Jo Denbury, Features Writer
Lesley Waters has a familiar face, especially when she is in her whites. Many will recognise her from her years on television as the chef on Ready, Steady, Cook and regular appearances on ITV’s Good Morning. In real life Lesley is as down to earth as they come.
‘People don’t believe in their food,’ she says, ‘they think that the more complicated it is the better it is but, in reality, food is about truth.’ Which is why she is so happy to be living in Halstock with access to the best local produce that Dorset and Somerset can provide.
There is nothing Lesley likes more than a Sunday roast, so when it comes to Christmas, dinner at the Waters' is a traditional affair. ‘We always order a turkey from a friend in Evershot,’ she says, ‘then I do a baked ham with apples and cider. I also make instant Christmas puddings that are much lighter, gluten-free and without any suet. There is always a chocolate pudding and also a nut roast for my daughter who is vegetarian, although we all love it.’
Married, with a son and a daughter, Lesley has family and friends coming for the festive occasion. ‘This year,’ she says, ‘old friends are coming with their kids so there will be lots of “naughty food” but we’ll start the day with a breakfast of Eggs Benedict with my ‘cheats’ hollandaise sauce. It’s a classic breakfast that keeps us going until about 5pm which is when we have the turkey. We don’t have pudding until much later in the evening and then we always finish up with a cheeseboard at about 1am.’ Lesley admits that the family are ‘movie nuts’ so the day wouldn’t be complete without watching Mr Smith Goes to Washington or You Can’t Take me with You and, of course, Frank Capra’s A Wonderful Life.
Her farmhouse, built from local stone and clad in blackened wood, couldn’t be a more idyllic setting for Christmas. It overlooks rolling hills, snaking lanes, trees and sheep. It’s a perfect backdrop for her cookery school where she runs daytime courses as well as catering for weddings and celebrations. However, at this time of year a little preparation is going into making homemade goodies for friends and family.
There is a simple chutney of pears, tamarind, red onion and beer simmering in a pan. The vapour fills the kitchen. ‘What I like best about this chutney is that it is instant,’ she says. ‘Pop it in a Kilner jar and it would make a perfect present for friends, ideal as an accompaniment to cold cuts or cheese or even on toast on Boxing Day.’ Lesley also makes her own mincemeat. ‘As a family we don’t like lard or suet, so this isn’t a long-lasting mincemeat and we keep it in the fridge.’ The heady mix of brandy (or local Liberty Field’s apple liquor), sour cherries, brown sugar, grated lemon zest, cranberries, raisins, apricots, grated Bramley apple, pistachio and almond nuts, is filling the kitchen. ‘Again, it makes the perfect present for friends on Christmas Eve,’ she adds, ‘a treat that can be turned into tasty pies.’
Next up on the present list is Posh Fruit & Nut - something that kids love to make and is very simple. Lesley slowly melts dark chocolate and spreads it over baking parchment. Then she does the same with milk
chocolate and drips this over the cooling dark chocolate. A light sprinkle of nuts, cherries and cranberries followed by a cooling line of melted white chocolate or marshmallows and it is left to set before being broken up and wrapped in tiny bags with bows.
The ease with which Lesley goes about her craft is no great surprise. Despite having lived in Dorset for over 16 years her roots go back to London. ‘I think my interest in food began when my Uncle’s boyfriend, a chef, came at Christmas. He brought all this amazing stuff to eat and it introduced me to the idea of being a chef.’ She studied French Cuisine at Ealing College and won a working scholarship to the Intercontinental in Dusseldorf. She then went on to work for Prue Leith where she rose to senior chef. ‘Prue was very into British food in the ‘80s AND a woman, which then was quite rare for a chef. It was a very happy time and one of the best things I did.’
In fact, it was Prue who said, ‘Never garnish with anything that isn’t relevant to the dish,’ which is something that Lesley has carried with her throughout her career. ‘Being a chef is not about pretention, it is about food that you can cook, that you want to eat and is accessible. I don’t want to eat spun sugar or a foam. I don’t want anything that has cr**p on it,’ she adds.
Lesley is grateful for her time in Dorset. ‘You don’t really understand the seasons until you have immersed yourself in the countryside. People love coming to my cookery school here because they love getting away. As one of my getaways, I like visiting Sherborne - it has fantastic bric-a-brac shops and Chapter House Books is one of my favourite places. In my dreams I would open a bookstore for cooks in Sherborne.’ She smiles, lifting the spoon to taste the homemade chutney that she is simmering. Clearly her friends are in for a treat this Christmas and, without doubt, Lesley is here to stay.
The recipes featured in this article are available online at lesleywaters.com