‘MY SE­CRET RECIPE FOR STAY­ING YOUNG? HAP­PI­NESS!’ says Prue Leith

As her first cook­book in 25 years is pub­lished, Prue Leith talks to Good House­keep­ing about find­ing new love in her 70s, the power of colour­ful clothes and the joy that comes with be­ing on the UK’S most de­li­cious show, The Great Bri­tish Bake Off

Good Housekeeping (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY DAVID VENNI WORDS JEN CROTHERS

founder of a cook­ery school, restau­ra­teur of a Miche­lin-starred restau­rant in Lon­don, busi­ness­woman, cook­ery writer, jour­nal­ist, pre­sen­ter and nov­el­ist, Prue Leith has spent her life be­ing in­cred­i­bly busy – and has man­aged to do it all with a smile on her face.

Much like her choice of cloth­ing, South African-born Prue, 78, has had a colour­ful life. Aged 21 she fell in love with the hus­band of her mother’s best friend, Rayne Kruger, and they went on to have two chil­dren – a son, Danny, and their adopted daugh­ter, Li-da. Rayne died in 2002, and since 2016 she’s been mar­ried to for­mer fash­ion de­signer John Play­fair, who’s seven years her ju­nior.

With seven nov­els, 12 cook­books and a CBE un­der her belt, Prue re­ally came into her own last year when she was an­nounced as a judge on The Great Bri­tish Bake Off.

When the show made the move from BBC to Chan­nel 4, the ques­tion of who would – and could – fill Mary Berry’s shoes (not to men­tion her flow­ery bomber jack­ets) was hotly de­bated. But Prue – and her riot of colour – im­me­di­ately won the hearts of the na­tion with her warm hu­mour and witty repar­tee.

My All-time Favourite Recipes is your first cook­ery book in 25 years. What in­spired you to re­turn to food writ­ing?

I’ve been writ­ing nov­els for 25 years and they’ve been very suc­cess­ful, but only one of them got on to the best­seller list. When I got on to the Bake Off, ev­ery week­end I’d see the bak­ers do­ing this amaz­ing stuff. It re­ally got me back into food and I found that I was bak­ing more. I baked more in that first year than I had in 25 years! You get lazy. It was telly that got me back into it. When I re­placed Mary Berry, I had peo­ple in the su­per­mar­kets ask­ing me when my next cook­book was com­ing out, and they hadn’t re­alised that I hadn’t been writ­ing recipes for 25 years. And I sud­denly thought, ‘This is prob­a­bly the time to write a new cook­book.’

Do you think that do­ing the cook­book made you fall in love with cooking all over again?

Ab­so­lutely. I re­gret that this book couldn’t be twice the size be­cause I keep think­ing of re­ally great ideas. Some of them are re­ally old-fash­ioned recipes, like vine­gar chicken – I used to do that in the 1960s. There’s a lot of things that I’ve been do­ing all my life, like meat­balls. So it’s sort of my life, be­cause it starts with things that I had as a child in South Africa. I’m re­ally pleased with it.

Do you get stopped a lot in the street?

Yes I do and I’m such an ego­tist – I love it! I like the at­ten­tion. Be­fore

Bake Off, frankly, if you’d asked most peo­ple on the bus if they’d ever heard of me, it would prob­a­bly only have been those aged over 55. But if they were 15, they wouldn’t have, and that’s the dif­fer­ence with Bake Off – it’s loved across the gen­er­a­tions.

It’s ob­vi­ous you’re in a very happy place at the mo­ment...

I am. Not least be­cause I re­mar­ried two years ago. I’ve been with John now for seven years, it took us five years to de­cide to do it. It just seemed like, ‘We’re so old, what’s the point re­ally?’ Any­how, we did it. It’s been ab­so­lutely won­der­ful. That made me re­ally happy be­cause I’d been sin­gle for 14 years – I thought that was it. At my age, you don’t ex­pect to fall in love again, so I’ve been re­ally lucky.

