Food & Drink: The cook of Westminster: Rarely seen and seldom heard, cooks can be a dull lot. But Miss Paterson is very, very different. Emily Green meets London's doughty, dizzy grande dame of dinner

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The Independent Culture
JENNIFER PATERSON prefers 'receipt' to 'recipe'. It was current in her youth, she says, 'in the days before the war, when people spoke English'. Miss Paterson herself speaks English with throaty grandeur. She rolls her r's and strikes her t's in a fine old voice deepened over the years by spirits, Woodbines and a thundering laugh - har] har] har]

Her mother said receipt, too, though her mother never cooked. 'Nobody did,' says Miss Paterson. 'My mother belonged to the era where everyone had a cook, however bad. And food was disgusting.' Miss Paterson, however, not only cooks, she loves it. She might be heard cleverly pipping young chefs and foodwriters to answers in Radio 4's Food Quiz, or teaching listeners how to make mayonnaise on Woman's Hour, exhorting home cooks in her beautiful big voice to let the oil 'Drip, drip, drip]'.

She contributes monthly articles to the

Oldie. But she is best known as the eccentric caterer for weekly lunches served at the Spectator magazine from 1970 to 1988, and for her delightful book, Feast Days. This was compiled from recipes that eventually appeared in the Spectator, when, after 14 years as cook, Miss Paterson began writing a cookery column.

It all started racily enough. As magazine cook, she used to sport a spangled helmet and deliver the raw goods for lunch on the back of a 90cc Honda motorcycle. Biking was something she picked up by chance. She recalls, 'I was working at a very peculiar school in Padworth. One of the masters arrived with one of those men's complaints before Aids - VD - and he left his motorbike behind. I started riding it. And I bought it.'

Alexander Chancellor was editor of the Spectator when Miss Paterson took over the Doughty Street kitchens. He remembers her as 'drunk, disorderly, quite a good cook, really. I fired her once. I can't remember for what. She had this fantastic trick of not leaving. She just stayed.' It was his successor, Charles Moore (now editor of the Sunday Telegraph), who expanded her brief to cookery writing.

Her friend A N Wilson, the novelist, columnist and ubiquitous young fogey, writes in his introduction to Feast Days: 'I can remember sitting opposite Mr Enoch Powell while he discoursed upon one of his favourite themes - as it were, the American takeover of the world, or the primacy of St Matthew's Gospel - and watching Jennifer come up behind him, tickle the top of his head and say in a baby voice - 'Coochie-coochie-coo]' '. Prince Charles was served ceviche, or, as she described it to him, 'Raw fish, Your Majesty'. It only occurred to her later it should have been 'Raw fish, Your Royal Highness.'

Miss Paterson is fond of describing herself as 'a spinster of the Parish of Westminster', then cackling madly. Rather more soberly, for the record, she says, 'I don't think I ever required to get married . . . I think I was a bit of an old pirate.'

Marriage might well have meant 12 children. Miss Paterson is a devout Catholic. 'My great grandmother had 50 grandchildren,' she says. She attends Mass every Sunday, every day in Lent. Poaching eggs correctly Paterson-style requires saying two Our Fathers and one Hail Mary. She has had her doubts, she says, 'But you just cling on. You just cling on, dear.'

Most of us would benefit from a leaf of Miss Paterson's book of clinging. She has clearly suffered in her life. She does not appear to be rich. Quite the contrary, it would seem the kindness of strangers and her extreme charm have sustained her. Perhaps only a Catholic could make such a true bon viveur. She is positively gleeful when a good thing lands before her. A plate of gleaming oxtail stew elicits, 'I must say that's wonderful] Really gluggy]'

Facts, particularly dates, bore her. What little family history can be winkled out is as sketchy as it is dizzying. She was conceived in China but born in England, to return to China three months later, then back to Blighty (Kensington and Ramsgate crop up). From the Blitz she sheltered all over the shop (Hereford is mentioned). Immediately following the war, there was a stint as stage manager for the Windsor Repertory and in art school in Kingston. Then her family took her to Germany, shortly after which she moved to Portugal to teach English. Somehow she ended up in Padworth, where she bought her bike.

When a good friend, the Yorkshire hotelier Peter McCoy, first met her 20 years ago, she was staying in the Eaton Square flat of Violet Cripps. 'The Honourable Mrs Cripps, actually,' says Miss Paterson. 'I didn't have anywhere to live, and she was in a nursing home, and her son said I could live there.'

From there she moved to Emery Hill Street in Westminster, which she shares with her devout uncle. Here she patters around listening to Radio 3, drinks pink gins, runs up columns, and, when she lacks the odd ingredient, pops around the corner to borrow it from Nico Ladenis's nifty little bistro in Rochester Row.

