I recently interviewed Prue Leith, recently most famous as a judge on The Great British Bake Off and her niece Peta Leith, who is a professional pastry chef, about their joint book The Vegetarian Kitchen. For a shorter version of this interview go to ckbk.com
Food and Politics:
Like you, Prue, I’ve always been very into food, and also quite into politics. So I was quite interested in your intervention this week, and you resigning from the local Conservative Party. Obviously, child food poverty is a massive issue.
I’d prefer not to talk about it, because the more I talk about it, the more it becomes one of those things that goes on and on and on. I’m sick of it.
I do think food is a very political subject.
It gets into absolutely every subject, doesn’t it? It’s part of everything.
It’s core. I think there should be a minister of food and hospitality, just dealing with that.
Yes, I do. Schools should be judged on their food, which is about how the children are fed, how food is taught, how food politics and food history are dealt with in history.
Peta: I think it should a part of the Ofsted rating. My daughter just started pre-school this September. But even between the local pre-schools, the difference in terms of what we’ve been told about what we can put in their packed lunch- my friends school has told them: ‘no sweet drinks, no cakes, no crisps, none of that.’ Whereas our pre-school hasn’t given any guidance at all as to what they should bring in. I feel a bit conflicted because I see the other kids who’ve got Wotsits and things in their bag, which I’m not going to give her, but I don’t want her to feel as though she’s not getting a treat.
Prue: School shouldn’t be dishing out sweets as prizes for good behaviour. We have lots of sweet treats in vegetarian kitchen. But for me a treat is once a week, not once or twice a day.
I’m really impressed by the book. Everything is really cookable. It’s got loads of fantastic recipes. I noticed in the back that Prue says that Peta has done most of the hard graft.
Prue: I’ve written 14 cookbooks over the years, and up until now, I’ve done them entirely on my own. They’re really hard work, you have to keep jumping up and testing them. You need to test on gas and electricity. It’s like a maths book, you can’t afford to make a mistake, because it’s somebody else’s money is going down the bin if you don’t do it right. People think writing a cookbook is all about sitting down and having wonderfully creative ideas and thinking, wouldn’t that be delicious? Well, there is that part of it. That is best part of it.
But the real hard slog is the testing and the re-testing, and the editing and the re-editing. And I swear to you that even though Peta and I have all cooked everything in this book, we’ve all copy-edited it, my secretary has been through it, the publishers have been through it, I bet you anything, there’s still mistakes in it. I haven’t found a serious one yet. But if I read through it again, I’d want to change something.
I’ve done five books myself and I just howl with embarrassment. The cheese cake that was a fridge cake and I then say put it in the oven.
Peta: I find when I’m reading somebody else’s book, and I noticed a howling mistake like that, I’m much more forgiving. Unless the recipe simply doesn’t work and I wasted all my ingredients. When I see something which is obviously a mistake, I just think it was obviously a mistake. Whereas if I see it in our book, I think ‘Oh, my God, the whole world’s gonna be laughing at us.’
It’s really difficult.
Prue: This book was part of a two book deal with my publishers Macmillan. I just said, look, I’ve got to do this with somebody else. Peta was the natural one to do a vegetarian cookbook. It has been an absolute joy, because I landed Peta with most of the checking, the testing and the hard, horrible, boring bits. I thought right, well, it’s only her second book, because she had done one before for the Ivy group. Presumably you could get some of the bakers in the Ivy to test stuff did you, Peta?
Yes, the recipes that were going into that were all the things that were already on the menu.
Prue: Okay, it’s her first book that she has had to lead on. So she could do the hard graft. And that was brilliant, because I didn’t have to do it. But I did enjoy the book. It was fun doing it.
How long did it take?
Peta: It took a while because it changed quite a lot. When first signed, it was actually going to be a baking book; sweets, pastry, baking and being a pastry chef, that was why originally I was co-opted in.
There is a strong pastry chef influence on the book.
Peta: Whilst Prue was writing the first book, the publishers thought, actually baking isn’t selling at the moment.
Prue: What they said was very funny. They said the trouble is that every winner of bake-off, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, have a baking book out every year. There are just too many baking books.
