Prue Leith

Diary - 27 March 2004

A surprisingly good column for a cook

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How many novels do I have to write before reviewers stop saying ‘surprisingly good for a cook’? A friend says tartly that it’s a bit rich to complain — I could have been judged on my merits by writing under a pseudonym, only then I might not have been published at all. Another disheartening discovery is that my new novel, aimed at fortysomethings, has a title that only the over-sixties get. The phrase A Lovesome Thing was greeted by blank faces until I visited a literary festival in the Cotswolds. The audience was all female and all grey. ‘Anyone know what A Lovesome Thing is?’ I asked. They sang out in response: ‘A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!/ Rose plot/ fringed pool.’

As Chairman of Governors of one of the previously failing, now working, schools managed by 3E’s Ltd, I received an incomprehensible letter from Surrey County Council. It seems, from the letter, that they are proposing not to pass on the full 4-per-cent funding increase promised by the government. Two pages of ISPSB points, LEA units of resource, small school subsidy impacts and key stage weighted funding means that, with a previous cancellation of £150,000 promised capital (due to ‘overspend on the capital voluntary aided budget’), we will now receive half of what we were originally told we’d get for next year. Schools like ours are, in effect, being punished for succeeding. It’s not all the LEA’s fault — they try hard to be fair, but the spaghetti-tangle of school funding is increasingly impenetrable, illogical and expensive to administer. The DFES has employed 40,000 extra bodies since Labour came to power, of which less than a third are teachers.

Another new madness in schools is ‘Risk Assessment’. It means that teachers are obliged to assess the risks of every school jaunt: the chances of the bus going over a cliff; of the children going AWOL in the Science Museum; of broken ankles on the football pitch; of the girls getting at the lager on the ferry and of the boys getting at the girls. What no one ever seems to calculate, though, are the risks of not visiting museums, not going to concerts, not playing football or visiting France.

In St Moritz my friend Johnny Moss has to concern himself with risk assessment too. He runs the Cresta Run, for men who like to plunge headfirst down an ice chute. The resort’s answer to Cheltenham is White Turf: flat-racing on the frozen lake, including one race where the horses tow skiers behind them. In place of burger bars and ice-cream stalls are oyster bars, Mediterranean restaurants (with fresh mimosa on the tables) and champagne bars. The plastic chairs set out on the snow are covered with sheepskin fleeces to keep expensive derrières cosy.

Luckily, it’s not all just for toffs. Tobogganing by moonlight from Prega to Bergun down a mountain road (closed to traffic in the winter), I glide alone. I’m so chicken that I am miles behind, sliding over bridges, under the railway line, into the forest and back out again with the stars above and the moonlight catching the snow on the peaks. In the distance, little lighted trains cross viaducts. Unforgettable.

I recently found myself inside Wellington Arch, the colossal one in the middle of Hyde Park Corner, for a party. At first I thought that maybe Simon Thurley had exercised his droit de seigneur as CEO of English Heritage to launch his sumptuous book on Hampton Court there, but it turns out that anyone can hire it. By day there is a mini-museum of the history of the arch, and so I now know that it was moved from the north side to its present position in 1882, and that before the extraordinarily named ‘Peace Descending in the Quadriga of War’ graced its top, it bore a much derided statue of Wellington. From the parapet you can gaze across at floodlit Apsley House, which is now in the care of English Heritage too, and also hireable for parties.

Next day, I tramped through the cold to visit the luckless Frenchman, Laurent Trenga, who is in charge of catering in the Royal Parks. He is trying hard. He’s got Caper Green providing organic sausage and mash, dry-cured bacon, and fair-trade coffee in the Honest Sausage in Regent’s Park, and now he’s persuaded the top people’s restaurateur Oliver Peyton to take on the new £3 million restaurant being built in St James’s Park. Rather Peyton than me. I lost a packet in the Royal Parks, mainly because I under-estimated both the awfulness of the average English summer and the customers’ devotion to slimy burgers and Mr Whippy. Hopefully, now that we are a nation of foodies, things will go better for Mr Trenga.

In Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, those trainees produce the best panna cotta in the world: rich, creamy, barely set, exquisitely flavoured and served with infant rhubarb and a choccy biscuit reduced to crunchy crumbs. But such perfection makes me nervous: in a few weeks Training for Life, a charity doing what it says on the tin for the long-term unemployed, will open the Hoxton Apprentice. Will we be as good? We are not aiming at gastronomy — more at employability: getting up in time, wearing the right kit, feeling positive and wanting to work. But the food will still have to be good and so I’m in a muck sweat. The venture is a lot more than just a restaurant. It’s a whole ‘Prospect Centre’, with gym, web-design business, crèche, IT training, incubator businesses, and even eating clubs, to encourage young mums to buy fresh food, cook and eat it, knees under table. The press, natch, talk about Ken’s Kitchen or Prescott’s Pantry, but the truth is that all the public money is going into the building, not the restaurant, which is being funded privately, largely by Compass and Whitbread.

A confession: The real reason I’m plugging Jamie is not his panna cotta. He sent me (me, an old trout of 64) a card calling me ‘Babe’. How cool is that?

A Lovesome Thing is published by Penguin at £6.99.