LOVE SUITS YOU, Prue
Cookery guru Prue Leith is hosting a Burns Night event at Weston Park. She talks to Heather Loat about food, her latest book and how much she adores her new husband
How apt that the way to respected cookery expert Prue Leith’s heart was through her stomach.
Even more fitting was the fact her husband, Scotsman John Playfair, wooed her with haggis, clearly basking in the romance of their recent nuptials.
“It was the first meal he cooked for me,” laughs Prue
Scotland’s national dish will be the crowning glory of a Burns Night supper hosted by Prue at Weston Park, near Shifnal.
Proud of her own Scottish heritage Prue, who will be staying over at Weston Park with her husband, is looking forward to celebrating the tradition. “If you’ve got the right company Burns Night can be lovely.
It can be very elegant and you can have fun. But I don’t like pouring whisky into good haggis, it seems a waste of good whisky and a waste of good haggis. “Haggis is just about my favourite food, closely followed by Scotch salmon and Aberdeen Angus beef. On top of that Weston Park’s chef, Guy Day, is a great cook – so how could we not have a great time?”
Prue agrees Weston Park is a splendid stately home. “It has some fantastic paintings. One night I stayed at Diana’s Temple, they had just finished restoring it and it’s just beautiful”
It was in Edinburgh that Prue, 76, wed her ‘toyboy’ groom (John is six years her junior) in a low key affair. She says: “The pre wedding lunch was with our friends who were also our witnesses, in Ondine’s, opposite the magnificent registry office in Lothian Chambers. I had oysters followed by treacle tart. After the ceremony our friends took us to the New Club, a stuffy gentleman’s club but it has the most beautiful views over the city.
My friend Luce had made a lemon drizzle cake the size of a saucer with a bride and groom on it. She’d bought the Lego figures on eBay and customised them with my hair with nail varnish and John’s with white radiator paint.”
The chef’s first husband was South African author Rayne Kruger who she was married to for almost 40 years. He died in 2002 and she subsequently embarked on a relationship with pianist Sir Ernest Hall for a number of years. Prue says she never expected to find love, let alone a husband, again at her age. “The truth is I do absolutely adore him and he does me and we thought we should be committed to each other,” she tells me.
It would seem she has found the magic formula for a successful union. “There has been a lot of amusement about the fact I said we are still living in separate houses and that was the secret of a happy marriage.“I don’t have to do his laundry. We both get up, he takes the dogs for a walk and then he goes off until lunchtime to mow his lawn.“Living apart means I don’t have any of his clobber. He’s a bit of a hoarder, he loves paintings and books and I’m quite neat and tidy. What we eventually intend to do is to convert an old farmhouse into our old age home.He can have his end of the house and I can have mine and we can have some mutual bits in the middle which we joke could be for the carer.”
Food and love are closely intertwined in Prue Leith’s life and are the threads running through her trilogy of which the second instalment – The Prodigal Daughter – is out now. “I’ve been very interested in what we have done to our food over the last 75 years and thought it would be a good theme for a story,” explains Prue, who is also a restaurateur. Set in the 60s and 70s Prue says The Prodigal Daughter is quite autobiographical. “I’m proud of the novel because I know it’s very authentic. The book world looks down on romantic fiction but I’m not ashamed of writing love stories. If they’re good enough for Shakespeare they should be good enough for me.”
Prue reveals that there has been interest from Stephen Fry’s company Sprout Pictures and Parallel Films in turning the trilogy into a TV series. The writer has also carved out a successful role as a judge on Great British Menu – she only recently announced she was quitting after 11 years with the show – and is now presenting My Kitchen Rules UK.“It’s a nice show, it’s encouraging. I didn’t want a show that would humiliate the contestants, I hate that.”
She’s a fan of Bake Off and is convinced it will still be a success when it moves to Channel 4.
“Partly because it’s still got Paul but also because it’s about sugar and we’re all addicted to sugar. We love cake and we’re all drooling over the cakes. “I’ve always said sugar is the enemy. It’s just so tempting. Our origins were to search for sweet things. If you’re running around looking for berries you want the sweetest ones but we were never designed to eat processed sugar. I do think manufacturers cheat. They call something a health bar or fat free but it’s got nothing but carbs and sugar. Even the top chefs will sneak an extra teaspoon of sugar into a sauce if they can. If I’m making gravy I might well put in a dollop of port to make it richer and sweeter.”
Coming from the classic school of cookery I wonder what Prue thinks of the current crop of celebrity chefs?
“I think the best thing, particularly because of Jamie Oliver, is that it has become cool to cook. I think the standard of cooking is just amazingly good. “I first opened my restaurant in 1969 and I was looking at some of the old menus and they are so old fashioned and boring. Today chefs are very inventive, sometimes too inventive. They really care about flavour and quality of ingredients which nobody did in 1960.
“I think sometimes chefs are a bit in love with the machines they have in the kitchen. I know they think they are artistic and they are painting a picture and yes, food should be fantastic to look at, but it should make your mouth water. “There’s too much fussing about. I don’t want a plate of food where every single mouthful has been handled and manipulated and squished and gelled and whisked. The best food looks like it’s just landed on the plate.” This no-nonsense approach to food is something Prue is keen to pass on to the younger generation. “I want to teach children to be interested in food.” She enjoys nothing better than cooking with her two grandchildren. “I’m not a very good grandmother. My fellow grandmother spends hours playing with them. I’m more brutal. I want them to fit into my life so they have to come and garden with me and cook with me.
“They are a little exuberant but when they are cooking they really concentrate, they’re as good as gold. We seldom make cakes. If they make something with bread, or pizza or a spaghetti bolognese, because they have made it themselves they want to eat it.”
If she’s not cooking with her grandchildren Prue Leith will be creating a culinary delight for her new husband. Falling in love again has rekindled her passion for making delicious meals. “When you live alone you can’t be bothered. I would still cook if family came down but in the week I used to eat out of yoghurt pots. All cooks cook for praise and to please others. People say to John ‘if you’re married to Prue you must have wonderful meals?’ and he tells them he has never had the same thing twice. That’s because I’m a leftover queen.”
Five minutes with Prue. . .
“I do love long slow cooked stews. There was a fantastic dish on Great British Menu which was like a Moroccan tagine with a shoulder or leg of goat.”
Guilty food pleasure?
“I love polenta, almond and lemon cake. It’s really easy to do. You can have it for pudding with crème fraîche or a compote of raspberries or as a cake.”
Who would you invite to a dinner party?
“Ruth Rogers (who owns Michelin starred Italian restaurant The River Cafe in London) and her husband. Also Michael Parkinson. I once said I would invite him if I was having a romantic dinner and I still think he’s a bit of a dish. We’d better have his wife Mary too.”
Top cookery tip?
“Ten minutes of planning will save you hours."
As published by Wolverhampton Magazine January 2017