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Interview with Prue Leith

Food for thought with the GBBO star

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C&TH talks all things food and travel with cook, restauranteur, novelist and The Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith

Prue Leith

What was the food like in South Africa when you were growing up?

It was very good. We were a very comfortable white family and we had a Zulu cook who was absolutely fantastic. My main memories are holidays when we would barbecue on the beach – my uncle would catch the fish and we’d stick them on the barbecue and have them sitting on a rug on the sand. When I came back to England I couldn’t understand why salads were so boring; I’d grown up with salads that had things like pineapple, raisins, and pomegranate seeds in them, but in the UK they were just a bit of lettuce and some not very ripe tomatoes.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in food since moving to the UK in the 60s?

When I first moved here most food was dried or tinned and it was very boring. Now we’ve got a lot more fresh food available, but sadly it’s only exciting for people who are interested in food, or for people who are rich enough to afford good food. Many schools have dropped cooking because they haven’t got the money, the teachers or the kitchens to do it in. We’re not taking advantage of all the great food we can get because a lot of people can’t cook, and as a result most people are eating far too much fat, sugar and salt.

Tell us a bit about the work you’re doing with Airbnb…

Airbnb are trying to highlight their Cookery Experiences, which they have all over the world. It’s a really great new initiative, and you don’t have to be a customer of Airbnb to use it. You can learn to make French pastries in Paris, homemade pasta in Rome, or Zulu food in South Africa. They are organising various experiences which people can attend, and I’m running one. I’m always interested in things that get more people cooking, and sharing meals sitting down. I like the idea of all ages joining in too. To mark the launch, 100 people will get the chance to develop their family recipes at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy – you can enter yourself or nominate someone here.

Which recipes will you teach?

I haven’t decided exactly but I was thinking I might do my version of a Shepherd’s Pie. It’s a South African dish called Boboti which is a slightly curried Shepherd’s Pie with a moussaka-like top. Then I might do a twist on an English trifle, one you can put together very quickly.

Are you drawn to travel to places with good food?

Yes, I’ve been to a lot of places with wonderful food, but occasionally I find myself in places where I can’t eat the food at all. One of my favourite places in the world is Bhutan, but the Bhutanese eat everything with such hot chilli that I can’t eat any of the local food there, it makes my lips swell immediately! I won’t stay out of a country because a food’s not up to my taste though.

Prue Leith

What’s your favourite cuisine?

It varies, because I like almost everything and I’m very greedy! At the moment I’m very keen on Lebanese and Middle Eastern food, I really like their spicing.

You’re going to India this Christmas – have you been before?

Yes a few times, but I haven’t been to Kerala where I’m going this time so I’m looking forward to that. Kerala has a great reputation for its food: it’s very colourful, most people think of Indian food as brown curry but that’s not what it’s all about. I doubt we’ll even notice it being Christmas Day there!

When you’re in the UK, what are your favourite Christmas traditions?

We always have a very traditional Christmas, and this year I think my son is going to do exactly what we’ve always done but just without me – he’ll be doing a lot more washing up than he’s used to.

What are your top tips for hosting a dinner party?

The most important thing to remember is they’re not coming over to judge you for Michelin stars. The food is not the most important thing – of course it’s lovely if it’s delicious, but it’s more important to be relaxed and to be able to spend time with your guests. My trick is to always plan it well and have a menu that you can prepare a lot of in advance.

Top three ingredients?

Garlic, lemon and olive oil.

Favourite restaurants?

For everyday eating, a pub near me called The Fox at Oddington. And for really smart food, Core by Clare Smyth – it’s a special occasion, once in a lifetime restaurant.

Pet hate in the kitchen?

Tomato ketchup on everything.

Prue’s Cooking Experience takes place on 29 January 2020 at Leith’s School of Food and Wine. £150pp, book here

Devil’s Food Cake Recipe by Prue Leith / Interview with The Dorchester’s Tom Booton