INTERVIEW: Prue Leith, the sassy new judge on The Great British Bake Off
PUBLISHED: 11:50 17 August 2017 | UPDATED: 12:01 17 August 2017
© Mark Bourdillon (Channel 4 images must not be altered or manipulated in any way) CHANNEL 4 PICTURE PUBLICITY 124 HORSEFERRY
Restaurateur, writer, businesswoman, TV presenter – and the Cotswolds’ own – Prue Leith is the new judge on Channel 4’s The Great British Bake Off. Katie Jarvis caught up with her at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and almost found out more
Cue: speedy clouds scudding across a parodically English sky; a squirrel with interesting nuts, running across a perfect sward of green; a bird posing as if for an RSPB calendar; someone innocent-looking saying something extremely dodgy about buns...
And a wild-eyed, daemon-tormented soul staring bleakly into an oven as if into a Bosch-inspired writhing pit of hell.
Yes, indeed: I’m at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons – one of my favourite places on God’s Earth – waiting to hear Prue Leith talk about her forthcoming role as Mary Berry on (Channel 4’s) The Great British Bake Off.
To get this scoop, I’ve blagged (for free) two £205 tickets (Ian insisted on supporting me) to An Evening with Prue Leith CBE at Le Manoir (yes, yes, OK. So what if it does feature a Champagne Laurent-Perrier reception with canapés and a four-course dinner with accompanying wines, coffee and petits fours? That’s not the point, actually, thank you very much. I’ve blagged these tickets purely in the name of journalistic endeavour.)
Because what I’m here for is the lowdown on the new Bake Off.
What I’m here for is to find out whether Prue Leith is forgiving of people who’ve wet their bottoms.
Whether she can pull the kind of face that looks as if she’s just stood on an evocative skunk while biting into an off lemon.
Whether she can sizzle at Paul Hollywood while saying things such as, “Your crack is nice and moist.”
And whether she thinks terrible cooking puns are half-baked.
Wait a minute and Alaska.
“I’m not allowed to talk about Bake Off,” Prue Leith says.
Hang on one frosting minute. You surely don’t mean (I think to myself) that I’ve come all this way – to an utterly luxury destination with blissful gardens and a darling dining room - simply to stuff myself for free with:
• Salad of Devonshire Crab, avocado and garden relish;
• Risotto of spring garden vegetables and chervil cream;
• New season spring lamb, white asparagus, broad beans and rosemary jus;
• Milk chocolate and Earl Grey tea crumble with banana and passion fruit sorbet;
• Then coffee and petits fours and home-made chocolates?
All washed down with fine wines, poured by waiters with the kind of gay abandon normally associated with ‘And then I woke up’?
Because what I really came for (as I assured my editor, while filling in my expenses claim) is inside information on the Great British Bake Off’s new judge.
And now I’m not allowed to mention it at all?
Even a bit?
Even in passing?
So Le Manoir’s event-calendar is pretty fab. It consists of evenings with Raymond Blanc himself; floristry displays; garden tours… and all of them accompanied by exquisite food and drink (just so you know, one of the best dinners I’ve ever, ever eaten – and THE best breakfast I’ve had in my life – was at Le Manoir).
And, tonight, Prue Leith is entertaining guests with some highlights from her career, with no reference whatsoever to her latest job, presenting Channel 4’s newly-acquired version of the Great British Bake Off, on television later this year.
So as I’m here – and as I like Prue tremendously – let me give you a flavour of her talk, without any reference at all to Bake Off.
Let’s start with Prue’s Signature Challenge:
“I started in Barons Court, in a bedsitter,” she tells us. “And, fortunately, I had a landlady who had no sense of smell so she didn’t realise that I was actually running a catering business from the second floor.”
It was not a glamorous set of premises: this was a house where old mattresses had been dumped on the stairs, and Prue’s living accommodation was so small that the one room housed both bath and kitchenette. “I used to keep lobsters in the bath when I wasn’t washing lettuces or meat in it.”
When she graduated to her own little muse cottage in Paddington, Prue got herself a pet: an adventurous cat that would climb through the bedroom window and explore the roofs of Paddington. “I’d grown up in South Africa where I’d had a pony and cats and dogs, so I was delighted to be able to own a cat,” she says.
“When it wasn’t getting lost – which was frequently – it used to sit on the windowsill and watch me cook. At that time, I was delivering terrines to pubs, meringues to Patisserie Valerie, and puddings to housewives for dinner parties.
“One day somebody rang up and said, ‘Do you have a cat?’ And I said, ‘Oh, god, I’m so sorry! Is he stuck on your roof?’ I was always getting this bloody cat down from roofs.
“And he said, ‘No, but his collar-tag is stuck in my trifle.’
