I made the mistake of saying I thought insects might help feed the world. They are high-protein, cheap to farm (they breed like rabbits and grow like Topsy), require little water and energy and probably wouldn’t mind being factory-farmed. Now my post is full of mealworm powder and cricket flour and invitations to champion bug farms.
Being an adviser to Britain’s hospital food review has been surprisingly uplifting. The panel members are mostly National Health Service professionals who are champing at the bit to improve matters and have already led changes in their own hospitals, so know it can be done. In one hospital, lunch was as good as the best home cooking. Yes, some hospital food is dire, and reform will be a huge task and take years. But with the health secretary and PM on side, I think we dare to hope.
My carbon footprint should put me in jail. I spent three weeks in India over Christmas, two weeks filming in Cambodia and two weeks working in South Africa. India was pure tourism and we’ve cracked how to do it: mornings tramping round palaces and museums, nice lunch, afternoons asleep by the pool or siesta in bed, then a street walk in the cool, eating what the locals eat. Cambodia was to make a documentary for Channel 4, trying to trace my Cambodian daughter’s roots. As a babe in arms, she was flown out of Phnom Penh just before it fell to the Khmer Rouge. We went down some blind alleys and some good ones, both illuminating and upsetting. I don’t like the idea of blubbing on camera. But we had a lot of fun too, helped by nightly drinks with the crew on the roof of the hotel. The South African trip was to visit my chefs’ school in Pretoria, opened 23 years ago, then called the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine. After 10 years it morphed into the Prue Leith Chefs Academy and has now been grandly renamed the Prue Leith Culinary Institute. It reflects the fact that we no longer just teach chefs how to cook. Students might become restaurateurs, home economists, food stylists, recipe developers, teachers, writers, YouTube demonstrators etc.
Needless to say, being the commercial woman I am, I was also flogging my range of specs and my books. We lugged a case of 78 styles of glasses round Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria. South African media are pretty relaxed about guests hyping stuff. I’d be on a TV set, demonstrating a paneer curry, while the presenters tried on the glasses and talked about the renamed food school. But it was hard to stop them questioning me about what interested them far more — my 80th birthday. Why hadn’t I retired? What was the secret? Was it Botox? Did I go to the gym? They weren’t impressed with my recipe: good sleep, good food, and happiness.
Everywhere I went cakes appeared. The chefs’ school (oops! institute) ran a competition for the best birthday cake. The winner had printed photographs on the icing, from every decade of my life. I think she knows more about me than I do. A stalker’s cake.
Back home I missed my slot on Bob Mills’s talk show because we got stuck in the News International lift for an hour and a half. Every 10 minutes the luckless security man had to ask, through the intercom, if we were OK. We were fine. I lay on the floor and read Nicholas Coleridge’s memoir.
On my actual birthday, a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions arrived telling me I now qualify for an extra 25p per week. Well, an extra teabag on Sunday mornings is very welcome. My children took the family to dinner on the excellent Grand Duchess barge, moored on the canal near London’s Paddington Station. I’m resisting the idea of a monster party, and instead plan to have a summer fortnight doing what I love best: fishing on the Naver with ten friends for a week, then five days on the last remaining ‘Puffer’, the VIC 32. These coal-fired boats used to ply the seas and canals of the Highlands and Islands with cargoes of building materials, coal and sheep. The Puffer has been converted into a pleasure boat and I plan to take ten more friends from Corpach through the Caledonian canals to Inverness. I haven’t told them about the need to stoke the boiler, nor about the mozzies.
Peta Leith, with whom I’ve written The Vegetarian Cookbook, and I are to be interviewed for a Spectator event on March 24 by Sam Leith (Peta’s brother, my nephew, and literary editor of this fine organ). You can book tickets here. Let’s keep in it the family, hey?