Belfast Telegraph

Kirstie Allsopp: ‘I've domestic goddesses all around to give me help'

She’s adding cookery skills to craft-making with the release of her debut recipe book, but the TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp insists she’s no superwoman. She tells Leslie Ann Horgan how her late mum Fiona still inspires her

Kirstie Allsopp — finder of houses, maker of crafts, wearer of tea dresses — is something of a girlcrush of mine. It’s a soft spot that I know to be shared by many women of my acquaintance, not least my godmother, for whom Kirstie is a deity made of glossy-haired flesh and straight-talking bone.

So it’s, well, crushing, when Kirstie answers my first question — is she comfortable being hailed as a domestic goddess? — with a flat “No”. There’s a beat of silence, where I mentally flail about looking for a follow-up question, before her raucous laugher comes rolling down the line from London.

“Firstly, I think no woman is a deity in their own home,” Kirstie clarifies when her laughter subsides. “We are all fallible in our own ways. Secondly, because I’m busy working, I am lucky that I have an enormous amount of help, so there are various domestic goddesses around our house.”

That work, of course, includes Location, Location, Location — the hit television show that first made her and co-presenter Phil Spencer household names — along with well-received solo projects such as Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas and Fill Your House for Free. Now, she has added cookery to her CV, with the release of her debut cookbook, Kirstie’s Real Kitchen.

Not that she’s claiming any expertise in the area beyond enthusiasm and an appreciation for a wholesome, home-cooked meal. Indeed, the book is dedicated to those who “think they can’t cook”. “If I can, anyone can, and it’s much more fun than you think,” it reads.

“I wanted the book to be an exceptionally honest journey towards food,” Kirstie (46) says. “I have gone around the country and seen so many women — and men, too — who are not confident in their own ability, be that to sew or paint or to even purchase their own home. No one has an innate ability to cook, or craft, I certainly didn’t until work made me do it. And I have found not only that I can do it, but I have come to enjoy it, too.

“So, I’ve written about what I love to eat, much of that shaped by how much travelling I have done through my work. It’s all about having the confidence.”

That’s all well and good for someone as naturally undaunted as Kirstie, but how do the rest of us develop that confidence? “It’s not necessarily about trial and error,” she says. “With cookery, it’s about finding the books that work for you. I love a book called Made in India by Meera Sodha. I love Indian food, but hadn’t cooked it at home before now. The book is a revelation, every single recipe works out.”

Throughout her own cookbook — which covers everything from breakfasts and salads to roast dinners, picnics, Christmas dishes and cocktails — there are recipes which Kirstie has borrowed or been taught be others, whom she names.

“I think the thing I was most passionate about in doing this book was in trying not to pretend to be something I’m not. When I was asked to do it I said that I had some recipes, but not 100 — no one has 100 recipes. I’m not a born cook, or a crafter, but I have a sense of loyalty to those people who have helped me to become both.”

The finished product is a genuine reflection of how people really cook — swapping and adapting recipes with friends and family members — even if Kirstie does happen to have the likes of Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall and Jools Oliver to trade recipes with. Indeed, she is the first to admit that she lives “a very privileged life”.

Her father, Charles Allsopp, is an art historian, former chairman of Christie’s auction house and the sixth Baron of Hindlip. The eldest of four, Kirstie founded her own property company in 1996. The role on Location, Location, Location followed, and she has since established a TV production company with screen husband Phil Spencer.

Her mother, Fiona, sadly passed away in 2014 at just 66. She had been suffering with breast cancer on and off for more than 25 years. Kirstie has since spoken of having a one-in-three genetic risk of developing the same cancer. This prompted her sister, TV presenter Sofie, to have a preventative double mastectomy, while Kirstie and sister Natasha (they also have a brother, Henry) have chosen to have continuous monitoring.

Kirstie has also re-examined her health, writing in the book that she has always been “about a stone heavier than my ideal weight, although it’s never really worried me — too many people in my life are too thin”. Since turning 40, she continues, “the half stone I usually put on during an intense run of filming just didn’t drop off as it had in the past, so I ended up nearly three stone over what I wanted. This is foolish and selfish, and dangerous as well. Among the numerous reasons for not being overweight is that it is the number one risk factor for breast cancer, a disease that has caused havoc in my family.”

