The Great British Bake Off's Prue Leith on Lancashire and Lake District food
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 January 2019
Food legend Prue Leith extols the virtues of northern food, heaps praise on a Lytham-born chef and reveals her royal kitchen nightmare.
We’ve all had our kitchen nightmares but who could match Prue Leith’s horror story? She was once locked out of Richmond Park halfway through cooking an official dinner for Princess Alexandra and the Shah of Persia. The day she was left standing forlornly, covered in blood and pheasant feathers as the royal limo sailed past, is one she’d like to forget.
How she coped with her own culinary crisis was revealed during her visit to Hipping Hall, a Lancashire Life Food & Drink Award winning hotel and restaurant at Cowan Bridge where the kitchen is run by MasterChef success story Oli Martin, who is from Lytham.
The Great British Bake Off judge was there to meet fans and launch her latest book. Prue founded the trailblazing Leith’s Restaurant and Cookery School and she has eaten in some of the best restaurants in the world, counting legends like Albert Roux and Raymond Blanc among her close friends.
Her time on the judging panels of the Great British Menu and the Great British Bake Off has given her national treasure status. But while she has eaten many an exotic dinner, there is one simple northern pleasure she cannot resist. ‘There’s is nothing more delicious that Grasmere Gingerbread,’ she says with a gleeful grin. ‘I had a manager at Leiths try to recreate it. It was good but it wasn’t the real thing.
‘I can’t imagine the makers of this truly wonderful product will ever part with their recipe. But I would truly love it if they did.’
Prue has a soft spot for lots of food from our region. It is the northern diaspora, the characters who learn their trade here before spreading our food traditions across the nation, that have delighted her throughout her career.
‘I have always adored this area because of its identity, there’s something rather lovely about the range of character northern foods have,’ says Prue. ‘It’s a part of people’s heritage in a way no other part of the country seems to have. You find yourself in discussions about where the best gingerbread comes from – it is, of course, the one made in Grasmere.
‘Writing for the Daily Mail many years ago I did a Yorkshire pudding recipe. I had many people write in and tell me I was doing it wrong because everyone has their own way. In Lancashire, it is the same debate with what makes a proper Lancashire hot pot. People always have their own version.
‘I love that. It’s wonderful food and the humble hotpot can bring together communities in Lancashire. Food from here is very down to earth, just like its people. It is comforting, welcoming, traditional, a real taste of the region it’s from. It’s not fashionable, it doesn’t need to be.’
Prue spoke of her early life and beginnings in food from the formation of her outside catering business to the launch of Leith’s Cookery School and her renowned restaurant in the then up and coming Notting Hill. Her early years were in South Africa during apartheid until her family moved to the UK. As a young woman she spent time living in Paris, where her love of food was first ignited.
Since then, throughout a career that has spanned almost 60 years, she has also worked as a teacher, TV cook, food journalist, novelist and cookery book author. She has been a leading figure in campaigns to improve food in schools, hospitals and in the home and has been a dedicated champion of the arts, including her role as chair of the Royal Society of Arts in bringing the Fourth Plinth to Trafalgar Square. She is one of the few women to have broken into the elite boys’ clubs, having sat on the boards of British Rail, the Halifax, Woolworths, Safeway, Whitbread and Orient Express Hotels. Her passion for colour, fashion and a love for bright, bold jewellery has become her trademark.
Prue revealed that even the most skilled cooks have their nighmares. Hers came after nipping out of Richmond Park halfway through cooking a banquet at Princess Alexandra’s home and returning to find the gates shut.
‘I had to chase around the outside of the whole park, desperately trying to get in, knowing the pheasants in the oven were most likely going to be burnt,’ she recalls.
‘In the end I found a gatehouse keeper who branded me a toff. I had to convince him I was just like him and, in fact, not a toff like the ones inside the party. I practically had to wedge myself in the door until he helped me.
‘It worked out though. The housekeeper had kindly taken the pheasant out of the oven and they were cooked to perfection!’
Prue, now 78, spends her time doing the things she adores. And after 25 years she has launched a new cookery book, titled Prue. Detailing some of her favourite recipes, the book is filled with simple family meals, meat free mains, modern takes on classic dishes and decadent puds.
Returning to chat about food from the north, Prue describes her recent dining experience courtesy of Hipping Hall’s head chef Oli Martin, who has made a national name for himself in MasterChef finals.
‘Oli’s tasting menu is by far the best I have ever had,’ Prue beams. ‘Others leave you feeling like a stuffed stromboli but every single morsel created by Oli was truly magnificent.
‘I’ve never had dishes like the ones at Hipping. Sure, I’ve had heritage beetroot lots of times, but never with a seafood bisque. It was very original and absolutely delicious. A Michelin star or two should definitely be making its way. Oli has an excellent pedigree, he’s a seriously uncompromising chef and that will serve him well.’
But in her trademark direct way she reveals there is one northern export she does not enjoy. ‘The most disgusting food I know is Kendal Mint Cake,’ she says. ‘It’s just miserable. I’m sure it’s an excellent thing if you’re at the top of a mountain and it’s the only thing available but I don’t like it one bit. But you can’t have it all, I guess.’
Ah well, there’s no accounting for taste.