May 26, 2024

Savouring the world

The Great British Bake Off judge, restaurateur, chef, author and novelist talks about her prolific travels and culinary adventures

Well-travelled cookery queen Prue Leith enjoys a good bake-off in Berkshire. “I love Welford Park, and hanging out there with Paul, Sandi and Noel. The owners fixed up an old barn as a comfy make-up and wardrobe room, so we don’t have to rock about in a Winnebago!”

When not filming for the hit BBC baking show, she’s on the road promoting her books, new glasses for Ronit Furst, or her itchy feet whisk her overseas.

“I’m in Scotland – where I am Chancellor of Queen Margaret University – three times a year, all over England, Ireland and Wales for food and literary festivals promoting my cookbooks or novels twice a month, and I visit Europe a couple of times annually.

“Since I met my husband, John, eight years ago, we’ve been to Oman, the Far East, India, Bhutan – from where I famously tweeted the winner of ‘Bake Off’! – Latin America, Dubai for their famous Desert Literary festival, and elsewhere. We discovered Segways in Savannah, Georgia, which was a great way to see all the 18th-century colonial houses along streets which would have taken ages on foot.”

Leith’s also journeyed to Lesotho, taken a walking trip in Transylvania, visited Uruguay after an Argentinian riding experience, cruised the Med and the Nile, and been ballooning in Turkey. She’s also relished tackling extreme climates, with road trips through the Arizona desert, California and Utah.

She says Laos (where she slept in a tribal chief’s hut) surprised her the most. Any other places that score highly in this cook’s book? “Bhutan, because it was so very different from neighbouring India. It was very underpopulated, the people are still largely in national dress and devoted to their royal family; the Buddhist temples dominate life.”

Leith describes her recent trip to Tokyo and Naoshima in Japan as “the experience of a lifetime”, which took 50 years for her to “dare visit” due to it being so different and a place where English is barely spoken. “But that, I discovered, is the attraction,” she adds.

As a child, Leith sailed with Winston Churchill, who disembarked at Madeira. She recently visited the island’s famous Belmond Reid’s Palace, following in his footsteps.

“Once you’ve packed, take half of it out to make room for an empty fold-up bag to fill with lovely things while you are away!”

“Reid’s holds a food festival, The Art of Flavours, and we just missed it. I’ll be back!”

Her time spent studying at Cordon Bleu in Paris hugely inspired her career. “France taught me that food was to be taken seriously. Everyone talked about food… something no-one did in South Africa.”

Leith returns to her birthplace, Cape Town, every year. “As a child, I hated what was then called the Game Reserve (now the National Park) but now I love a safari. Best of all is Baroque in the Bush, a weird combination of classical music and safari, and then a braai with a lot of beer and wine,” she says.

This summer saw her set sail on a river cruise along the Rhone, discovering the gastronomic heart of France and giving a demonstration for Good Housekeeping. “It was brilliant, especially considering I was in a wheelchair with a busted Achilles tendon!”

Glamis Castle and Ballindolloch were highlights of her honeymoon (second time around) aboard Belmond’s Royal Scotsman train for a grand tour of Scottish castles. And Scotland is back on the menu for Leith’s milestone 80th birthday next year. “Fly-fishing on the Naver with a dozen friends. We’re also going around the west coast on the Puffer, the only remaining steam-powered boat. “

So, where can we find the world’s best food? “For France, I’m out of date now. Sadly, the famous routiers where you used to get amazing food, cooked from scratch, now turn out indifferent baguettes.

“But Italy and Japan, obviously; Southern India and, surprisingly, parts of America. I had the best grilled octopus in a Greek restaurant in Atlanta, and we were knocked out by all the local breweries making really cool beer.”

Her top travel tips? “Once you’ve packed, take half of it out to make room for an empty fold-up bag to fill with lovely things while you are away! I constantly bring back cooking equipment; I have a hopper pan from the Maldives, a chapati iron from India, and teppanyaki tools from Japan.”

When not cooking, judging, writing or promoting, where rates highly for relaxation? “My idea of R&R is a nice beach, a hammock and a piña colada. I once risked one of those expensive Austrian medical spas that feed you hayflower tea and little else, make you eat your stale spelt biscuit in silence, and believe in colonic irrigation. I hated it!”