Peta: They said people want simple, quick, easy things. With baking, you have to be precise and it has to be a bit more involved. So they want to quick and easy accessible recipes. Me being a life-long vegetarian, it seemed like a good sort of segue.
Prue: It seemed to me to be a good idea because Peta has been a vegetarian all her life and I’m an enthusiastic vegetable eater, but I’m not a vegetarian.
Cookbook top ten:
I was looking at the lists of books that you picked out for the 1000cookbooks site. I have a lot of similar picks to Peta’s list. I love the David Lebovitz book ‘The Perfect Scoop‘. Nigella is, obviously, up there. The Art of Pasta, it’s such a beautiful book.
Peta: Isn’t it useful? And so little known. It doesn’t seem to be out there that much.
It’s Australian, isn’t it? They seem to do really beautiful books in Australia.
Prue: When I had my business in the 70s or 80s, I wanted to subscribe all our chefs in the catering business and restaurant to food magazines. But there were no food magazines in England. Taste was the first one and that failed. So I had to subscribe them to Australian Gourmet, some other Australian magazines and one American magazine. The Aussies were always out ahead. They are mad about food. They are just tremendous, better at sea food and all sorts of stuff,
I wonder if it is the Asian influence as well, because Asia is obsessed with food.
Prue: Lovely book.
Peta: It’s a reference book, my go-to. When I’m thinking about menus, I do menu consulting with one of my ex-colleagues from The Ivy, that book is never far from my side.
Looking at Prue’s list, I’ve noticed you are a fan of Mary Berry. Are you two mates?
Prue: Oh, yes, we have known each other forever. She’s about the only person I know who’s older than me. She’s still going strong at 85. So there’s hope for me. (Laughs). I started with Mary Berry’s cakes many years ago. I still always think of her more as more of a cake authority. Of course, she can cook other things.
You have other TV chefs like Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater.
Prue: I think of Nigel Slater as a writer. Have you seen his crumble book?
A whole book on nothing but crumble?
Prue: It’s fantastic. You have a different crumble for different bases. We all make the same top. Anyhow, he writes beautifully, his recipes always work and they’re pretty simple. He doesn’t go into anything too fancy.
I call Jamie Oliver, Saint Jamie. He’s always been prepared to stick his neck out, whether it’s school food or hospital food, most chefs steer clear of that sort of stuff, because it’s political and difficult and so on. He’s so encouraging, I think without Jamie, we wouldn’t have all the boys, middle class boys who used to long to cook but thought it was too sissy. Jamie made it cool to cook.
I once watched him demonstrating to 2000 school kids at the Good Food Show in the big tent. You know he plays the drums, Jamie, he’s a very good drummer. He came bouncing down through the auditorium, leapt onto the stage, onto a drum kit and started a fantastic riff. The kids were screaming, the screen was going, neon lights, ‘Jamie, Jamie, Jamie’, and the whole thing was like pop concert. Then he jumped off the drum kit and stood in the middle of the stage, made for silence. Everybody shut up.
Then he said, ‘How many of you kids hate vegetables?’ All 2000 kids put their hands up. So he said: ‘How many of you love vegetables?’ And a tiny little group of about 15 Kids put their hands up. He said: ‘I just want to tell you something, these 15 children are going to live longer than all of you guys.’ That is so brave. Because school teachers are always so frightened of upsetting people. Then he gave a very punchy lecture: ‘So you got to get to love your veggies. They are wonderful. And they make you live longer. And you’d be better at sports and people will like you more”.
You’ve got Elizabeth David on your list. Did you know Elizabeth David?
Prue: I did. She would come and have lunch at my school and talk to the teachers. She would never talk to the students. She was very shy and never wanted to do a performance.
She hated being on television. She hardly ever was on it. I remember one very incredibly embarrassing interview that poor Jancis Robinson, did you ever see it? Honestly, she could be such a cow.
Jancis would politely ask her just an innocent question like: ‘Have you always loved food?’ Elizabeth would reply: ‘none of your business?’ (Laughs) So she was very difficult.
