Prue Leith: ‘Champagne, oysters, Harleys… I love being 80!’

And that’s just on her days off. Prue Leith tells Cole Moreton why age is just a number and she’s nowhere near ready to slow down.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ says Prue Leith, looking flustered as we Zoom. ‘I had to lie on my stomach and roll under an electric fence, so I struggled to get here.’ The Bake Off judge was out in the Cotswolds countryside with her dogs when she got in a bit of a pickle. ‘I’ve just been walking and I got stuck. One way was a field with a bull in it, one way was nothing but electric fences.’

She had no choice but to get down and dirty, more than once. ‘Three electric fences, because the bloody farmers around here don’t believe in footpaths. So I am hot and sweaty!’

Her eyes gleam with the adventure of it all, because at the age of 80 there is more than a dash of daring about this South African-born cook, businesswoman, author, campaigner and television star.

Prue Leith
David Venni / Chilli Media

As another series of The Great British Bake Off ended this week we’ve seen plenty of her looking immaculate in bright colours, big beads and bold glasses. But right now she’s catching her breath after the walk, white hair a little wild, ready to relax and launch into a riotously candid chat about her life, loves and unexpected passions and the secrets of the nation’s favourite cooking show – which she joined back in 2017.

‘I didn’t watch it,’ she admits frankly, talking about how she took over from Mary Berry as a judge when Bake Off moved to Channel 4. ‘I didn’t realise Mary was a saint and I was in very tricky waters. I am rather insensitive in that way. I hadn’t picked up that Bake Off was the nation’s baby, I just thought it was a cooking show. I only realised this was quite a big thing when the press got going, asking how could I ever replace Mary. By then there was nothing I could do about it.’

Prue says she rang her old friend Mary for advice on how to handle fellow judge Paul Hollywood and was told: ‘You have to hold your own. He is a strong personality but he really knows bread.’

The 54-year-old Paul has often been described as vain, so did he expect her to fancy him? ‘No. Honestly, he wouldn’t expect me to do that because he said I reminded him of his former mother-in-law.’ Ouch. ‘No, that’s about the age difference. Fancying him, that’s a horrible thought. But I am tremendously fond of him.’

Three years on, the balance of power has shifted. Prue has become the queen of the tent, relaxed enough to be witty and kind as well as commanding. Paul is in her shadow these days. Hosts Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding are like a couple of naughty boys. Prue often feels like the only grown-up in the Bake Off tent, but then she was born in trying times in Cape Town in 1940.

Prue Lieth, Paul Hollywood, Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding
Prue with (clockwise from left) Bake Off’s Paul Hollywood, Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding. Image: Channel 4

‘I used to tell everybody I left South Africa because of its politics, but I don’t think that is true, to be honest. I wanted to be where life was happening. The Beatles weren’t in South Africa, nor were the Rolling Stones. So I was deceiving myself there, but my mother was a campaigner against apartheid.

‘One of my earliest memories is of her coming home in a black coat stained with egg because she had been standing on the town hall steps at a protest, having eggs thrown at her.’

Cooking was frowned upon by the white middle classes – that was a job for black people under apartheid. Their household staff included a cook called Charlie who had trained in the classic French style. ‘I didn’t appreciate that he was a great cook because I knew nothing. Wonderful food was put on the table and I was greedy and just ate it.’

She took the world she lived in for granted. However, Prue says, ‘When I went to Paris to study French I realised we were not as liberal as we thought. My fellow students would be Moroccan or Nigerian and I would be thinking: “This is amazing, I am sitting with a black man, eating together.” I had never, ever done that. You weren’t allowed to.’

Prue came to London next, to study Cordon Bleu cookery. She started her own very successful high-end catering company and eventually ran a restaurant called Leith’s that won a Michelin star. All the while she was secretly in love with a South African author and property developer called Rayne Kruger, who was not only married and 18 years older than her but – scandalously – such a close friend of the family that he was more or less her godfather.

They kept the affair from his wife and everyone else for many years, until Prue wanted a baby and the truth came out. The couple were finally married in 1974, when she was 34 and heavily pregnant. ‘I got to the top of the stairs, puffing and panting because the lift was out, and the registrar said: “Don’t you worry, darling, I am also a midwife. I can deliver the baby as well!”’