Why did you de­cide to make things of­fi­cial with John?

I had thought about it but we hadn’t talked about it. John is seven years younger than me and I hon­estly thought if we were go­ing to get mar­ried it should be his idea – be­cause the chances are that he’s go­ing to be look­ing af­ter me when I’m a se­nile, de­crepit old lady and he’d be push­ing me along in my bath chair. So I thought I should never men­tion mar­riage. One day he asked me, ‘Do you think we’ll have this much fun when we’re mar­ried?’ and so we did it! We’re both quite proud of each other and we want peo­ple to think we’re a sta­ble unit. I think when you’re very young, you want to get mar­ried be­cause you want to show you have a hus­band. At my age, hav­ing a hus­band isn’t im­por­tant, my com­mit­ment to John is.

How did your chil­dren re­act to the news?

I went for a walk with my son around the gar­den and said, ‘I just wanted to tell you John and I are go­ing to get mar­ried.’ He stopped dead and said, ‘Well done, Mum!’ and I said, ‘Ex­cuse me? You’re sup­posed to say, ‘Isn’t John a lucky chap!’

You and John don’t live to­gether, is that right?

We don’t live separately but we have sep­a­rate houses. We wake up in my house and – it’s bril­liant – he gives me a cup of tea and then he dis­ap­pears, of­ten to work in my gar­den or his gar­den, and I don’t see him un­til lunchtime. Nearly all of his clob­ber is still at his house be­cause, when you marry at our age, the thought of hav­ing to sort out my house and make half of the space avail­able for him, I just haven’t been able to face it! And he hasn’t been able to face what he’s go­ing to do with all his stuff. One day we’ll tackle it, but right now, it’s fine. It means I don’t have to do his laun­dry or clean his shoes.

That sounds like the per­fect re­la­tion­ship.

I feed him and he looks af­ter me. It’s a very un­fair bal­ance. We both gained a spouse, but I’ve gained a gar­dener, a chauf­feur, a bag car­rier, a porter, a sort of min­der and a house­keeper! He has gained a cook. I’m not sure that’s a fair trade.

Aside from John, what else makes you happy?

I’m just hav­ing such a great time! Bake Off is a dream: it’s lovely com­pany, the bak­ers are end­lessly in­ter­est­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing. Also, film­ing is only two days a week, so that leaves me time to write. John loves trav­el­ling, so ev­ery minute we have we’re off some­where new.

Look­ing back, did you ever imag­ine that you’d al­most be in your prime at this stage in your life?

I’ve never been very good at look­ing for­ward or, for that mat­ter, look­ing back. I re­ally do live in the present and so I’ve al­ways been very con­scious of how happy I am. It sounds so smug but, the fact is, I had a re­ally happy child­hood. I had noth­ing but en­cour­age­ment from my par­ents and tol­er­ance when I was be­ing an ab­so­lute id­iot. And then I had a ter­rific ca­reer in food, made a lot of money and mar­ried a won­der­ful man. We had two chil­dren, who are still adored, they adore me and we’re very close. Rayne was 20 years older than me. He died when he was 80, so he had a re­ally good life. But I didn’t think my life was over then, I thought, ‘Right, my life has changed, I’m now go­ing to be a good grand­mother.’ To be hon­est, I have never been a good grand­mother! I failed on that one com­pletely be­cause I im­me­di­ately got in­ter­ested in do­ing lots of other stuff, too.

How many grand­chil­dren do you have?

Three. The youngest is four and the el­dest is eight. Ev­ery grand­mother thinks their grand­chil­dren are the best in the world and mine are no ex­cep­tion. They come to my house most week­ends. I had to ban­ish them to a lit­tle wing on the side of my house and they live in there at the week­ends be­cause oth­er­wise the house is a sea of plas­tic crap­ola, frankly! When the six-year-old was about four or five, she would say to the tod­dler, ‘That’s not al­lowed! We’re in Nana’s house!’ and he would be hold­ing a tiny lit­tle piece of Lego. They clearly think I’m a dragon! And they’re good as gold.

