ONE of the final chapters of Prue Leith’s autobiography, Relish: My Life on a Plate, ends with the words: “I will always be grateful for having had such a wonderful second chance at love”.
Two years on from its publication, the chef-turned-writer reveals that at the age of 74, she has found love a third time. Her latest chap, she says, is “a distinct improvement” on the last.
But then Leith is nothing if not forthright. Just this week, she made headlines by complaining that the culture of celebrity chefs is breeding a generation who watch cookery shows “while stuffing their faces with pizza …”
Nor is she one to follow culinary trends. “I don’t give a toss for drizzles and fizzles – that’s not food,” she tells me. “I like real food.”
Cooking aside, readers of her autobiography – or the newspapers – may well already know about her other great loves. Nicknamed “Mersey Mouth” (after the Mersey Tunnel) by one of her brothers because of her lack of discretion, Leith’s philosophy when writing Relish was that “you either write the truth or you don’t write it at all”.
Still, her revelation that she’d been the secret mistress of writer and businessman Rayne Kruger for 13 years before they married, made quite a splash. “Top cook’s rackety life in the ’60s,” as she puts it, quickly became the gist of many headlines.
Her son Daniel, embarrassed by the publicity, even bought a megaphone and presented it to his mother with the note, “If there’s anyone left in this country who doesn’t know about your love life, perhaps this will help”.
Kruger was 20 years Leith’s senior, but knowing he’d likely die before her, didn’t do a thing to soften the loss when it happened. “The grief you suffer as a widow is directly proportionate to the value of your marriage,” she says, in Dubai to speak at the sixth Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. It was four years before she felt she’d recovered.
Then, she went to a dinner party and met two other women whose husbands had also “checked out early”. Before long, the three had agreed that there were real benefits to living alone: no crumbs in the bed; no worrying about getting home late from work. If they could wish for one thing, it was for what they called a “walker”: a companion, who could also fix a broken tap and take out the dog in the rain.
After a few more drinks, Leith became highly specific, she remembers. “I wanted a man in his 70s, so he’d think I was really young; Jewish, because in my experience Jewish people love food, music and the arts and don’t give a toss for sport; a musician, because I knew nothing about music and needed a tutor; and gay, of course, because I’m finished with all that.”
But she wasn’t finished – with love, in any case. A few weeks later, she went on holiday with a friend, the septuagenarian pianist Sir Ernest Hall, who happened to be one-eighth Jewish. He was not gay, however, and they fell in love.
Unfortunately, this second chance at love didn’t last.
“He became bipolar,” Leith says. “Well, he was already bipolar but I didn’t know that – he tried to hide it and it became more and more obvious. He would go absolutely mad and lose his temper and shout at people and behave badly.”
Leaving Sir Ernest (though they remain friends), she spent another two years on her own, re-adjusting once more to life with a crumb-free bed. By this stage she was getting used to being a “granny”.
“And then I met John,” she says with a smile. For the last 18 years, they’d lived less than a kilometre from each other in the Cotswolds without meeting. “He was married and had got divorced about six years before, and when we met at a drinks party and realised we lived so close to each other, he came along for a walk.”
John Playfair, a designer, now calls himself her “walker number two”, and was apparently found comparing notes about the nature of this unique role with the poet Pam Ayres’s husband, also at the Dubai festival. He isn’t Jewish, but Leith will make allowances: “He’s had his whole life in the fashion industry, so I think [that] qualifies for [a love of] art”.
Is there a limit to the number of times you can fall in love?
“I don’t know, because I’ve only done it three times in my life,” she says. “But I’m sure it has to be different. Those three relationships have all been extraordinarily satisfying, but completely different. I don’t think you could repeat.”
However, timing is critical, she thinks: “I would never have fallen in love with Ernest at the time I met Rayne, because Ernest was in many ways impossible … I would have driven him mad, too”.
These days, Leith describes herself as much more tolerant – not that she needs to be with Playfair, with whom she says she hasn’t exchanged a bad word in two-and-a-half years.
A final message to her fans? “There’s hope for old ladies, is what I’m trying to say.”
50ml olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
500g lamb mince
1 tbsp hot curry powder
1 lemon, juice and zest only
2 tbsp mango chutney
75g toasted almonds
1 slice white bread, soaked in milk for 1 minute then squeezed dry
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 bay leaves
3 free range eggs
Rice – cooked according to packet instructions
Chutney of your choice
1 – Preheat the oven to 180°C
2 – Heat half of the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the mince and cook until brown.
Tip the mince into a sieve and drain off any excess fat.
3 – Wipe the pan clean, add the remaining oil and fry the onions and garlic until softened. Return the mince to the pan.
4 – Add the curry powder, lemon juice and zest, mango chutney, sultanas, toasted almonds and soaked bread and stir well.
5 – Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then transfer everything into a greased soufflé dish or loaf tin.
6 – Stick the bay leaves into the mixture.
7– Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk together with the milk.
Pour the egg mixture over the meat mixture.
8 – Cover with tin foil and place into the oven to bake for 40 minutes, or until cooked through and golden brown.
9 – Serve with rice, chutney of your choice, yoghurt and any other curry-style accompaniments that take your fancy. – Recipe Prue Leith