Now, she has lost two stone by cutting down the amount of sugar in her diet, drinking only occasionally and, as she admits in the book, rarely eating what she bakes. Given this focus on health, the hearty dishes in her book, though nutritious, seem somewhat out of step with the current trend for fussy recipes with obscure “healthy” ingredients. Was it a conscious decision to stay away from the likes of kale and coconut sugar?

“With this book I first and foremost want to encourage people to cook,” she insists. “I don’t want to frighten people off, and I think that the kales and coconut sugars can do that. I don’t disapprove of those types of ingredients. I am a fan of them and use a lot of those things too, particularly in the past few years where I have hugely reduced my sugar intake.

“That’s been a big success and I would recommend it to anyone. But with the book it was most important to be encouraging and the best way to do that is in small steps.”

Though she says in the book that her mum, an interior decorator, was not one of her cooking influences, her presence can be felt in other ways. “She was a great entertainer and a huge decorative influence on me. Throughout the book, all of the crockery and napkins and things are mine. I wanted the book to be visually warm, and very floral. I didn’t want to write a book about cooking my way and then have it presented in a different or stark way.”

The picture of Kirstie’s life painted by the book is definitely warm, if rather quaint. She and partner Ben Andersen and their four children live between houses in London and Devon. There are big family breakfasts and feasts for groups of 12, and Kirstie writes about her happiest times being Sunday mornings as she prepares lunch for a gaggle of guests while listening to The Archers. Isn’t it all a bit, well, 1950s?

“My experience has been that a lot of woman are working hard and trying to do 1,001 other things at the same time, and it’s very relaxing for them to be at home,” she counters. “It’s not just women, it’s men, too — my partner Ben likes nothing better than being at home. It’s not a 1950s’ thing where women are forced to be at home.

“Rather it’s the fact that people are out and about an awful lot, and they have invested a lot both emotionally and financially in their homes, and they want to be there to relax and enjoy them. Most people don’t get the chance to do that as much as they would like.”

Is that the reason, I ask, that she places such a big emphasis on eating together like a traditional family? “I am not in a traditional family,” she says emphatically. “I have children and stepchildren, and I am not married to Ben. There’s nothing traditional about my life. But there are some things that I do know to be true, and there are studies that back this up, that eating together is vitally important for families. It’s not just for the food, but for the conversation and having the time to talk to your children and checking in with them. For instance, my 15-year-old stepson is doing food tech for his GCSE and he is loving it. It’s giving him great confidence.”

Ben’s sons, Hal, now 18, and Orion (15) were five and two when Kirstie first met them. In an admirably honest section of the book, she describes them as being “shell-shocked” by the breakdown of their parents’ marriage and resistant to eating anything she cooked, which left her at her wits’ end. She recounts one episode when they acted up in a friend’s house and she shouted at them before bursting into tears. Was that true of the entire “wicked stepmother” period?

“I am very lucky in that I have a remarkable relationship with my stepchildren. Right from the beginning they were warm and welcoming. The only area of conflict that we had was food — and later we had conflict over screens, which is true of all teenagers — but that was the only area. I tried very, very hard to make sure I was giving the boys a rounded diet. I was putting a lot of effort into cooking and when they wouldn’t eat it, it was very discouraging. I was agonising over whether I should then let them go hungry or cook something else.

“A funny story — well, I’m able to laugh about it now — is one time their mum rang and she was thrilled that they were drinking goat’s milk. She said that they had told her I’d given it to them and that they loved it. I was mystified, because I’d tried to give them goat’s milk and never succeeded. Then I suddenly though s*** — it was condensed milk that they were talking about.” Did she fess up? “Not until much later.”

Kirstie and Ben went on to have two sons — Bay (10) and Oscar (8) — together, and she admits that she still hasn’t cracked the eating habits of all four boys. Indeed, she devotes an entire chapter to recipes for ‘children and fussy eaters’. However, she does enjoy cooking and baking with them, saying that “kids love cooking if you can get them interested, they love the science behind it”.

