From Crafts to Cookery

20th October 2017

Lisa Botwright chats with Kirstie Allsopp about kitchen confidence, fussy children and the significance of coronation chicken…

She’s the property guru who’s been on our screens since the turn of the century (Location, Location, Location; Relocation, Relocation; Love it or List It; The Property Chain), and the craft queen who’s championed making, mending and up-cycling (Fill Your House for Free, Kirstie’s Handmade Treasures, Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas) with no less fervour than fellow Channel 4 star Jamie Oliver’s campaign to cook healthy meals from scratch. So to my mind, Kirstie equals homes and crafts, and Jamie equals cooking – so far, so pigeon-holed. That’s why it’s such a surprise to find that she’s turned her hand to writing recipes, and is proudly promoting her eponymously-titled Kirstie’s Real Kitchen. “I love that this book exists,” she enthuses. “I love the thought of it. It feels very personal to me – possibly the most personal thing I’ve ever done,”

As someone who can’t sew a Scout badge onto my son’s shirt, let alone appliqué a bespoke quilt, make candles from beeswax, design eye-catching mosaics from glass shards or any of the myriad of crafty things that Kirstie tackles in her programmes with ease, effervescence and dexterity, I generally watch her from my sofa with two parts engrossment and one part self-doubt. She always seems so damned capable.

So I find it equally surprising to learn that the kitchen is one place in which Kirstie hasn’t always felt so comfortable. In the book she explains her journey from her happy childhood in a non-foodie home, to single twenty-something living off ready meals, to stressed stepmother desperately trying to tempt fussy children – to finally finding a balance… “Cooking [now] is how I relax and what I love to do when I’m not working. It can be sheer pleasure, very therapeutic.”

After she met current partner Ben, she found the transition to domesticity particularly difficult at the stage of first meeting her two new stepsons, who were aged just five and two. ‘I was a new person in their lives, cooking things that looked and tasted different from what they were used to,’ she reflects in the book. Kirstie and Ben, who have been together since 2004 but have chosen not to marry, went on to have two boys of their own and she explains that ‘fundamentally, the reason for learning to cook and for writing the book is that I want my children and stepchildren to cook.’

Self-deprecatingly, she reassures her readers throughout that ‘if I can do it, anyone can do it’ and we appreciate just how real the struggle was for her to learn to cook. Was there a lightbulb moment, when everything fell into place, or was it a slow burn? “It was having a few successes; a few meals that the whole family ate, or guests asking for x or y that I’d made them before,” she tells me. “I feel passionate about conveying the fact that food doesn’t need to be in your DNA. We believe that if we don’t learn certain things when we’re children – cooking, music – then it won’t happen, but that’s not true.”

Each section of the book is prefaced with a chatty, personalised introduction, offering little snippets of domestic insights, in her endearingly warm, but slightly bossy way that’s so familiar to her fans. (Location co-presenter Phil Spencer has likened their relationship to having a bossy older sister.) What she does admit is that she made a rod for her own back by trying so hard to please, and by cooking different meals for different children. “I would say never give separate food, ever,” she says firmly. “I’d never do that if I had my time again. Our culture of separate food is ludicrous.” I suggest that parents working long hours is part of the problem: the need to cook an earlier dinner for the children when the other parent gets back after bed time, and she agrees. “I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s very difficult. But try to cook something that everyone can eat, and serve it at different times. That’s my advice.”

Kirstie’s own childhood didn’t include the long leisurely meals that she now loves. The eldest of four children, she explains that her mother “was a good cook, rather than a keen cook. She wanted to cook and get it out of the way. She wasn’t one for sitting around a table; that definitely wouldn’t have happened.” Sadly, Kirstie’s mother died from breast cancer in 2011(“the greatest loss of my life so far”), a fact that led Kirstie to focus on cooking as a way to be more healthy.

Although she’s never felt under pressure to be ultra-thin, like so many women in the public eye, she was upset to find the pounds creeeping on once she hit her forties and worked hard to lose weight: an impressive two stone in fact. “We have a responsibility to be at our healthiest. My personal feeling is that for me I knew being overweight on my 50th birthday is the number one risk for breast cancer. That is entirely my choice.”

She continues to keep weight gain in check by avoiding carbs and by giving up sugar. I wonder at the enormity of giving up cakes and chocolate, but Kirstie assures me that it’s been pretty painless. “The worse thing is that I can’t drink tea any more. I used to love strong builder’s tea, but I can’t face it any more without sugar. I just don’t like the taste. I’m drinking lots of herbal tea now.”

She’s also given up drinking wine (engendering another involuntary exclamation from me), which has helped with the weight loss, but she explains that this was more down to it not suiting her, rather than her being overly austere. “I gave up all alcohol at the start of my diet, and initially ate very sparsely. Then, when I re-introduced wine, it just made me feel terrible.” Instead, she happily admits to a fondness for vodka martini, the recipe for which is in the book. “I go days, or even weeks without a drink, but I love a cocktail with friends.”

Kirstie certainly needs a clear head for her busy schedule promoting Real Kitchen, which includes a book-signing visit to Dr Challoner’s School in Little Chalfont, at the beginning of November, in partnership with Chorleywood Bookshop. Is she familiar with this area? “Yes, a colleague of mine has lots of family living nearby, and we’ve definitely filmed a Location somewhere in the vicinity. [Thanks to the programme] there’s not really anywhere in the country I’m entirely unfamiliar with.”

She’s also been making another series of Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas, where crafters compete over festive jumper knitting and Christmas tree decorating in gorgeously photogenic settings replete with sparkling fairy lights and flickering log fires. “I enjoy making this programme very much, but I find I invest a lot in the competitions. They’re not stressful exactly, just intense, because everyone works so hard and gives so much.”

Although Kirstie may claim that cooking isn’t in her DNA, there’s one anecdote from the book that belies this. While researching, she came across a signed copy of a cookbook that her great-great grandmother had written in the 1930s. Not only is it a ‘fascinating insight into life back then, with many recipes standing the test of time,’ it also has another claim to fame. The curry-flavoured picnic food, famously prepared for the banquet of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, is said to have been inspired by a recipe by Lady Hindlip – Kirstie’s great-great granny Minnie. “I’ve always loved coronation chicken,” she exclaims. “I even had my own special version that I tweaked, with extra yoghurt.” Besides recipes, and lots of household advice, Minnie’s book also deals with one tip that Kirstie unsurprisingly hasn’t recreated in her own: how to deal with a dead body. “It’s an extraordinary book,” Kirstie laughs.

Ultimately, and with characteristic enthusiasm, Kirstie believes that ‘food is life, and life is lived better if we know what goes into our meals and take an interest in it.’ I tell her that I find the book like a hug, reaching out to stressed working parents and to blended families, with all sorts of hacks to help us out and put the pleasure back into food.

“Aah, thank you,” she says, sounding genuinely pleased, very endearing, and with absolutely no trace of bossiness.

Chorleywood Bookshop presents ‘An Evening with Kirstie Allsopp’ on Thursday 2 November, 7.30pm, at Dr Challoners Girls’ School, Little Chalfont. For tickets and for more information, visit chilternbookshops.co.uk/events

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