“Food doesn’t have to be grand or complicated to be wonderful’’
Prue Leith’s lightbulb food moment began with a radish and ended with one simple and important lesson: that food doesn’t have to be grand or complicated to be wonderful.
When I arrived in Paris as a 19-year-old student, I was amazed at the French obsession with food. I’d grown up in a family that thought it infra-dig to even talk about food (or money, sex or politics for that matter, which rules out a lot of the most interesting conversations, but that’s by the by).
We ate well at home, but it didn’t occur to anyone, including me, that I might one day be a cook. I found it amazing that everyone, from metro worker to university professor, discussed food: which restaurants made the best poule au pot, where you got the best cheese, the perfect way to make a steak tartare.
''It didn’t occur to anyone, including me, that I might one day be a cook''
The French regarded food as a serious subject, honoured their great chefs, took trouble to find the best ingredients and spent far more of their incomes on food than the Brits. They also took time to sit down and eat.
One lunchtime, queuing in the University self-service, I was puzzled by one of the mini-hors d’oeuvres in the refrigerated counter. It was a saucer with five small radishes with white tips and leafy stalks still attached, a pat of butter and a tiny pile of sea-salt. ‘What’s that?’ I asked my neighbour in the queue. ‘It’s just radishes… Who is going to want that?’
‘It’s radis beurre,’ he said. ‘Try it. You grab a radish, smear it in the butter, dip it in the salt and eat it. Delicious.’
''It taught me my first and most important lesson about food: that it doesn’t have to be grand or complicated to be wonderful''
I did, and he was right. It taught me my first and most important lesson about food: that it doesn’t have to be grand or complicated to be wonderful. It doesn’t even have to involve cooking. Really good, fresh ingredients (those radishes were young, sweet, tender, the butter was unsalted from Normandy, the salt in flakes) don’t need any messing about.
It gives me as much pleasure to produce food that simple as it does to make something worthy of The Great British Bake Off. Today I have friends coming for lunch, and we are having – guess what? Radis beurre (with French breakfast radishes from the garden) followed by fresh figs from the tree behind the potting shed with St Agur cheese and a bit of home-made quince chutney. Yum. It’s not often I can boast about such a home produced lunch, and I love it!
Prue Leith is a chef, food writer and novelist, as well as being a judge on the Great British Bake Off. Her new book, Prue: My All-time Favourite Recipes, is out now (Bluebird, £25/ £19.99 eBook)
Check out her rant on why hospital food is in the sick bay.