I can’t say she was a close friend, but I was a huge groupie. I used to take her offerings from my veg garden, like pea tendrils and rocket and the sort of things that were quite difficult to buy at the time, but I used to grow them. I’d take her new peas and new potatoes, a basket of veg and dump it at her Chelsea house for her.
Occasionally she’d take me out to lunch. She loved an Indian restaurant and she introduced me to kulfi, the Indian ice cream. She didn’t like posh stuff.
She was really impressed when I had my restaurant and I had put Elizabeth David’s Mushroom Soup on the menu as a first course. I was a bit nervous because I hadn’t asked her. But she was really impressed. She said: ‘People pinch my recipes all the time and they never credit them’. She was very hot on being credited. ‘What’s more, you made it right.’ She used breadcrumbs to thicken it not flour. It has a really lovely texture, it doesn’t have that slightly gluey texture.It has almost as much parsley as mushrooms in it. It’s a very unusual soup, but it is absolutely the best mushroom soup.
So I was a great admirer of hers but a bit scared of her. I wouldn’t say she was warm. She was quite funny and wry and good company. One of the reasons she was good company is she would bitch about everybody else. And perhaps when you weren’t into the room, she was bitching about you?
She was fond of a few chefs. She liked Anton Mossiman a lot and classic chefs such as Albert Roux. I think she liked women too, she was friends with Jane Grigson. She was always a little aloof. I didn’t know whether Jane Grigson would have said the same.
But I always felt she’s a proper writer. She was happiest by herself with a typewriter. She’d spend the whole page telling you how to bottle red peppers or something. She always had a story to go with it, because she was such a writer. No, she was great.
Modern chefs and food writers.
Who are the chefs or food writers that you both respect today?
Prue: The people I admire the most are people like Ottolenghi who have managed to get the whole country eating much more healthily, and eating Israeli/Mediterranean flavours. He has so many imitators. The whole way we look at salads today is completely different because of Ottolenghi.
He’s brought in, rather than the classic starter main pudding, small plates, which is much easier for dinner parties, isn’t it?
Prue: And it’s so good looking, it looks so appetising. An Ottolenghi spread is irresistible, you want everything and you don’t notice that three quarters of it is vegetarian.
Peta: Somebody I refer to a lot is Smitten kitchen? Deb Perelman. She is so brilliant, how methodical she is, all her recipes work so well.
She tests 12 times apparently.
Peta: Does she? Well, that’s why. She’s on my level about trying to cut down on sugar, she thinks things are too sweet. She does the things that I would do to a recipe. So she’s somebody I refer to a lot. There’s a lot of people I really admire on Instagram…
Instagram is kind of an extension of something that Prue has said about not really liking the whole coffee table type of cookbook. Instagram is a bit like that, isn’t it? Stuff that looks good but you’d never get to taste it. So who knows?
Peta: Absolutely. There’s so many people on Instagram, who are putting their recipes out there and putting food on the web. It’s very hard for people to differentiate and to know who’s worth trying and who’s not. It is tricky. And the age of the internet just means everyone can appear as an experts.
Another person who I like today, is Jenny Chandler. She has a brilliant book called Pulse. Her recipes are all really great, zero waste, sustainable stuff.
I went to a Guild of Food Writers workshop that she held and it was really interesting. In the UK we don’t eat many beans or pulses do we? We haven’t got a pulse culture.
Peta: I think increasingly we do as veganism is increasing, and people like Ottolenghi, bringing lentils much more to the fore but not as much as as other cultures.
Prue: We are very addicted to the potato aren’t we? Everybody has to have some carb in their diet. In some countries that will be chickpeas, in others rice or whatever. We have a dominant thing about potatoes and because potatoes are so versatile, we tend as a nation to lust for potatoes when we want carbs. But I think increasingly, I’m a bit lazy, so I tend to use tinned chickpeas and tinned red beans when I’m in a hurry. But Peta, I know, soaks every week a different pulse, and has different ways to cook them every week.
