Paula McIntyre: 'People show disrespect to Prince Charles but he's 100% sensible all the time and very charismatic'
Chef Paula McIntyre talks to Una Brankin about royal encounters, her reluctant celebrity status, meeting daily walking targets and how to deal with unwanted paranormal visitors
Prince Charles has big farmer's hands, according to Paula McIntyre. And it's true, because she saw the blue-blooded ones with her own incredulous eyes, up close and personal at Highgrove Royal Gardens in July. "They're massive," she says "and all calloused - I thought 'My God, you really are a farmer'," says the popular Radio Ulster chef. "He does have a working farm with rare breeds of cattle and he works away in his big garden - all organic.
"He's very knowledgeable and a real advocate of slow food. People disrespect him a lot but he's 100 per cent sensible all the time. He's charismatic, not really great craic, but he did laugh away with us - there were about 60 of us and we had Champagne and canapes. Very nice."
Straight-talking Paula was at Highgrove as director of the Northern Ireland branch of Slow Food UK, the anti-fast food movement, which promotes local cuisine cultures and traditions.
The role, along with her place on the judging panel of the BBC Radio 4 Food & Farming Awards, has brought the Portstewart-based cook into the company of plenty of famous people this year, including Ken Hom - "lovely man; gorgeous" - and Mary Berry - "a wee fine woman; lovely".
But the celebrity cook she was most impressed by was Cullybackey's own Jenny Bristow, who Paula met for the first time this year.
"She's really down-to-earth, a real farmer's daughter," says Paula in her familiar native Aghadowey twang.
"We've a lot of connections but had never run into each other. Her sister taught me at school in Ballymoney - she was a fantastic teacher. They lived across the Bann from my aunt and had a herd of Jersey cows. She used to go over to get the lovely creamy Jersey milk from them."
While Paula never got to meet the legendary food critic AA Gill, who died last weekend three weeks after disclosing in his restaurant review that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, she was a fan.
"I loved his columns - they made me laugh out loud," she recalls. "I cried when I read his last review."
Incidentally, Paula and I hadn't met until the autumn of 2015, but it turns out we were at the same small 4 Of Us gig in Kelly's in Portrush, about 25 long years ago.
She was a big fan of the Newry group and admits she was "a bit in awe" when she met the Murphy brothers from the band on the Radio Ulster Saturday Magazine show during the summer.
(They were equally awed by her cooking skills and declared her steak sandwich, prepared live on air, as the best they'd ever had.)
Although, being shy by nature, Paula poo-poohs the very idea of celebrity status but she's an essential element in John Toal's Saturday Magazine show which won two major industry awards this year.
"It was brilliant to see John winning the big music broadcaster's awards too," she says. "He played Pavarotti singing Silent Night on the radio the other day and I went out and bought some of his CDs. That's a sign of a good show when it makes you want to do that. Cherry McIlwaine's the same; she plays good tunes across the board. Her show's good company when you're driving back from somewhere on your own."
Paula goes back to an empty house most nights but her 15-year-old niece Janine, who is "a big baker", stays with her often.
The pair enjoy watching American TV and eating chocolates in front of the fire at Paula's home near the beach in Portstewart, where she walks regularly to make up the 10,000 steps on her new pedometer.
"Angela Harnett (the TV chef/Gordon Ramsay protegee) said 'we're both big girls' and got me on to it. It's a good incentive to walk. I do a lot of steps during the day cooking; I could have 8,000 done by the time I get home and then I head down to the beach and I'll get the other 2,000 in. You don't feel like it sometimes but it's good to stick to it. I'd like to get up to 12,000 in the New Year."
Paula recently downsized to a bungalow, with a smaller garden.
"I was rattling around the other place - it was far too big and the bungalow has half the rates," she explains. "It has a wee garden with an apple tree, which is nice, and I have a log cabin it in - that's where I am now. It's in the ad I did for Spar.
"I keep all my ingredients and equipment and cookbooks in here, separate from the house. I've a good smoker and a drinks trolley with nice gins in here, too.
"The Echlinville one's incredible with ice cubes. It's triple distilled (in Newtownards) and has sea-kelp in it."
Having once run her own successful restaurant in Manchester and worked as head chef in the prestigious Ghan House in Carlingford and Fontana in Holywood, Paula has appeared regularly on television and has written best-selling cookbooks. She lectures in catering at the Northern Regional College and is in constant demand for cooking demonstrations.
She admits to feeling nervous when she has to perform in front of her peers, fearing "being judged".
But she's never off the road for these events and frequently stays overnight, at or near the venues.
One of those was the grand Ardara house in Upperlands, not far from her hometown of Aghadowey.
When she described, in this newspaper, how she saw the resident ghost during her stay at Ardtara, she was contacted by two high ranking, well-known colleagues in the food industry who had very similar experiences.