She has campaigned against excessive homework for children. “There’s so much talk about homework, but I think that homework should be cooking. Baking is full of maths and science.”

If she had her way, it sounds to me, The Great British Bake Off would be on the curriculum. I enquire whether she has watched the show’s new incarnation, following its controversial move from the BBC to Channel 4. Her tone becomes instantly more business-like, punctuated with an enthusiasm befitting of TV’s top estate agent.

“Yes, well I am exclusive to Channel 4 and I wouldn’t be without watching it. I think that they have done a very good job. I maybe wouldn’t have supported it going at the beginning but the production company who make the show do a very good job, and they were the ones who decided to move and Channel 4 was happy to work with them. I think that it has been really good.”

It’s an emphatic answer but with just a hint of knowingness, or perhaps even devilment, behind it that makes me laugh. She may be a domestic goddess, but Kirstie Allsopp is definitely the stuff of a girlcrush.

Kirstie gets crafty in the kitchen...

Tuck into Kirstie Allsop’s favourite dishes with some recipes from her new book, Kirstie’s Real Kitchen

Slow-cooked Asian Lamb

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

1 x 1.8kg shoulder of lamb, on the bone, or 1 x 2kg leg of lamb

2tbsp vegetable oil

1 x 7.5cm piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and grated

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 fresh red chillies, finely chopped

4tbsp soy sauce

1tbsp Worcestershire sauce

2tbsp clear honey or maple syrup

1 large onion, peeled and halved

1 lemon, halved

3 star anise (optional)

500ml light chicken or vegetable stock

Method: If using a slow-cooker, make sure your joint of lamb will fit in it. If using a conventional oven, preheat it to 170°C/Fan 150°C/Gas 3.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and brown the lamb on all sides. Place in the slow-cooker or a roasting pan. (If using an Aga, brown the lamb in the roasting oven for 20 minutes, then do the rest in the simmering oven.) Mix the ginger, garlic, chillies, soy sauce, Worcester sauce and honey in a bowl. Smear all over the lamb.

Tuck the onion halves, lemon halves and star anise (if using) around the joint, then pour the stock around it — you don’t want to disturb that sticky topping. Set the slow-cooker to low, put the lid on and leave the lamb to cook for six to seven hours. In the Aga, or a conventional oven, it will take up to three hours.

Add a little more water or stock if it looks too dry. You want to have a liquid sauce at the end. Test by using a fork to pull a little bit of meat from the joint. If it comes away very easily, it’s done. If not, continue to cook. We serve these tender strands of meat with their juices, some quick stir-fried greens and rice or noodles. serves 4-6

Tabbouleh

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

25g bulgur wheat

50ml boiling water

300g ripe tomatoes

2 large bunches of flat-leaf parsley

Small bunch of mint

6 spring onions

3tbsp lemon juice

4tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1tsp mixed ground spices

To serve: At least 8 small Little Gem lettuce leaves and 4 ready-made flatbreads

Method: Put the bulgur wheat in a small bowl and add the boiling water. Stir, then set aside for 20 minutes, or until the water has been absorbed. Drain in a sieve to be sure.

Meanwhile, use a sharp knife to remove the stalk and hard core from the tomatoes. (You can also skin the tomatoes and remove the seeds if you like, but I don’t usually bother.) Quarter what’s left, then cut into dice and put into a large serving bowl.

Pick the parsley and mint leaves, discarding the stalks or saving them for a stock. Chop the leaves finely, and do the same to the spring onions. Add them all to the tomatoes and mix well. When the bulgur wheat has absorbed all the water, use a fork to fluff it up and separate the grains. Add it to the tomatoes.

Drizzle the lemon juice and olive oil into the tomato mixture and season to taste with salt, pepper and your chosen spices. Mix well. To serve, arrange the lettuce and flatbreads on four serving plates. Offer the tabbouleh in its bowl and ask people to help themselves, scooping tabbouleh into the leaves. Serves 4

  • Kirstie’s Real Kitchen by Kirstie Allsopp, Hodder & Stoughton, priced £25

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