Burns Night at Weston Park

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. . .

Favourite dish?

“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

The Second of my Trilogy

The Prodigal Daughter

At last! The Prodigal Daughter, the second novel in my Food of Love trilogy is finally done and dusted and will be out on September 15th. It’s my sixth book of fiction but was by far the most difficult to write. I guess I’d not realised just how hard it would be to keep track of a growing family of characters, making sure I didn’t give someone green eyes in 1972 when they had blue eyes in ‘45, and having to bump off characters to make room for new ones. I had a clutch of protests when, in the first book, one of the women dies. Even my brother texted me in indignation “How could you? How dare you? She was my favourite.”  

And then it took plenty of re-writes until I felt I’d managed to give readers who haven’t read the first book, enough back-story for them to catch up and be engaged, without irritating readers who have.

Most tricky of all was making sure there were no anachronisms. It drives me mad when a character in a TV period drama uses some modern phrase like “No problem”, “You wish!” or “In your dreams.” I found the war period in the first book easier, because things like Spam, dried egg, gas masks and rationing were so clearly of the period, but distinguishing the sixties and seventies from each other for this book was much tougher. When was the Dansette wind-up record player replaced by an electric one? When did frozen TV dinners come on the market? Thank God for Google.

When I wrote The Gardener, in 2003 I spent happy hours in the New Bodleian Library in Oxford studying eighteenth century estate maps and gardening books and the list of people I had to thank for their expert knowledge was long. But now there are hardly any real people to thank, just the internet. Google is quick and efficient, and I’m told Wikipedia is more accurate than the Encyclopaedia Britannica so I’m duly grateful. But the web is not as much fun as a library or real people.

Many writers, myself included, find research for a novel one of the best things about writing. And even Google doesn’t know everything. For this trilogy I’ve talked to retired midwives in their nineties who were delivering babies in the forties, to sheep farmers castrating lambs before the war, to chefs who worked in the Savoy in the seventies. The temptation is to put all the fascinating information you glean into the novel, and the art is in only using what you really have to and which is necessary for the story. When I was writing A Serving of Scandal, about an alleged affair between the Foreign Secretary and a government caterer, it was almost impossible not to include political shenanigans in what is essentially a love story.  But then my editor at Quercus, Jane Wood, is good at slapping my wrists and bringing me back to what matters: the characters and the story with demands to “dig deeper” and get back to the love story.

 

And The Prodigal Daughter is certainly a love story: about the love of a mother for her lost son, of a daughter for first one brother and then the other, of the long secret love of a good man for an unpredictable woman. I hope you like it.

 

Discounted advance copies available to order on Amazon now.

 

 

Summer Travels

My Cambodian daughter and her husband have just got married again. Wedding One was a Buddhist affair in our drawing room, complete with monks, temple dancer, gold umbrellas, brass gongs, three changes of costume and a lot of delicious Cambodian food. That was family only, so this time she had the works: the full meringue, 200 guests, village church (she sees no conflict between Buddhism and Christianity) marquee, fireworks.

Time was when wedding guests were the parents’ chums and the bride and groom went off as soon as the cake was cut and the bouquet thrown, old shoes and tin cans clattering behind the car. Now the parents’ friends don’t get a look in. Not on Day Two either when the happy couple’s friends return for the hangover party. So on Day Three we had Local Oldies day. Unable to face any more posh catering, we hired a mobile hog roast, a gourmet burger van, an ice cream truck and a coffee van. HUGE success. I have a lot of foodie friends but Mr Whippy, complete with e-number sprinkles of lurid hue, had the longest queues.

This spring we drove slowly from Charleston to Philadelphia. My, oh my, those Southerners sure know how to turn a puddle into a Visitor Attraction. Every second house was a museum, usually, and, in view of where we were, unsurprisingly, of the Slave Trade; the British Colonials, the Civil War; the War of Independence.

In Savannah everyone was wearing green. We’d hit the biggest St Patrick Day Parade outside New York. So what had Savannah to do with the Irish?  Nothing, it turned out. But they like beer. And getting dressed up.  Most wore tee-shirts saying “Irish for the Day, Georgian for Life”.

We whizzed through the crowds on Segways. Why are we the only country in Europe to ban Segways on public roads? They are green as the shamrock, and much safer, slower, easier to use, smaller and a lot more fun than bikes.  

I’ve spent the summer on mini-jaunts closer to home. I went to a pig-and-beer dinner in Chipping Campden. The local craft beers, five of them, all very different and chosen to go with the various pork courses, were served in wine glasses. A revelation to this life-time wine drinker. And no thick head in the morning.

Spent a weekend, or what was left of it after a five-hour traffic jam on the AI, at Malton in Yorkshire, where the Naylor-Leylands behave as land-owning toffs should behave. They use their money and influence to boost the town, restoring and running the hotel, opening a cookery school, providing subsidized incubator space for start-up food businesses, backing weekly food markets and the annual festival, resisting the temptation to take high rents from multiples and big supermarkets.  They’d rather have an empty shop than a tenant who won’t buy into their plan to make Malton the Food Capital of Yorkshire, if not the country. Tom Naylor-Leyland, scion and heir, is the driving force. You’d never believe it to look at him. He’s slight, polite, un-pushy and nice. But he pops up everywhere: my last glimpse of him was after midnight, pulling pints for the punters.  

Thence to Ireland. I have never heard anyone, ever, say a bad thing about Ballymaloe, the place, the hotel, the cookery school, anything. It’s 25 years since I was last there and the atmosphere and the quality are undimmed. The glasshouse and the veg garden are gob-smacking, the school is professional and fun, the hotel homely yet smart, and the Allen family, now swelled by children and grandchildren to dozens, is still in charge. We stayed at nearby Ballycotton where our host still picks clams from the beach, where the fisherman still bring in lobsters and crabs and where the pub still throbs to Irish jigging, and sometimes, I’m afraid to say, to IRA songs.

Every small town in Ireland seems to boast an Earl, presumably the remnants of the English ascendency, whose Earldoms were dished out by the British along with the land. Lots of grand houses got torched in the troubles, and I can’t help thinking they might be the lucky ones, relieved of trying to keep the ancestral pile watertight and upright. But you have to admire heirs who refrain from flogging the Lely’s and Gainsborough, while sitting under umbrellas on account of the leaks.

We searched Garden Visits.com. Up came a jewel, complete with river garden, wild flower meadow, lily pond and walled garden. The clincher was “the only garden mentioned in Arthur Young’sTour of Ireland published in 1766. A “wild romantic garden” he called it.   Who could resist?

So we drove for miles. The gates were open, but with a notice: “Closed due to winter damage.”  The weatherworn notice, abandoned lodge and stuck-fast  gates suggested Anne’s Grove had been closed for years.

We decided to boldly go and bang on the big house door to beg admittance. We did bang, but the house, like the garden, appeared uninhabited. So maybe we could just explore a little? We did, and Arthur Young was right. 

We walked like enchanted children in a secret garden. Until we met the mistress of the house.  She was not pleased. Indeed she was very cross indeed.

“Didn’t you see the notice?”

“Yes, I know. I’m really sorry, but we’d driven miles and the website said you are open…

“But we are not open.”

“We did try to check, we left messages last night on your ansaphone and we knocked on your door but there was no one in…”

“Of course there’s no one in. We are all out in the garden trying to repair the damage.”

Four large O.A.P’s getting a deserved dressing down from a small irate landowner in a bosky glade. It would have made a great painting.