Peta: They’re just so useful. You can do so many different things, with say cannellini beans, I can make stew for the kids. It’s easy when I’m feeding small kids. We joke that 90% of their dinner most evenings is lentils. Most evenings we have a sort of vegetable and lentil stew or bean stew or chickpea. I can braise them for me and my husband or I can make hummus. There’s so many different things: we’ll have curry with them. They are cheap and nutritious.
Health and Food:
I noticed, looking at your history, Prue, you’ve always been very concerned, even though you’re not a vegetarian, you’ve always been very concerned with health and food. Is it true that you’re the one that brought brown bread to British Rail?
Prue: Yes, it’s true that I did reform the British Rail sandwich. But I was on the board of British Rail. I was a director of the company, I wasn’t brought to do the sandwiches. Before that I had been a director of Traveler’s Fare, which was the company that owned all the station food.
Were people resistant to brown bread before that?
Prue: It’s a funny story. I thought the sandwiches were pretty boring because their lead sandwich and the one that they sold 90% of, was a cheese sandwich. It was white bread,with Kraft cheese slices inside. I said, this is absolutely ridiculous.
The British Rail people told me no, it is Britain’s most popular sandwich. I said, Well, of course it is because we have the most cafes and at the time, there were no sandwich bars or very few sandwich bars. We have waiting rooms all over the country and more cafes than everybody else so if we only sell one sandwich, it is going to be Britain’s most popular sandwich. They said no, that’s not the reason. The reason is that we use Britain’s most popular bread, which is Mother’s Pride sliced white, Britain’s most popular butter which is Anchor and we use Britain’s most popular cheese, which is Kraft cheese slices.
So I organized a tasting at Paddington Station: we went into the sandwich making place and I got them to make different sandwiches, and we had sardine sandwiches and egg and cress and lots of brown bread ones and so on. And we went around with trays with these, cut into little quarters, like a cocktail party, and just asked people if they’d like one. We put them in rows, and we had the British Rail cheese sandwich in among them. They were all in rows, so that you could tell which went first. I was absolutely terrified by the bloody British Rail sandwich would win. Fortunately, I can’t remember what did when but I think it was brown bread and egg. The cheese one came second. So I was relieved. But the point is, the others went. But I was disappointed; I had a sort of salami and cheese sandwich, which was too much for the British public at the time. It’d go now.
Business woman Prue
You’ve started a lot of businesses. would you say you’re 50/50 businesswoman and cook. Which takes precedence? And how come you’re so good at both?
Prue: I don’t know, I think a lot of people are good at more than one thing, they just don’t get the chance.
You know, I’ve just been very lucky. I’ve always been self-employed. So I’ve been able to do I think what I want. What I’d like written on my tombstone would be writer, more than anything, more for novels than for cookbooks. But of course, food is so much more part of my life because, food happens three times a day, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s everlasting interest. So, I think I’m better known for food. But I’m not the best cook I know. And I’m certainly not the best baker I know. Peta is probably that.
Prue, you grew up in South Africa. Do you regard yourself as British or South African?
Prue: I think South African really. I think that being South African is quite an advantage in a way because I’m comfortable in all sorts of society because there isn’t an aristocracy in South Africa I’m not nervous if I meet the Prince Charles or something. To me, he’s just another bloke. It isn’t terrifying. So I think I was very lucky when I came because I was quite pushy and arrogant and it didn’t ever occur to me that I couldn’t get along.
When I first started, there was a lot of sort of prejudice about. Cooks were not considered seriously like in France. In France, if you’re a cook, it’s just as good as being an engineer.
Peta: Yeah, I remember being furious at school. I had a teacher who was teaching me politics and history at A level. I had the same teacher for both. So I spent pretty much all my week with her. I remember when I said that I was planning not to go to university cos I wanted to cook. She said, everyone should be able to cook but it’s not a job. It’s not a career. I was like ‘can just refer you to my aunt’.
Did she not notice your surname?
(Laughs) But at the time it was every woman should be able to cook.
Prue: I went to St. Paul’s Girl’s school to talk to the then High Mistress, who was called Alice Monroe. She really was a passionate feminist in the sense that she thought all her girls should be an astrophysicist or in the cabinet. So I said, look, you need to teach cooking at the school. And she said: ‘Over my dead body’. She said ‘I tell my girls when they go to work experience, they must never agree to make a cup of tea. Because if they make a cup of tea, that will be their job the rest of the time that they’re there. They must never type. I will not teach them to type.
