Monday 23 April 2018

Kirstie Allsopp: 'There's nothing traditional about my life'

She's adding cookery skills to craft-making with the release of her debut recipe book, but TV favourite Kirstie Allsopp insists she's not a domestic goddess - and tells our reporter that her blended family is far from a quaint 1950s' stereotype

Debut: Kirstie Allsopp has published her first cookery book, Kirstie's Real Kitchen. Photo: by Rita Platts © Hodder & Stoughton 2017.
Debut: Kirstie Allsopp has published her first cookery book, Kirstie's Real Kitchen. Photo: by Rita Platts © Hodder & Stoughton 2017.
Kirstie's Real Kitchen by Kirstie Allsopp, published by Hodder & Stoughton on 7th September, £25. Photography by Rita Platts © Hodder & Stoughton 2017.

Leslie Ann Horgan

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 in 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.

Kirstie's Real Kitchen by Kirstie Allsopp, published by Hodder & Stoughton on 7th September, £25. Photography by Rita Platts © Hodder & Stoughton 2017.
Kirstie's Real Kitchen by Kirstie Allsopp, published by Hodder & Stoughton on 7th September, £25. Photography by Rita Platts © Hodder & Stoughton 2017.

"I wanted the book to be an exceptionally honest journey towards food," Kirstie, 46, says today. "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 through to roast dinners, picnics, Christmas dishes and cocktails - there are recipes which Kirstie has borrowed or been taught be others, who 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 in Britain. "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 on: Ireland

Among the recipes in the book is a Chocolate & Beetroot cake that Kirstie first tried when she visited Northern Ireland for the filming of 'Location, Location, Location'. She says she has also been a regular visitor to the Republic over the years.

"I used to visit Ireland a lot to spend time with a friend. My favourite thing to do is buy pottery. I have got so much of [Co Kilkenny potter] Nicholas Mosse's pieces - the work they do there is fantastic. One time I came all the way back with a huge Nicholas Mosse plate with carrots on it and then it broke in Paddington station, which was last stage of my journey.

"One of the nicest times I had in Ireland was a night out in a pub/hardware store that was literally in the middle of nowhere. How is that even possible? It was such a joy. It was actually the first time that I had toyed with a capsule wardrobe, and I was wearing these grey flannel trousers and was very happy with the look. It's such a cliché, but of course I had a pint of Guinness knocked over me within half an hour, and the gentleman behind the bar very kindly mopped up my only pair of trousers!"

Kirstie on: 'Location, Location, Location'

The wildly popular house-hunting show, hosted by Kirstie and screen partner Phil Spencer (below), has run for 18 years and is currently in its 23rd series.

"I am amazed by the love that there is for the show. It came as a complete surprise to me and it continues to. It's a huge privilege to be in someone's living room. I love it, especially when I meet adults who watched it while they were growing up. It's amazing to have travelled all over the country and to have been in so many people's houses - that's how I have seen so many unused kitchens.

"Of course there are days when I would prefer it if no one knew who I was. And the children take full advantage and act like monkeys on trains or planes because they know that I can't shout at them.

"Recently I was having a chat with someone and a stranger came up to say hello. They treated that fan quite dismissively, and I don't understand that. I am always shocked by people who don't appreciate the public who pay their wages. The day that I take it for granted is the day that it's over - and Phil feels that strongly too."

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