The Bake Off presenter, novelist and businesswoman also makes an excellent guide to Edinburgh’s best restaurants

Words Claire Smith          

People often ask me what is my favourite meal, or what would I eat on death row,” says Prue Leith. “I think it would be the lunch I had at Ondine in Edinburgh the day I got married: oysters for starter, oysters for main and treacle tart and custard to finish.”

Restaurateur, novelist, television personality and businesswoman Prue Leith has a long connection with Edinburgh (she’s the chancellor of Queen Margaret University), which deepened when she married John Playfair at Lothian Chambers on George IV Bridge eight years ago.

“He was brought up in the city – one of his ancestors is the architect William Playfair [who designed the eastern part of the New Town].”

As well as writing numerous cookery books, Leith has just completed The Lost Son, the final novel in her Angelotti Chronicles trilogy. The story centres on a secret adoption and what happens when Tom, the son Laura Angelotti gave up at birth, comes back into the family’s life. The whole subject of adoption, It turns out, is very close to Leith’s heart. “My daughter is adopted and she has just adopted a daughter. She also made a film about going back to Cambodia to look for her original parents. My husband is adopted too – he looked for his birth mother in his fifties and stayed friends with her until she died.

“What was interesting for me writing the book was to make sure Tom went through the right process. The Norcap organisation, which my husband used to track down his parents, doesn’t exist any more.”

Leith’s Angelotti Chronicles follow the fortunes of an Italian restaurant-owning dynasty, with the ups and downs of business helping to create a fascinating backdrop to family life. “The things that interest me,” she says, “are food, business and love.

“I think people who come from abroad have a lot of get up and go.” Leith herself was born in Cape Town. “When I used to hire people, I would often go for people from South Africa and Australia. They seemed to be more up for new things.”

She began coming regularly to Edinburgh 25 years ago when her company won the contract for catering at the EICC. “We cooked really good British food and everyone thought it was extraordinary because there wasn’t that much good food around at the time.”

Edinburgh has since become one of the UK’s foodie hotspots. “I remember Tom Kitchin opening and everybody raving about it because it was so good. We had dinner there the night before we married, and the other day we had a brilliant meal at his pub, the Scran & Scallie. I’m a big fan.

“I also like the Gardener’s Cottage at the bottom of Calton Hill. I heard the same people have opened a new restaurant at the redeveloped Observatory there.”

She became a presenter of Great British Bake Off in 2017, when her friend Mary Berry decided to stand down. “It has certainly made a big difference to my life. Before, if I went out, one or two people might stop and say hello. Now I get stopped a lot. But I like it. It’s flattering and people are generally very kind.”

She’s not sure if the public are baking more or just spectating – but she reckons programmes like Bake Off help get children interested in cooking.

“I think there is a tendency for people to eat around a table less frequently. The answer is to teach children to cook – to get them to love what they eat and be interested in it. Then it’s easy.”

As well as appearing at the Book Festival, Leith is planning to dive into the Fringe. “The last time I went with some friends who were really into it. We did three shows a day, one stand-up show, one musical and one piece of theatre. We didn’t see any big famous companies – just three different things a day. It was lovely. I’m really looking forward to it.”

WHERE & WHEN

Prue Leith, New York Times Main Theatre, Edinburgh International Book Festival,
10 August, 3.15pm, £0-£25. edbookfest.co.uk

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