I said: ‘Even astrophysicists have to eat’. Then she retired and another High Mistress took over who really liked food and was a friend of mine so we then got cooking into St Pauls.
It is a science. Cooking is how you learn about volume and maths. Learning to make a loaf of bread is as important as learning to count or read or write?
Prue: You can learn almost anything through cooking.
Peta: I was terrible at maths at school. My dad always says to me, I see you scaling recipes up and down. I can do it when I can see what it applies to. When it’s a hypothetical problem in a math class, my mind just goes blank.
Was that part of the reason that you decided to go into food because of your aunt?
Peta: Certainly I was inspired by her career. It made me feel as though a career in food was an option. I always wanted to work with my hands. I’ve just always enjoyed baking, I loved making bread, I still do, but bread was something I was really excited about as a teenager and and that set me on that course.
I’ve noticed one of your top ten picks is Jeffrey Hamelman’s bread book
Peta: Yes, I went to study at the French culinary Institute in New York and did a course in bread. It was a three month course. Jeffrey Hamelman’s recipes were the basis of the things I was learning.
I’ve not heard of him – he’s an American?
Peta: He is. And quite old fashioned. Sourdough is so popular now, but he was writing about it before it was very popular, before the No Knead technique came in. His recipes are more traditional, but work every time.
Did you find that the approach to food in America was different from here?
Peta: What I did find extraordinary, it was the first time that I’d spent a decent length of time in America, was just how little people cooked. I shared a flat with a few other girls that I didn’t know. What struck me one was how completely gobsmacked they were when I would cook anything. I would come home from my course. We made croissants everyday, baguettes twice a day. It was really intense. I came home with all these things. I could bring home a croissant that I’ve made from scratch and they wouldn’t recognize it.
But one day I came home with pizza that we made and they were like ‘how do you make pizza’. I said ‘you make the dough and you make tomato sauce’. And they were: ‘You made tomato sauce!!’
I was like, how is that the thing that’s impressing you? I’ve made you croissants from scratch. It really struck me how expensive it was in New York to eat if you were buying ingredients. Just to go into a shop and buy the ingredients to make a salad at home cost a fortune compared to what my flatmates were eating, which was sort of frozen turkey burrito. It was interesting that you could eat out very well but it was very expensive to cook from scratch.
It’s slightly becoming the case here. People in their 20s, they all order from Deliveroo, Uber Eats, they’re all eating out all the time. They’re not cooking from scratch, They’re ordering in and that’s become a lot cheaper, hasn’t it? In Asia they do that, they all order out. Street food is just normal. They have it several times a day.
Prue: Like Japan, nobody cooks at home because they can’t. There’s no space to cook.
I went to Japan this year for the first time just before the lockdown. The food was amazing. I just watched a bit of the Japanese week on Bake Off. Even when they make Western things, they do so much better than us.
Prue: Well, they’re mad about white soft bread. The sandwiches are so pillowy.
Peta: I really want to try those souffle pancakes that are towering.
I made those earlier this year. They’re actually pretty easy. A lot of egg whites, you know. In Kyoto they have matcha cakes, they’re like Swiss rolls, but really puffy as well.
Prue: They’re hot on puffy aren’t they?
They’re obsessed with texture.
Prue: The best thing I are in Japan was this street food I ate. I’ve tried to do it at home -it looked like a big round donut, a ball, a complete ball. It had panko crumbs on the outside. It was deep-fried inside within that soft bread dough. And inside that was a soft boiled egg and curry sauce all round so they was must have started with that.
When I tried to make it I started with an oeuf molet. Then I made a curry sauce and made that cold and stiff enough to carefully put around this wobbly egg and then a bread dough like a donut dough then panko crumbs and then deep fried and I tell you it was a total mess. But it was so delicious. The egg was still runny, the curry was runny, the whole inside was really soft and the panko crumbs were very crisp.I ate it at a train station in the country, it was all written in Japanese so I have no idea what it’s called.