That baby was Danny, who is now Conservative MP for Devizes. His sister Li-Da was adopted from Cambodia and is now a film-maker in Los Angeles. Rayne died in 2002, by which time Prue had become a respected national figure in Britain, working with charities on a range of issues from school food to housing. She has chaired the Royal Society of Arts, written a dozen cookery books and published eight novels. Ten years ago she was made a Commander of the British Empire.

Bake Off has taken her fame to another level entirely, although reports suggested the latest series was delayed by Channel 4 not being able to get the right Covid insurance because of her age. So how did she feel about turning 80 earlier this year?

‘Actually, I hugely enjoyed it because I kept getting people saying really nice things like: “You don’t look 80!” I am such an egotist, I just love the attention.’

Her birthday cake was baked by students in a competition she judged at the Prue Leith Culinary Institute in South Africa. ‘Honestly, by the time we decided which was best – and it was amazing – I never wanted to see another bit of cake again! But it was fun.’

How does she look so young? Is the answer plastic surgery? ‘I wish it was, then I would have some more of it. I did have my eyes done when I was not quite 50 – I had swags that came over my eyes like curtains and thought: “This won’t do.” So I had them fixed and I looked amazing for about five years. I think I am back to where I was now. But I have never had a neck lift or whatever.’

What about supplements? ‘Nothing puts me into such a rage as the supplement boom. I think it is so crazy, these people spending hundreds of pounds on bottles of magic stuff which is nearly all snake oil, frankly.’

Healthy eating is the secret, she says, having fronted a major review of hospital food earlier this year. The report recommended that hospital kitchens should be kept open around the clock and equipped to serve healthier meals tailored to particular needs, from hungry staff on the night shift to patients recovering from an operation.

‘The report is quite radical,’ says Prue, who only got involved when the Health Secretary Matt Hancock persuaded her that it wouldn’t just get dismissed as others have before. She had personal reasons, too, having been distressed by the ‘foul-smelling sludge’ served to her elderly mother at a London hospital. ‘The fundamental thing is that the medical profession has to realise that food is medicine.’

Prue put her own money where her mouth is during the first lockdown this year, by cooking free meals for 30 or so staff at her local care home every Friday night. ‘What they want is bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, fish pie – it’s lovely.’

Lockdown has also meant spending more time with her husband John Playfair, 72, a neighbour she first met through a mutual friend in 2011. Two days after that first brief encounter he turned up at her house to ask her out, wearing aviator shades and riding a Harley-Davidson trike.

Prue Leith and husband John Playfair
With her husband John Playfair. Image: Camera Press

‘There are two wheels at the back so you don’t tip over when you go round corners. You don’t have to wear a helmet. I sit behind him in the most wonderful, comfy padded leather seat which holds you all the way round. I kept saying to him: “Can’t you turn down the noise? You are distressing the neighbours.” He said: “They love it.” Now I love it, too.’

Prue Leith roaring about the Cotswolds on a Harley? What a glorious thought.

They were married four years ago in Edinburgh, after a very unusual lunch at a restaurant called Ondine. She describes it as one of the best meals of her life.

‘When we walked in there was a wonderful display of oysters so I thought I would have those for a starter. The waiter asked about the main course and I said: “More oysters!” John’s eyes lit up because the only thing he knew for sure about oysters was that they are an aphrodisiac. I wasn’t really interested in that,’ she says. ‘I was interested in the fact I like oysters and I was getting married so I could eat as much as I liked. I had two lots of oysters, then treacle tart with custard and ice cream.’

There’s a diet book in this! ‘Isn’t there? We had lots of champagne and who cares? It didn’t matter if we were a bit tiddly, we still ended up at the wedding!’

This is all lovely, but haven’t I heard they live in separate houses even now? ‘That is a myth and it has always been a myth,’ she says firmly. ‘He has always spent the night in my house or I have gone to his house. The trouble at our age is that you already have your own house full of clobber. John is unbelievably untidy.’ They are selling his place. ‘We are now building our eventide home, as John calls it. I can’t bear that,’ she says and grimaces.

Prue Leith off duty is warm, witty and not ready for the dying of the light just yet – not while there are Harleys to be ridden and electric fences to be rolled under: ‘I am having such a lovely time.’

Prue’s World, a colourful collection of authentic global cookware, is available exclusively in store and online at Lakeland, lakeland.co.uk.