Here follow three of her receipts from Feast Days (Grafton/HarperCollins pounds 5.99):

'I WOULDN'T like you to think that the Spectator's wonderful Patrick Kavanagh is the only film star in our firmament. I too have been wandering through Tinsel City. I was roped in for the banquet scene (very appropriate, hein?) in Derek Jarman's film Caravaggio. I was picked up at 7.30am, taken to a warehouse on the Isle of Dogs, painted and primped, clad in splendid robes and ruffs, dusted down with fuller's earth for some reason best known to the producer, remained there until 10.30pm being constantly fed by a feeding van outside on the wharf and sitting around with several cardinals and courtiers; and if you blink once, I doubt you will catch a glimpse of me. It was all great fun, but Lord it does take time.

'Enough of all that; winter is here. I

have already got a cold, thanks to new central heating, and my thoughts are turning to the casserole pot and lovely rich stews. Beef roulade is a very good dish.'

BEEF ROULADE

Serves 4-6

6 thin slices beef, known as beef olives

6 slices of unsmoked back bacon

1 large onion

2 cucumber pickles

big bunch of parsley

2 large cloves of garlic

2 tablespoons of tomato puree

400ml/12fl oz Burgundy

salt

pepper

plain flour

Chop the parsley and onion finely, slice the cucumber pickles lengthways to get six uniform pieces. Spread the beef olives out on a board or suitable surface, squash the garlic and anoint each piece of beef with it, rubbing it in well. Season with salt and ground black pepper. Spread the onion and parsley mixture over each slice as fairly as possible, then lay a slice of bacon and one of cucumber on each. Roll up each little parcel neatly and secure with toothpicks or cocktail sticks. Dredge with flour. Heat some bacon fat or butter, or both, in a large heavy frying pan, the brown the beef roulades all over. Remove from the pan and place in a snug casserole. Pour the wine into the frying pan, bring to the boil, scraping any little bits left from the frying into the wine, mix in the tomato puree and pour over the meat in the casserole. Cover and place in a preheated oven at 150C/300F/Gas 2. Cook for an hour or an hour-and-a-half until quite tender. Check the seasoning and serve with some plain boiled noodles and an endive salad adorned with chopped black olives.

WHEN the lady says endive, she means endive. For chicory, she prefers 'witloof'. Miss Paterson writes: 'I went to a lovely party the other day all in the aid of Dutch chicory. The party was fun because all the Dutch people were so nice. A beautiful girl called Irene gave us excellent drinks, and then we were to have a chicory luncheon - which was disastrous, as the apparently famous chef Vogel from Amsterdam had to be left behind with a stomach-ache . . . There is always a muddle in England as to which is chicory and which is endive. The chicory are the white bomb-shaped ones with green edges. Its real, glorious name is 'witloof', like a character from one of Wagner's operas. If everybody would call it witloof, there wouldn't be any trouble.'

WITLOOF BRAISED

UNDER CHICKEN

Serves 4-6

1 roasting chicken (1-2kg/2-4lbs)

6 plump witloofs

1 lemon

1 tablespoon chopped tarragon

85g/3oz butter

salt

black pepper

Cut the witloofs in half longways with a stainless steel or silver knife and place, cut side down, in a well-buttered baking dish or an enamelled or earthenware dish. Dot all over with an ounce or so of butter and grind some salt and pepper sparingly over them. Then squeeze on the juice of half the lemon. Place in a preheated oven at 150C/300F/Gas 2. Cook for 30 minutes.

While the witloofs are braising, rub the chicken all over with the other half of the lemon, squeezing some juice into the cavity. Work the rest of the butter with the tarragon and salt and pepper. Anoint the bird with this mixture and put a bit inside as well. Salt and pepper the skin and rub it in. When the vegetables have done their 30 minutes, remove them from the oven, place a rack over the dish and sit the chicken on top. Return it all to the oven and raise the temperature to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Cook for half an hour, then turn down to 175C/350F/Gas 4 and cook for another half hour. Baste now and then with the juices collecting in the witloof dish.

When the chicken is ready, take it out and put it on a hot dish surrounded by the now succulent vegetables and all the juices. I should serve it with plain boiled rice and a tart

tomato salad.

PARSNIP AND GARLIC

CREAMED PUREE

'Parsnips are an excellent accompaniment to many winter dishes, though many were turned against them in youth,' Jennifer Paterson writes. 'I defy any parsnip-hater not to be wooed by this method of cooking them.'

Serves 4-6

1kg/2lb parsnips

5 cloves garlic

60g/2oz butter

300ml/ 1/4 pint thick cream

salt

pepper

Peel the parsnips, quarter them and cut into little chunks. Have ready a saucepan of boiling salted water, throw in the garlic cloves for a few seconds, then fish them out with a slotted spoon and peel. Put the parsnips and the garlic in the boiling water, cook until tender. Strain well, then pass the vegetables through a sieve, or whizz to a puree in some machine. Beat in the butter and then the cream, season with salt and ground black pepper. Spread the parsnips evenly on a gratin dish, then grill briskly until you have a nice brown crust. You can do all this in advance if you wish and just heat up in the oven when desired. It's a dream.-

(Photograph omitted)

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