The thing that absolutely astonished me was how absolutely spankingly clean Tokyo is. We started a game trying to find some litter by looking behind the dustbins to try and see if we could find anything. And yet, they all take their rubbish home, and they overwrap everything, Everything gets wrapped three times, it is wrapped then there is a ribbon on it, then it’s cut in a package and then it’s put in a carrier bag. All that beautifully designed and all that stuff has to go somewhere. And there’s no litter bins you have to take it all home.
Everything wrapped in plastic. When you stay at a hotel, you get a new toothbrush wrapped in plastic, a hairbrush wrapped in plastic, a little towel wrapped in plastic. So that’s not very eco and that’s also probably why they have quite a low COVID rate.
Prue: They stand two meters apart anyway!
Covid and Bake-off:
How has a lockdown been for you guys?
Prue: I’d rather enjoyed it because it’s forced me to be at home more, which is wonderful. And I live in a lovely part of the country.
Is that your living room behind you? It looks like you are doing it from a church.
Peta: That’s the entrance hall
Prue: Even when I was in the Bake-Off bubble for seven weeks, we were all in the hotel, it had 150 acres of land and woods to walk in and I was allowed my dogs and some of the bakers took their children. So it was seven weeks like a Butlins holiday camp. It forced friendship between 150 of us inluding everybody from the COVID cleaners who ran around worrying all the time about spraying surfaces, to the bakers and the presenters.
Peta: Did John go with you?
My husband came for a week in the middle. John took me in the first place and dropped me there. We had to be in quarantine for nine days have three Covid tests. Our car had to be locked up for nine days. with petrol in it – all ready to go but nobody to get in it. So that if there was any COVID in the car it would be dead by the time we got in. We had to drive straight there and not stop on the way. No breaks on the way. When we got there, more covid tests. I had to stay in my room for 24 hours until the test came back. We had our temperature taken every day and we got a covid test once a week and so on, right the way through. So it really felt incredibly safe. There were 150 of us and nobody ever tested positive the whole time. When John came to see me we had to go through another nine days.
Oh, really? He had to isolate for nine days before he could come and see you. When was this seven week bubble happening?
The whole of July and we came out of it in the middle of August 17th.
A heat wave a lot of the time.
Was that was quite hard in the tent?
It was very hard in the tent. At one point it was 50 degrees or something.
How was COVID lockdown for you, Peta?
Peta: It was challenging, I have two small kids one at a time of lockdown, a two year old and a six month old. So that was quite challenging, having no child minder, no days off, basically, and not having my mum being able to help out with the kids. My husband was working from home, his work has sort of largely unaffected. But it has been quite intense looking after the kids.
Are you a freelancer?
Yes. So the consulting that I do for hotel restaurants dried up, it’s starting again, I’m doing a few hours here and there for them now again, but it’s pretty much died. I was still on maternity leave when lockdown started. I was doing some bits and pieces here and there. But yes, not a huge amount of work.
In the grand scheme of things, we’ve been very lucky and largely unaffected. Nobody we know has had it.
It’s more about isolation being the problem.
Exactly and not being able to meet. It’s quite hard to entertain the kids at home. When the weather is nice and you can meet friends in the park for a socially distant walk it is fine. But, as the weather’s getting cold again, it’s quite hard to keep a three year old entertained without seeing our friends and going to people’s houses.
What are your favourite dishes from the book?
Prue: That’s funny, because I’ve had my book open and thinking, oh, I must do that again. It’s just such an unhealthy dish but god, it’s delicious. That’s the grapefruit treacle tart.
Peta: I’d say the paneer curry. I’ve had probably the most feedback with people really raving about that. I’m pretty pleased with that one.
Also the Orechiette with Calabrian pesto. It’s adapted from one that was in the Art of Pasta. I’ve changed it a fair bit. That was where I first heard about Calabrian pesto.
What do you feel about another lockdown?
Prue: Well, my hope is that we loosen up for Christmas because I really would like us all to be together. I’ll see you at Christmas Peta.
Thank you both so much for talking to me.