By Margarette Driscoll
Property and home-making expert Kirstie Allsopp tells Margarette Driscoll how the challenges of cooking for a blended family – coupled with transforming her own eating habits – led her to write a book of recipes for modern living.
One of Kirstie Allsopp’s earliest memories is standing by the stove as her father taught her to scramble eggs. Like his daughter, the presenter of TV’s Location, Location, Location, Lord Hindlip has the capacity to surprise. ‘He is profoundly conventional – Eton, army, Christie’s – but he arranges flowers, he hangs pictures, he cooks,’ she says. ‘He is a very keen cook, though experimental. His pig’s foot spaghetti is legendary in our house as being the most disgusting thing any of us has ever tasted.’ Kirstie’s mother Fiona – an interior designer who died three years ago – was the opposite: a reluctant, fussy eater always bored by food. She once came back from lunch with a friend, saying, ‘How is it possible to spend so long talking about gravy?’
So, when Kirstie, 46, was asked to write a cookbook, she hesitated. She had just read Made in India, Meera Sodha’s inspiring story about how her mother’s cooking kept family traditions alive after they were driven out of Idi Amin’s Uganda, which had made her cry. ‘I didn’t have anything like that food heritage to offer,’ she says. ‘But I realised I did have a family and a real passion for food that I could pass on to women who, like many of my friends, have busy lives and seem to have given up cooking as some sort of feminist badge of honour.’
So Kirstie’s Real Kitchen was born and it is a compelling read, a journey around Kirstie’s off-screen life with its glamour (a family trip to Africa courtesy of Madonna, who rented Kirstie’s parents’ home in London) and frustrations (cooking different breakfasts for each of her children – ‘a rod I’ve made for my own back’). It has an amusing cast of characters, from Eloise, an old friend who once stumbled across an S&M photo shoot while walking her dog (Kirstie includes her grilled mackerel salad), to her partner Ben Andersen’s aunt, who lives in Tuscany with 12 show dachshunds and makes a mean spaghetti carbonara.
The book also reflects Kirstie’s recent experience of gaining and losing two stone and transforming her cooking and eating habits. Years of bacon sandwiches and pub lunches during filming caught up with her as she reached her 40s and – always forthright, as evidenced by her many spats on Twitter – she was as tough on herself as she sometimes is on others when she woke up to what had happened, telling herself it was ‘foolish, selfish and dangerous’. She is never destined to be thin – and does not want to be (‘There are too many people in my life who are neurotic about being thin’), but she is back to a flattering, gently curvy size that suits her.
Kirstie has presented Location, Location, Location with Phil Spencer for 18 years, finding houses for other people. Her own house is a large but nondescript 1950s box set among the elegant, stuccoed mansions of Kensington. She is very matter-of-fact about why she and Ben, a property developer, bought it and why they have stayed: money. It was the best they could afford after their first son was born, in a lovely but eye-wateringly expensive area.
From the outside, you would never guess how beautiful it is within. She gives me a guided tour, through the huge kitchen with worktops salvaged by Ben from a school science lab, upstairs to her lavishly wallpapered and furnished bedroom, and finally into the drawing room, which has two oversized squashy sofas and a giant baronial stone fireplace.
Kirstie is in one of her trademark floral shirtdresses and her glossy hair shines like a mirror. Some find her too blunt (she recently quit Twitter after a row over whether people should have washing machines in the kitchen in which she hit out at those who said she was a snob for being anti-, calling them f***wits), but I like her honesty. In the baking section of her book, for instance (which includes a delicious-looking chocolate cake), she admits she rarely touches the cakes she bakes as she is so often watching her weight. Simple things like roasted vegetables she calls ‘non-recipes’.
A while back she ruffled a lot of feathers by saying that if she had a daughter she would tell her to ditch university, find a nice man and have a baby by 27, an opinion she is, if anything, even more passionate about now. ‘Short of grief and war and fire, the greatest unhappiness I’ve seen is people’s struggles to have children, and it’s happened to a lot of my friends,’ she says. ‘My generation is the one that got the message completely wrong and thought IVF was going to sort out any problems and it doesn’t. Nothing in my life comes close to the joy my children have given me. We ought to be realistic and tell girls not to leave things too late.’
Kirstie met Ben 13 years ago when his sons Hal and Orion were aged five and two (they’re now 18 and 15). They have since had two sons together, Bay, 11, and Oscar, nine. Becoming a stepmother wasn’t easy; Kirstie says she made ‘lots of mistakes’. The dinner table was a key battleground. Hal and Orion ate chicken goujons, cucumber sticks, hummus and not much else. Kirstie got into the habit of making kids’ food and still offers three sauces when she makes pasta to suit the individual tastes of all the boys.
‘It’s such a mistake and I would do it completely differently now,’ she says. ‘Because my stepchildren were with us initially only a couple of nights a week, a meal missed seemed to be deeply significant. I thought, “Oh, God, they’ll tell their mum I’m starving them or something awful.” I was so anxious about them eating that I got it wrong, and when my children were learning to eat they saw my stepchildren being fussy, so everyone got very fussy.’
