Champagne and presents at 10am, dinner when it’s ready and no washing-up… Family Christmases are as relaxed as it gets for restaurateur and Bake Off judge Prue Leith.
You might assume that Christmas at Prue Leith’s idyllic country home in the Cotswolds, where she has hosted festivities practically every year for the past four decades, is a perfectly polished affair. After all, the 79-year-old chef, food writer and Bake Off judge made her name in professional catering. But Prue’s no stranger to the odd Christmas Day disaster.
‘In my great wisdom I tried to deep fry some chestnuts one year without peeling them and they exploded like hand grenades all over the kitchen,’ she says, laughing. ‘Don’t try that at home!’ Then there was the Christmas she opened her oven at 1pm to find the two pork joints she’d been slow-roasting, in a departure from her traditional turkey, were ‘stone cold raw – my nephew had made a fry-up for breakfast and, being well brought up, wiped down the hob afterwards and turned everything off, including the oven.’ By then Prue had enough champagne inside her to see the funny side, so she sliced up the pork and fried it for her 25 guests. ‘It wasn’t very nice but there was a lot of laughter.’
Apart from a few mishaps that will go down in Leith family history, Christmas at Prue’s is leisurely and stress-free. The house is festooned with garlands of fresh holly and ivy (‘a perk of being in the middle of the countryside’). The first bottle of fizz pops at 10am, served with mince pies for present opening with her husband John, her two grown-up children and four grandchildren, plus various nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles.
‘We’ve relieved all the tension from the day by saying we’ll eat when we’re ready, which is usually about three in the afternoon.’ And Prue’s no martyr in the kitchen: ‘Nobody should ever ask me, “Is there anything I can do?” Because I’ll say, “Yes, you can chop the carrots, then peel the potatoes…” Never turn down an offer of help.
When I was growing up, the expression “feeling Christmassy” didn’t mean feeling jolly and festive, it meant feeling ratty and cross! So if you’re the cook, plan the day so you can join in the festivities. If you’re banished to the kitchen that’s when you get resentful.’
After the feasting has finished, ‘Everybody in the family helps with the washing-up – the one person who doesn’t is me – then it’s collapsing on the sofa in front of the telly.’
And, yes, even a gourmande like Prue thinks Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without handfuls of Quality Street. ‘We have a family tradition called the sweetie tree – it’s a bare branch that we hang all the chocolates on with cotton loops. They look so pretty and my grandchildren love it,’ she says. Prue’s favourite? ‘The toffee finger,’ she says resolutely. ‘They’re the best ones – and I won’t hear otherwise.’
What makes Prue’s day
A tasty bottle of red
‘I enjoy a nice bottle of red with Christmas dinner. Normally I drink something that’s £4.99 from Aldi – and very good it is, too – but on Christmas Day I might treat us to something a little more flashy.’
A well-planned feast
‘If you’re the kind of Christmas cook who finds yourself in the middle of the kitchen with two glasses of champagne inside you, and not a clue where to start, then you must do a plan beforehand. Stick it on the wall, then you can follow it on the day like a zombie without thinking!’
‘There’s a little pipe-cleaner angel with a pingpong-ball head that my son painted as a child and I’d hate it if it ever got lost. It’s the same with a set of very vulgar, kitsch porcelain angels my mother bought me as a wedding gift. Everything’s a bit dilapidated – but they have to come out every year.’
A heartfelt gift (or two)
‘In front of my house are two terracotta lions, which are very special to me. I spotted them in an antique shop with my then husband [Rayne Kruger, who died in 2002] and decided they’d make the perfect present for him. So I was very disappointed when I called the shop and they’d gone. Of course, on Christmas Day Rayne says, “Look out of the window” – and he’d bought them for me.’
Traditions old and new
‘I grew up in South Africa but we still ate a full Christmas dinner: turkey, roast potatoes, hot gravy, the lot – despite the unbearable heat. My mother served tinned Brussels sprouts: they were disgusting. We’d always watch the Queen’s Speech – we weren’t allowed to talk over it – and stand up when they played “God Save The Queen”.’