"One of them saw the same lady I did at the window; the other saw a shadow crossing the bed," she says, not at all surprised.
"I've had a few experiences - I'm in places and the temperature drops and I think 'Oh Christ', then tell them 'I don't want to see you', and that usually works.
"Mum's the same. She could always feel there was something behind her in the house, watching her.
"It freaked her out but she ordered it to leave."
Her parents, Rae and Davy, are both former teachers, now in their seventies.
Paula's favourite Christmas traditions
Christmas Eve is always relaxed. I'll cook a lasagne and there'll probably be some Italian wine on the go, as my old friend James's mother is from Italy.
Christmas Day For the last three years, I've gone to the beach at Portstewart to watch the eejits swimming in Operation Freeze Knees. It's a fundraiser for the Hospice and is always great fun. After that, I'll be heading to my parents' house in Aghadowey for lunch. It's always traditional - turkey, ham, the works.
Boxing Day My brother David and sister-in-law Dorothy are doing lunch. I would never hit the sales - I detest shopping at the best of times and definitely the day after Christmas. For me there'd be nothing worse.
New Year's Eve The run up to the New Year will hopefully consist of walks on the beach, good food and catching up with friends and family. On New Year's Eve itself, other than house parties, I haven't gone out for years and much prefer to be at home and then go out to celebrate the next day when it's not so manic.
Paula’s recipes to make a very special Christmas
Sausage, walnut, apricot and celery stuffing roll with bacon
What you'll need
400g sausage meat
2 small onions, peeled and finely chopped
50g dried apricots, chopped
50g walnuts, chopped
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
10 slices streaky bacon
100g breadcrumbs, fine
Cook the onions and celery in the butter, on a medium heat, until they are soft and golden.
Add the walnuts and apricots and cook for one minute then transfer the mixture to a bowl and allow to cool.
Mix in the sausage meat and breadcrumbs well.
Take a sheet of foil and brush with melted butter.
Place the bacon in a line, slightly overlapping.
Make the stuffing into a sausage shape down the middle of the bacon.
Wrap over to seal the stuffing in the bacon and tightly in the foil.
Bake in a 180C oven for around 30 minutes.
Cool for 10 minutes then brown in a lightly oiled pan.
Sausage, cranberry, orange and thyme stuffing balls
What you'll need
400g sausage meat
2 small red onions, peeled and finely
1 tablespoon picked thyme leaves
Zest 1 orange
75g dried cranberries, soaked in the juice of the orange for two hours or more
Cook the onions in the butter until they are soft.
Add the soaked cranberries with the juice and simmer for around three minutes.
Add the thyme remove from the heat.
Cool and mix with the breadcrumbs and sausage meat.
Roll into walnut sized balls and place on a buttered baking tray.
Cook in a 180C oven for 20 minutes or place around the turkey for the last half hour of cooking.
Spiced red cabbage
What you'll need
1 red cabbage
2 red onions
150ml red wine vinegar
100g brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 bottle red wine
Salt and pepper
Boil the red wine vinegar and sugar with the spices to a syrup.
Add the cabbage and onions and cook down for 15 minutes.
Add the wine and season with salt and pepper.
Cook until the cabbage is soft and has absorbed the liquid.
Remove the star anise, cinnamon and cloves and serve.
Good for non-meat eaters but also makes a nice centrepiece.
What you'll need
1 medium celeriac
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 dessert spoon honey
1 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
300g chopped leeks
100g chopped pecan nuts
200g of your favourite cheese — blue cheese
or goat’s work well
1 pack ready rolled puff pastry
2 egg yolks
Peel the celeriac and then cut into 2cm dice.
Place in a pan with cold water, salt to taste and add the vinegar.
Simmer until just cooked and drain.
Heat the oil in a pan and add the celeriac and 25g of the butter.
Cook until golden and add the honey and sherry vinegar.
Cook for a minute and add the thyme. After this make sure to cool it.
Cook the leek in the remaining butter and add the pecan nuts when the leeks
are soft. Cool.
When the mixtures are cool, mix together and crumble in the cheese.
Set oven to 190C.
Take the pastry out of the packaging and lightly flour a surface.
Roll so it’s two cm wider than the original shape.
Cut off a two cm thick slice and set aside.
Brush the edges of the pastry rectangle with egg yolk.
Spoon the mixture into the middle, leaving a gap at the end, lengthwise.
Seal up and then roll into a circle, sealing with a bit of egg yolk.
Brush with egg yolk and place on a lightly oiled tray.
Cut holly shapes from the pastry strip and dot on top.
Then brush with the remaining egg yolk.
Bake for 25 minutes or until golden
and crisp. Serve.