Twenty years ago, Prue Leith vowed she would never write another cookery book. Catherine Scott finds out what made her change her mind.
Prue Leith is a colourful character in more ways that one.
“I love colour and don’t understand that women hit a certain age they start to wear black or grey. You travel on the tube and everyone is dressed in dark colours, especially in winter, I believe that it’s a time when we should be wearing bright colours such as yellow,” says Leith.
The Great British Bake Off judge has taken it almost as a personal mission to make the country more colourful – and has even brought out her own ‘‘Prue Range’’ of colourful glasses by Ronit Furst.
“If women of a certain age do wear colour it tends to be shoes or a handbag, but people look at your face so I believe you should have colourful glasses and necklaces.”
Her obsession with colour can be seen on the cover of her new eponymous cookery book which she will be discussing at Ilkley Literature Festival next month.
Pure: My Favourite All Time Recipes was the book the cookery book Leith said she would never write.
“I vowed 25 years ago that I would never write another cookbook. I felt I had said all I had to say about cooking as I had written 12 of them,” says Leith, who opened her first restaurant in 1969 and went on to have her own catering company and cookery school.
“All the time I was writing cookery books, what I really wanted to do was to write novels but I was busy running my business and writing columns for national newspapers as well as cookery books. I knew if I was going to fulfil my dream I was going to have to sell my business and stop writing cookery books.”
And so that’s what she did.
“I rang my agent and told him I was going to stop cooking and writing about cooking and was going to become a novelist instead. I think he thought I was mad. He said, ‘Why would you want to be an unsuccessful novelist when you are already a successful cookery writer?’”
But not one for being told what to do, Leith went ahead with her plan and sold her business and set about becoming a novelist and proving her agent wrong.
She has written eight novels, her latest due out this month is the final book in her Food of Love trilogy. Despite this she still never had any intention of writing another cookbook.
However, when she started judging first the Great British Menu and, more recently, the Great British Bake Off, it made her realise just how much cooking and the attitude towards it had changed.
“Doing more television, I found myself once again in the food world and realised there was something really wonderful happening. There are so many young people interested in food. I have been campaigning all my life to get kids into the kitchen and now it seems to be happening,” says Leith who founded the charity Focus on Food which aimed to promote cooking on the school curriculum. She admits she was a bit nervous about taking the Bake Off job and replacing Mary Berry when the hit cooking show moved from BBC One to Channel 4.
“I have been telling people for years that they have too much sugar in their diets and then I was considering joining a show where I would be eating cake every day. But then I realised that people normally get into cooking through baking as a child and it was a great way to get people interested.”
Making these programmes has shown her the changes that had happened in cooking. “I used to go into the kitchen and serve my late husband three courses – now everyone cooks together, they share small plates and it is a lot more relaxed.”
Leith was married to co- author Rayne Kruger for 28 years until he died in 2002. In 2016, she married John Playfair, a retired clothes designer.
“John is very different. In fact he wooed me by cooking me haggis. But then he tried to make me some fillet steaks and was about to put them on a not very hot frying pan and so I had to take over.”
Inspired by this new, more relaxed attitude to food and cooking, she started to ‘‘borrow’’ recipes from the contestants.
“I began to feel that long-forgotten excitement of inventing recipes and returning to old favourites.” And so the idea came for her first cookery book in more than 20 years.
“It has been a pure joy to be back in the kitchen adding new twists to the recipes I’ve always loved, adding new ones that I’ve blatantly stolen from other cooks – with permission and credit, I promise.”
The book is very much a tour of her life and so includes recipes from her childhood in South Africa, some middle eastern inspiration from her sister-in-law, some vegan and gluten free dishes but also some ‘‘creamy booze-laden, absolutely delicious dishes from the past’’ that she says she still loves.
“I’m the boring old granny who says there are no bad foods, but rather that anything in excess can kill you. Unless you have a serious health issue a balanced diet will keep you well.”
She is a champion of fresh minimally processed food, which is why she has agreed to be part of a government-backed review into the poor quality of hospital food.
“I have been campaigning about hospital food for a number of years and has been involved with Sustain, and their better hospital food campaign. We thought we were getting somewhere two years ago, we were talking to the hospitals and showing them best practice but then it just didn’t get anywhere. Unless the people at the top buy into change then nothing will happen.”
So when she was approached to be part of a review of hospital food she was encouraged, but also cautious on agreeing to be involved after getting a personal pledge from the Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he was committed to actual change.
“I didn’t want to be the latest celebrity chef wheeled out as a publicity stunt, I needed commitment that they really wanted to make changes and the money would be made available to make that happen. I am confident that things will happen. Obviously there are no certainties in politics but I cannot see any Government taking money away that has been pledged for the NHS.”
■ Prue Leith will be at Ilkley Literature Festival which runs from Friday, October 4 to Sunday, October 20. For details visit www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk