Some faces are so familiar from our TV screens that when you have the chance to speak over Zoom it feels quite surreal. Speaking with the inimitable Prue Leith ahead of her appearance at Kite Festival I was relieved to find her as warm and forthright in our one-on-one as she is when consoling a baking hopeful on The Great British Bake Off.
We are talking ahead of your session at Kite Festival. What can the audience expect?
Well, it rather depends on what the questions are because I can rattle on about absolutely anything and I always feel sorry for my interviewers because stopping me is the problem –not getting me to talk. I think the things that interest people most are that I’ve done lots of different things rather than just plodding along on the same career. I reckon every 25 years is quite good to have a revolution in your life.
Famously you’ve written cookery books and novels and I wondered which cookery writers and which novelists you enjoy reading.
I think my favourite cookery writers are probably Nigel Slater – he's a really good writer –
Elizabeth David. I think Josceline Dimbleby writes really well. Of the new ones do you know Dr Rupy Aujla? He's called The Doctors Kitchen on the internet and I did a little TV series with him about trying to get people to cook more economically, save money and cook more healthily. He’s a doctor but he also believes in a lot of alternative medicine and food as medicine. I am a big fan of his and he writes really well and engagingly.
And a novelist?
Oh my goodness, you know I think one of the best novelists to just curl up with is Jojo Moyes. She always takes some subject which is quite serious and makes it into a really engaging story. She wins these romantic novel awards but she's not a ‘romantic novelist’ – I think is an insulting word. It drives me mad because I think there’s something sort of prejudiced about it.
You’ve been refreshingly honest about many potentially controversial subjects but have largely escaped the universal condemnation which is currently so prevalent in our culture. I wonder, have you ever been scared of being cancelled?
Well, no. I’m too old. I mean if it got so bad that Bake Off felt they had to sack me I would feel it was deeply unfair but I think they'd be braver than that. If I said something that was politically unacceptable it would probably be because I’m quite impulsive and reckless in a way. I don’t always carefully choose my words, but it would never be that I intend to do anybody harm so any cancel culture would be malicious rather than well-founded.
The only time I’ve had a bad time on the internet was when I went on Question Time. David Dimbleby had said ‘If you want to jump in and interrupt someone just do it’. So, when a Labour politician took off on a speech that she had obviously made many times before (because it just perfectly rolled off the tongue) I thought ok, this is where I should do what David asked me so I said something like ‘can we answer the question?’ she said, ‘I will not be told to be quiet when I care about constituents’ and off she went again. I replied, ‘Oh give it a rest’ and I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Of course, there was this little bunch of people, trolls, waiting for an opportunity and I think there were 2,000 tweets the next morning about how I was just a rich Tory bitch who didn’t care. Even today very occasionally there’s one guy who won’t let go of this and if somebody says something nice to me on Twitter he quite often pops up with ‘Don’t forget she's the rich Tory b*tch who doesn't care’.
Do you think you have become more outspoken as you’ve got older?
I haven't changed really. I think the thing that I hate most about myself is I quite often upset people and offend people because I’ll say something tactless. I just say something that they’re hurt by, and I don’t mean it like that. I don’t pick up signals in a way that many people do, I think I’m not very sensitive. I’m clumsy, I knock things over physically and I sometimes knock things over emotionally.
Like revealing the name of the Bake Off winner before the finale was broadcast?
Well, that was just…oh god that was awful. I felt terrible, specially I felt bad about it from Sophie's point of view because all the newspaper headlines the next day should have been about her winning and they were about me as it was my first year after all those years Mary Berry years.
It was a moment. Are you looking forward to Alison Hammond joining the show?
I’m just reading her autobiography You’ve Got to Laugh. It’s amazing. She has had the most extraordinary life. She's also written a book called Black in Time which is a really wonderful book about all the black people in history who we should have known about. I learnt a huge amount.
On the programme, you’ve become very well known for your distinctive style and I have to mention the beautiful necklace you are wearing. Is it of African origin?
Yes, I bought it in Gambia and it’s just cloth rounds. I absolutely love it. I’ve just come back from South Africa, and I’ve got a necklace which is made from Coca-Cola ring pulls. The women collect the tops off the cans and sort of weave them together with brightly coloured wool. They are so beautiful, so pretty. It’s just extraordinary what people can make out of nothing. I simply don’t understand the precious gem thing. I went to an exhibition of gold and I sort of got it that sapphires and opals are amazing but you know, are they more amazing than glass?
Are there any dishes from your childhood in South Africa that you still long for?
There are a few. I occasionally make bobotie which is the great South African Shepherd’s Pie which is slightly curried and much more interesting – I love that. South Africans eat outside a lot because the weather’s so wonderful. A lot of barbeques or braais as they’re called in South Africa. My aunt would make something, basically a cheese toastie with a bit of apricot jam in it. Wholemeal bread, cheese, with a little smear of apricot jam in it toasted on the barbecue. It’s the most delicious thing you have ever tasted.
How about your guilty pleasure secret dinner, as in family or flatmates are out and you’re on your own – what are you reaching for from the fridge?
Well, what I tend to eat is a pot of Greek yoghurt with honey on top and whole almonds with the skins on. I first had that in Greece because that’s how they often serve yoghurt. I come from South Africa and we didn’t eat yoghurt much, so I was about 18 or 19. I just thought it was so delicious. When I was catering there would often be food in the house and generally, I’d live off leftovers but as the business moved out of my house into a commercial kitchen I would come home tired from work, and I would stop and buy a pot of Greek yoghurt. Sometimes when I was really hungry I would buy the big one, you know which I’m sure is meant to be for four people and I’d eat the whole lot, honey all over the top.
Finally, I’ve got a game I like to play called Desert Island Carb in which I ask people if they were stuck on a desert island which would they choose between potatoes, pasta or rice?
Can I have bread? I think I’d have bread. Anything can go on bread. You can make toast and toast is the most comforting and satisfying thing in the world. If you’re stuck alone on a desert island you will need a bit of comfort.
Prue Leith’s latest book Bliss on Toast was published by Bloomsbury 2022) prue-leith.com.
She will be speaking at Kite Festival on Saturday 10 June. For more details and the full programme of music and ideas visit kitefestival.co.uk