You look in­cred­i­ble at 78. What’s your se­cret?

I think it’s 90% luck, and I think if you’re happy, it makes a huge dif­fer­ence. You wake up in the morn­ing and want to get up, and life’s good. Most peo­ple look bet­ter on hol­i­day than they do at work and it’s be­cause they en­joy hol­i­days more than work. The peo­ple who look great at work are the ones who are re­ally hav­ing a good time. Few peo­ple have the lux­ury of en­joy­ing their jobs. So I think hap­pi­ness is the first req­ui­site and sec­ond, health and en­ergy.

Do you ex­er­cise?

I have a re­ally sweet girl who lives in the vil­lage next to me who’s a per­sonal trainer and she comes twice a week. I do weights and car­dio­vas­cu­lar stuff. A lot of the time we do it out­side. I have a won­der­ful old gar­dener who works for me four days a week and I’m sure as he drives past and sees me ly­ing on my back, puff­ing and pant­ing and do­ing the crab, he must think, ‘Dear woman, she’s mad!’ But never mind – it’s worth it!

Do you eat healthily, too?

I do, but I won’t be a mar­tyr about it. I would never eat a salad with­out dress­ing. There’s no point! I don’t gen­er­ally eat a lot of carbs. For­tu­nately, as I’ve got older, I can’t drink as much as I used to. When I was young, I could knock off a bot­tle of wine and get up in the morn­ing and feel fine. Now if I have more than two glasses I know about it in the morn­ing. But I do have to watch my weight and, like most, I would like to lose a stone. One al­ways wants to lose a stone, it doesn’t mat­ter what you weigh. I’m teased on Bake Off be­cause I say, ‘That’s not worth the calo­ries,’ but that’s be­cause I al­ways think in calo­ries. I’ve been in food so long, I’m very aware, and I think ‘I’ve just eaten 400 now… by the time I fin­ish, it will be 600…’

Is eat­ing healthily dif­fi­cult when you’re film­ing Bake Off?

Fun­nily enough, you’d think you eat an enor­mous amount but you’re only tast­ing a tea­spoon. Twelve tea­spoons of cake prob­a­bly amounts to one large slice and that’s your break­fast and lunch. Just not a very healthy break­fast or lunch…

Do you feel lib­er­ated by your colour­ful fash­ion choices?

Ev­ery­one says I am into fash­ion but I’m not. What I like is colour. If I’m wear­ing a green dress, I want to have a neck­lace and ear­rings that I think look good with it, so I’ve al­ways been rather ex­ces­sive. My brother used to say I dress like a Christ­mas tree! I just en­joy the fun of jew­ellery. I get neck­laces from mar­kets all over, and the big­ger and brighter, the bet­ter. Why do we wear black, grey and brown in win­ter when you need yel­low, blue, red and green in win­ter?

Do you think peo­ple should just go ahead and take the plunge with colour­ful dress­ing?

Peo­ple say to me all the time, ‘I love your colours, I wish I had the courage.’ It doesn’t take courage! You sim­ply feel bet­ter dressed in colour. If you step into that old navy blue coat you’ve had for years and set off to work, of course you’ll feel mis­er­able. If you put on an or­ange one, the chances are you’ll cheer up. An­other thing I’m keen on is coloured-frame glasses. Putting on a jolly frame that suits you is much bet­ter than some­thing rim­less that looks like a med­i­cal ap­pli­ance!

Prue: My All-time Favourite Recipes by Prue Leith (Blue­bird) is out now

THE BAKE OFF GANG, FROM LEFT Paul Hol­ly­wood, Sandi Toksvig, Noel Field­ing and Prue Leith

‘I’m not into fash­ion, I just like colour,’ says Prue LEFT Prue and her hus­band, John Play­fair

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