It is an experience that will resonate with so many women struggling to blend families. ‘I was too emotional and they were shell-shocked because of the breakdown of their parents’ marriage. I was a new person in their lives and I would be nervously cooking things that were different from what they were used to,’ says Kirstie. A year in, a friend came to stay at their second home in Devon and made spaghetti bolognese, which Hal and Orion refused to touch. Kirstie yelled at them and fled the room in tears. She cried again around five years ago when, for the first time, one of them told her he loved her: ‘Things have got massively better over time.’
Kirstie is a doting but formidable mother: the boys are not allowed to have phones or laptops in their bedroom. They are, however – unlike a lot of her friends’ children – allowed sweets. ‘I try not to be neurotic. I make sure they eat well – and the forbidden fruit thing is incredibly powerful.’
A recent study showing that children who eat with their family more than three times a week have fewer educational and behavioural problems and are less likely to be obese chimes with her parenting philosophy. ‘It worries me, people not eating together and children off in their rooms on their screens. All the evidence shows we’re in completely new territory,’ she says. ‘It’s very evident in the property world – houses with fewer family spaces and more and more en-suite bathrooms.’
She and the boys still argue about food – Bay won’t touch fruit, Hal hates fish – ‘but I think, hope, they will grow out of it. I have made the point to all of them that I think it’s unattractive in an adult to be a fussy eater. My mother was very particular and going to a restaurant with her was a nightmare. One year we stayed at the Alton Towers Hotel for my sister’s birthday and my mother said, “Really what I’d like is just steamed vegetables, any vegetables you have, but not this, this and this” – a long list – “with half an avocado pear sliced on top.” The waitress looked absolutely gobsmacked.’
Kirstie rocks with laughter as she recalls this scene and other ridiculous family episodes but, in truth, her childhood, despite the beautiful houses and titles – she is formally The Hon Kirstie Allsopp, hence the jibes about snobbery – can’t have been easy. She learned to cook very young because, as the eldest of four children (she has a brother and two sisters), she was often responsible for looking after everyone.
Soon after her sister Sofie (who is nine years younger) was born, their mother contracted ME and was never really well again. She was later diagnosed with breast cancer and died aged 66. Ironically, Kirstie believes her mother’s innate aversion to eating was a factor in enabling her to live with the cancer for 25 years.
‘Being my mother’s cancer…that must have been like living in Raqqa,’ she says. ‘You have to be very, very careful when you are talking about cancer because it affects everybody differently, but she recognised that part of her personal journey was to reduce sugars and that was definitely the right decision for her. That’s a difficult message because everyone is so terrified of anorexia – which is a horrible, destructive condition – but all the research on nationalities who eat less or have periods of fasting shows it is much better for you. Obesity is the biggest issue facing the NHS: look at the level of medical intervention you need if you have diabetes.’
Kirstie says that she and her sisters discovered a few years ago that they have a 50/50 chance of having inherited their mother’s gene for breast cancer. Their case is not as clear-cut as Angelina Jolie’s, who said she had an 80 per cent risk of developing the disease. Sofie chose to have a preventative mastectomy, Kirstie and her other sister, Natasha, did not.
‘Sofie hadn’t had children when she decided to do that,’ she says. ‘I had and had breastfed, not terribly successfully, but my body had gone through those hormonal changes. [Not having children is said to slightly increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer.] My sister was at a different stage in life and she has always worried about it, whereas I haven’t. It doesn’t keep me awake at night – though it would if I was still overweight, because being overweight is a risk factor later in life.’
For most of her adult life Kirstie has been about a stone heavier than the ideal, but ‘I was always happy to stay a certain weight and not muck about with it’. But when that morphed into three stone and her dresses stopped fitting, she went to see nutrition guru Amelia Freer, whose clients have included Victoria Beckham, Sam Smith, Boy George and James Corden. ‘I didn’t understand how it had happened and I thought it would be easier to correct,’ she says. ‘Amelia explained that yo-yoing from three or four days a week at home, eating very healthily, to sandwiches and crisps and cracking into the Haribos at 4pm – the diet of your average on-the-move TV property shoot – was playing havoc with my metabolism.’
The first two weeks of Freer’s programme are designed to reboot the metabolism and Kirstie followed it meticulously, eating three times a day, small amounts, always with a five-hour gap between meals. ‘No alcohol, a very small list of what you can eat and no sugars,’ she says.
After that, she had to devise a way of eating to fit her lifestyle. ‘I have quite a few friends who go to spas but I thought, “If I’m going to change the way I’m eating, I have to do it in a domestic environment. I have to be able to cook a meal for the entire family that I’m not eating, if that’s what it takes to lose weight.” For me, the key things are not eating between meals ever, ever, ever. And not having sugar – and I feel a lot better, I really do.’
She drinks occasionally and modestly and not just for weight reasons: she thinks too many women drink too much. ‘The “gin mummy” thing, I don’t think it’s funny: what happens if you’re drunk and your child wakes in the night with croup and you have to go to the hospital? It’s gone way too far. I regard myself as a feminist but I don’t think I can drink any man under the table. Nor should I: women process alcohol differently from men and it’s one of the contributory factors in breast cancer.
‘Everyone’s nightmare now is giving a “fields of wheat” Theresa May interview, so I will put it out there that I have been drunk, certainly more than once. More than 20 times? Absolutely not. I don’t like feeling out of control.
‘Also, I remember the first time I changed a nappy with a hangover. It was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life.’
Styling: Rachel Davis at One Represents
Hair and make-up: Julia Bell using Giorgio Armani make-up and skincare