Then there’s Prue’s Technical Challenge:
She arrived in England, aged 21, and began writing cookery columns, including for the Daily Mail’s newly-launched Femail section. What the Mail was really after was a column by the Queen’s cousin, party-planner extraordinaire Lady Elizabeth Anson. Lady Anson was tremendously keen on the idea, apart from two problems. “She told the editor, ‘First of all, I can’t write; secondly, I can’t cook. But I know a woman who can.’”
That woman, of course, was Prue. And Prue, being Prue – despite barely being out of a gymslip – knew a bargaining position when she clapped eyes on one. “So I said, ‘Look, I will ghost her but only on condition that I can do her column one week, and the next I’ll write a column under my own name’. The editor bought this, and the idea was that I would give all the posh recipes to Lady Elizabeth, while I did the everyday mince and tatties and bread and marmalade.”
Almost the first recipe she did for Lady E’s column was a spiced peach brulée, with stem ginger, “In those days, I wrote by hand and I wrote out the recipe as 1oz of ginger. What I didn’t say was 1oz of stem ginger. An ounce of ginger, on the other hand, is the whole tub, so that blew the editor’s wife’s head off.”
A few months later, Prue topped that with an Oxford marmalade recipe that included two tablespoons of black treacle. “I wrote 2tbs but I forgot to cross the t. So I wrote 2lbs. You would not believe how many people do as they are told.”
The Mail ended up having to refund the cost of ingredients to each reader trying to cope with something bearing more resemblance to the star of B-horror-movie The Blob than a desirable substance to spread on toast.
A couple of days later, the whole of the Mail offices – a couple of thousand people – had to be evacuated when Prue received a letter-bomb.
“I knew it was a letter-bomb because we’d all had training – it was in the middle of the IRA bomb attacks – and we’d been told: ‘If you feel something squashy in the envelope, that’s not good. And, if you feel wires, that’s very bad news.’
“That was exactly what I had – squashy bits and wires.”
Everyone was out on the street for more than an hour before they were let back in and told it was a false alarm.
“I went to collect my envelope; inside was a dental brace with two teeth attached, embedded in marmalade, alongside a very large orthodontist bill.”
And, finally, Prue’s Showstopper Challenge:
Her first foray into television – long before The Great British Menu or My Kitchen Rules – was back in the days when Jack de Manio presented the Today programme, with its two-minute Friday cookery slot. “I would come on and tell the nation what to cook for the weekend.
“He used to be called Jack de Manio Precisely because he would say, ‘It is precisely two minutes to seven’; but it would be two minutes to eight. Completely hopeless at telling the time.”
When Jack was offered a television programme, he asked Prue if she’d like to do the food slot on that, too. “I’d never done any television but I thought – That can’t be too difficult.
“A week before we were due to start filming, the producer rang and said, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that Jack de Manio has left. And the good news is that we’d like you to present the programme instead’.
“I opened my mouth to say, ‘I’ve never been on television so I can’t possibly do that’; closed it again and thought, ‘I’d quite like to do that’.”
She paid David Coleman £500 for a half-day crash course in TV presenting and gave it a go. Unfortunately, the director – a former schoolteacher – liked everything on autocue rather than a more spontaneous approach, “So I had to learn these great scripts instead of making it up as I went along. I hated it and I was frightened all the time.
“On about the 22nd programme, the floor manager came up to me and said, ‘I can see you still hate it – that’s because you’re frightened. Why don’t you try this?’ And he gave me this little pill.
“I didn’t know what it was but I would have taken anything.”
She took it and felt terrific.
“Then, when the series went on air, my brother said to me, ‘You were fine until right towards the end. For the last few programmes, your eyes were rolling all over the place. What were you on!’
“So I didn’t do telly again for a long long time.”
Prue Leith, Star Baker:
Despite the pills and the thrills, it’s a given that Prue Leith is going to be a hit on Bake Off. For one thing, she lives in the Cotswolds.
For another, she’s sassy, brimming with fun, and full of knowledge.
“I had 11 very happy years on The Great British Menu – Matthew Fort one side of me and Oliver Peyton on the other. I often said that Matthew would be able to tell if the lamb was Welsh or from the Loire Valley; Oliver would be able to tell how high up the mountain it was. And I would sometimes not even be able to be certain it was lamb. But it was good fun.”
And now, ladies and gents, you have one minute left of this article. One minute left!:
So have I managed to describe my evening without any reference to the Great British Bake Off, on Channel 4 this autumn, with Prue Leith judging alongside Paul Hollywood?
Have I managed to write this piece without bringing in dreadful Bake Off-type food puns?
If I have failed you – and I doughnut take this lightly – then I will kumquat-ly.
ICING ON THE CAKE
• Channel 4’s The Great British Bake Off starts on Tuesday, August 29 at 8pm on Channel 4, featuring Prue Leith alongside Paul Hollywood, Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding.
• For more on Prue – including her latest novel, The Prodigal Daughter – visit prue-leith.com
• For a full list of events at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford, log onto belmond.com/le-manoir-aux-quat-saisons-oxfordshire