Prue Leith, a presenter of The Great British Bake Off, has partnered with her niece, Peta Leith, a professional pastry chef, to write The Vegetarian Kitchen. Kerstin Rodgers interviewed the pair over Zoom about their collaboration, how they are handling lockdown, friendship with food-writing legends Mary Berry and Elizabeth David, and what life is really like in the Bake Off tent.
Q: Prue, in The Vegetarian Kitchen, you say that Peta has done most of the hard graft. What was it like collaborating on the book?
Prue: People think writing a cookbook is all about sitting down and having wonderfully creative ideas and thinking, “Wouldn't that be delicious?” That is the best part of it, but the hard slog is the testing and the re-testing, the editing and the re-editing. It’s Peta’s first book that she has led on, so she could do the hard graft. That was brilliant, because I didn’t have to do it. I did enjoy doing the book. It was fun.
Peta: At first it was going to be a baking book and because I’m a pastry chef – that was why I was co-opted in.
Prue: The publishers said the trouble is that every winner of Bake-Off has a baking book out every year. There are just too many baking books.
Peta: And, with me being a lifelong vegetarian, writing a book on vegetarian food seemed like a good 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 not a vegetarian.
Q: What are your favourite dishes from the book?
Prue: It’s just such an unhealthy dish but, god, it’s delicious. Grapefruit Treacle Tart.
Q: You both picked out top-ten cookbook lists for ckbk.com. 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! I started with Mary Berry’s Fast Cakes [published 1981] many years ago. I still think of her more as a cake authority.
Q: You’ve got Elizabeth David on your top-ten list. Did you know her?
Prue: I did. She would come and have lunch at my cookery school [Leith’s] 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. I just remember one incredibly embarrassing interview with poor Jancis Robinson, did you ever see it? Elizabeth could be such a cow, honestly… Jancis would politely ask her an innocent question like, “Have you always loved food?” Elizabeth would say, “None of your business.” 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 or rocket – things I grew that were difficult to buy at the time. I’d take her new peas and new potatoes, a basket of veg and dump it at her Chelsea house. 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.
I was a great admirer, but a bit scared of her. I wouldn’t say she was warm. She was quite funny and wry. 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 classic chefs such as Anton Mosimann and Albert Roux. She was friends with Jane Grigson. She was always a little aloof. But I always felt she was 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. She was great.
Q: Who are your influences today?
Prue: I admire Yotam Ottolenghi, who has 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. It’s so good looking, so appetising, and you don’t notice that three quarters of it is vegetarian.
Peta: Somebody I refer to a lot is Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen. She is brilliant, and all her recipes work so well. She's on my level about trying to cut down on sugar. She does the things that I would do to a recipe.
Q: Prue, 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. I was on the board of British Rail, a director of the company; I wasn’t brought in to do the sandwiches. I had been a director of Traveller’s Fare, the company that provided catering for the rail network.
I thought the sandwiches were pretty boring. Their lead sandwich was white bread with Kraft cheese slices inside. The British Rail people told me it was Britain’s most popular sandwich. The reason, they said, is that we use Britain's most popular bread (Mother’s Pride sliced white), Britain’s most popular butter (Anchor) and Britain’s most popular cheese (Kraft cheese slices).
So I organised a tasting at Paddington Station with sardine sandwiches, egg-and-cress and lots of brown bread. We cut them into quarters and went around with trays, like a cocktail party, and asked people if they’d like one. I was absolutely terrified that the bloody British Rail sandwich would win, but the brown bread and egg won, and the cheese one came second, so I was relieved. I was disappointed that a salami and cheese sandwich, which was too much for the British public at the time, didn’t work. It'd go now.
Q: Peta, was your aunt the reason you decided to work in food?
Peta: When I said that I was not planning to go to university because I wanted to cook, my teacher said, “Everyone should be able to cook but it’s not a job. It’s not a career.” I was like, “Can I just refer you to my aunt?”
Certainly I was inspired by her career. It made me feel as though a career in food was an option.
Q: Peta: You trained in the United States. Did you find that the approach to food was different there?
Peta: What I did find extraordinary was just how little people cooked. I shared a flat with a few other girls that I didn’t know, who were gobsmacked when I cooked anything. I would come home from my baking course with croissants, baguettes that I’d made from scratch and they wouldn’t recognise them.
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 said: “You made tomato sauce?!”
Q: Prue, you’ve started a lot of businesses. Would you say you’re 50/50 businesswoman and cook? Which takes precedence?
Prue: What I’d like written on my tombstone would be ‘writer’, more for novels than for cookbooks. But food is so much part of my life because food happens three times a day, doesn’t it? 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.
Q: How has lockdown been for you both?
Prue: I've rather enjoyed it because it’s forced me to be at home more, which is wonderful. When I was in the Bake-Off bubble for seven weeks of filming during July and August, we stayed in a hotel with 150 acres of land and woods to walk in. It was like seven weeks at a holiday camp. It forced friendship between the 150 of us, including everybody from the Covid cleaners to the bakers and the presenters.
We had our temperature taken every day and had a Covid test once a week, right the way through. It felt incredibly safe and nobody tested positive the whole time.
Q: How was the Covid lockdown for you, Peta?
Peta: With two small kids, a two-year-old and a six-month-old, it was quite challenging – having no child-minder, no days off, and not having my mum being able to help out. It has been quite intense.
Prue: I really would like us all to be together at Christmas. I’ll hopefully see you at Christmas, Peta.
DUE TO COVID-19 PRACTICALITIES, THIS EVENT HAS BEEN DELAYED UNTIL THE NEW YEAR - DATE TO BE CONFIRMED
In early 2021, ckbk will be hosting a live online cookalong with author Peta Leith cooking from The Vegetarian Kitchen, answering your live questions, and chatting to Felicity Cloake, author of The Guardian’s ‘The Perfect…’ column.