented by celebrities like David Bailey, the Beatles, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
Which of her many awards is Prue proudest of acquiring? “Well, I look forward to wearing the CBE at the next posh dinner party where medals may be worn. However, the award that gave me the greatest thrill was my first Michelin star. Anyone in the catering business will tell you that’s the equivalent of winning the Grand Prix!
“If there’s a reason for my success it’s probably because I like to find talent, nurture it and delegate, which I know some chefs find difficult to do. When I became pregnant I then had excellent chefs who took over the restaurant so I could take time off to be with my children.
“When I opened Leith’s School of Food and Wine, my business partner, Caroline Waldegrave, was in charge and she made it such a success. I’d already written 12 cookery books and just finished Leith’s Cookery Bible with Caroline which proved an enormous success. I’d put all my knowledge of food into that book and I couldn’t see how I could improve on it – until now.”
Prue had previously been a food columnist for newspapers like The Daily Mail, The Sunday Express, The Guardian and The Mirror. “I enjoyed the actual writing process so much that back then I decided on a complete change of direction and chose to write romantic fiction instead. My friends and colleagues thought I was quite mad and I can’t tell you how many rejection slips I had from publishers. But I kept hammering away, even writing on my laptop in the loo at boring parties. In the end, I made the drastic decision to sell the businesses and concentrate on the writing.”
Although Prue enjoyed a career writing fiction, she has now rediscovered her passion for food. She is still enthusiastic about less salt and sugar in our food and was awarded her CBE for her work as Head of the Schools Food Trust. She’s still full of praise for Jamie Oliver’s work in challenging education authorities on their past food policy.
“Some of us had been trying for years to get education authorities to change their policy of serving up stodgy, fattening foods for school dinners. But it took Jamie’s television programmes to shame them into taking notice. Now it’s the job of the Trust to ensure that school cooks know about nutritional values and not take the easy option of opening a packet.”
When Prue sold three of her businesses in the nineties, it was reported she was employing over 500 hundred people and had a turnover of £15 million. Since then she’s opened a training restaurant and catering college in South Africa and a charitable training restaurant.
When Prue’s first husband died, she rethought her lifestyle. “We‘d enjoyed a very happy 30-year marriage but I didn’t really like living on my own so I suggested to my son Daniel and adopted daughter Li-Da that we live together, on separate floors, of a house we converted in London’s Notting Hill. It worked extremely well until my three grandchildren arrived.”
Understandably Prue’s extremely proud of her children. “Daniel stood against Tony Blair in Sedgefield. He eventually became a political speech-writer and actually wrote David Cameron’s flag-ship speech at the Tory Party conference prior to the election when Cameron appeared to ad-lib his way through the speech with no notes at all. Danny made him sign his script afterwards and he wrote his thanks on it.
“Now Danny’s committed to Only Connect, a drama company which works in prisons and my daughter Li-Da, who is from Cambodia, is a documentary film-maker who films a great deal in Egypt. You’ll have seen her work on television but she’s always away working.”
Prue spends more time in her house in the Cotswolds with her husband John, who’d worked in the fashion business. Is that where her fashion sense comes from? “ Fortunately John likes what I wear,” Prue replies. “But the style, the clothes and jewellery, that’s all due to a wonderful stylist I was introduced to years ago called Jane Galpin. Fortunately, we all agreed on bold primary colours - like the cover of my book!”
With the impending festive dinners looming this month, does Prue have any alternative ideas for families bored with turkey and all the trimmings?
“Absolutely. There’s a great recipe for John’s slow-cooked brisket in the book which can even be cooked the day before. My husband could not believe I hadn’t a brisket recipe in the book, and so I added this just for him. It may seem old-fashioned but it is really tasty, makes wonderful gravy and he claims it’s worth the calories! Then on Boxing Day, a real family favourite with us is salmon in pastry with curried eggs and spinach inside. It may sound unusual but you’d be surprised how delicious that is. Then, of course, something light like Normandy Tart for pudding.”
While preparing for a book tour around the country, including various dates in Cheshire, Prue has already embarked on writing her next book. She wasn’t joking about the real camaraderie they enjoy on The Great British Bake Off because, after this book tour, she will take time off with Paul, Sandi and Noel to visit the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen before the Christmas festivities begin.
Most of the chefs I know don’t want to cook the Christmas dinner and like to eat out at this time of year but not Prue.”I love cooking at this time of year as I would not be able to enjoy eating the food when I’m not in control and didn’t know how it was prepared. But with the help of the family, of course, that’s all part of the fun. So yes life is really good!”
Pick up your copy of ‘Prue, My All-Time Favourite Recipes’ published by Bluebird, £25