Food: Patten's century

Marguerite Patten, doyenne of British cookery, has educated the public through the years of rationing, and the years of excess. She talks to Michael Bateman about the food revolution of the 20th century
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The Independent Culture
"BRITAIN LEAVES the 20th century as the most cosmopolitan food culture on earth." Thus speaks Britain's most venerable cookery writer, Marguerite Patten, OBE, whose cooking career has spanned the larger part of it (she was born in 1915).

For those with long memories this is an astonishing thought. The food culture into which she was born was so formal that it was considered impolite to comment on your food. Eating patterns were so rigid that you knew what you would be eating almost every day; a joint on Sunday, cold meat on Monday, cottage pie on Tuesday and so on.

There is no such restraint now. We have become a nation of foodies, eager to experiment with every ingredient and cooking style. We are subjected to a barrage of information on the subject and can get hold of the most unusual ingredients.

When historians come to assess how our food culture underwent this revolution, they could do worse than consult Marguerite Patten's Century of British Cooking which records dish by dish and decade by decade, how it all happened.

Marguerite Patten is a lively 84. Last week, she gave a cookery demonstration of wartime dishes at the Imperial War Museum in between visiting television studios and giving a talk at Harrods. Her connection with the store goes back to the war, when she ran a Ministry of Food bureau there, mounting imaginative campaigns to deal with the desperate shortage of ingredients.

She rose to prominence in the postwar years, becoming one of the first food broadcasters, on Kitchen Front, and then on Women's Hour. Along with Philip Harben and Fanny Cradock, she was also one of our first television cooks, though she never achieved the kudos that Harben, and others who followed, did.

"People forget that rationing continued right up to 1954, which is the year that fats, including cheese, finally came off points," Marguerite reminds us. After a wartime diet of potato-based dishes and omelettes made with dried egg powder, the gradual reappearance of what we now consider to be the most banal produce was welcomed with rapture.

"I remember the excitement when the first bananas were imported again," says Marguerite, "and oranges, and especially lemons. Until then, we had had to make do with a horrible lemon substitute. It made such a difference."

By the end of the Fifties, even tinned fruit was still considered an enviable luxury. There was a huge appetite for glamorous food, a fact recognised by Paul Hamlyn, who commissioned Marguerite Patten to assemble the most ambitious cookery book since Mrs Beeton. The result, Cookery in Colour, was published in 1960 and rapidly became the bestselling cookbook in the world with sales of over 2 million.

"After years of greyness it was a cheerful book," Marguerite recalls. "That was important. The pages themselves were yellow, orange, pink and green." There were 1,085 recipes, and Marguerite cooked every single dish herself. In it, she celebrated the arrival of the avocado pear and novelties like quiches. "No one had ever heard of cholesterol, so there were a lot of recipes with eggs, and meat was very popular because we had gone for so long without any," she remembers.

Mixers and liquidisers were making life easier for the home baker and puddings were becoming very popular. "There were a lot of creamy desserts, because we hadn't been able to get hold of cream for so long. The age of the dinner party was just beginning and people were starting to decorate food like fury. Everything was piped with cream."

Naturally, many of the dishes look dated now, but they represented the height of sophistication in her day. Until then, spaghetti came from Heinz tins and olive oil was something you bought over the chemist's counter to clean out your ears.

Over 160 books, notable for their practicality and reliability, have followed. Marguerite has logged world sales of 17 million, which makes her the most prolific cookery writer ever.

Looking back, it seems that Marguerite Patten may be said to have been the midwife to the sickly infant that was British cooking, and the one responsible for nursing it into lusty adolescence. But how could she have foreseen that it would have matured into the extrovert, world food sophisticate it is today?

Marguerite Patten's `Century of British Cooking' (Grub Street, pounds 25) is available to Independent on Sunday readers for the special price of pounds 20, including postage & packing. Send cheque or postal orders to Grub Street, The Basement, 10 Chivalry Road, London SW11 1HT

A CENTURY OF BRITISH COOKING

1900-10 Beginning of the Edwardian era. Huge differences between living standards of the rich and poor. Escoffier brings French influence to British cooking. Mrs Beeton's 1861 book, Household Management, is still followed in many homes.

What we ate The well-off eat foie gras, ice-cream, asparagus, kedgeree, devilled kidneys, Victoria sponge. The poor make do with porridge and bacon, bread and margarine and tea.

1910-20 Life changes dramatically after 1914. Men called to the Front, women start working in factories. Food shortages lead to rationing in 1918.

What we ate Pre-war: souffles, anchovy paste, oyster cromeskies, champagne sorbets. During the war: bread soup, nut rissoles, condensed milk cake

1920-30 Era of first film stars, flappers and the cocktail craze. Good Housekeeping magazine was launched in 1922 and soon became a favourite.

What we ate High teas (cold ham, tinned sardines, and salads), bloater pies, stewed eels, canned peas, flapjacks, steamed lemon pudding.

1930-40 Unemployment soars; gathering clouds of war. Rapid modernisation in the kitchen: home fridges, electric toasters and improved ovens. Domestic Science introduced in schools.

What we ate Soused herrings, shepherds pie, steak and kidney pie, treacle tart, coffee walnut cake, Battenburg cake. 1940-50 Rationing comes into force in 1940. The Ministry of Food sets nutritional objectives. Introduction of school meals, milk, cod liver oil and orange juice improves nation's health. Shortages lead to imaginative cooking.

What we ate Potato and bacon omelette (using dried egg powder), faggots, pease pudding, apple crumble, carrot cake.

1950-60 The era of the teenager, coffee bars and blue jeans. Convenience foods, tea bags and instant coffee become widely available. First television cookery demonstrations by Fanny and Johnnie Cradock, Philip Harben and Marguerite Patten.

What we ate Coronation chicken (to mark Queen's coronation in 1953), fried scampi, vol-au-vents, lemon meringue pie, baked Alaska.

1960-70 Beatles and flower power. The dinner-party decade - dishwashers, food processors and other labour-saving appliances made home-entertaining more attractive. People start eating garlic, olive oil and pasta.

What we ate Prawn cocktails, cheese fondue, coq au vin, spaghetti Bolognaise, pavlova, Black Forest gateau.

1970-80 Edward Heath takes us into the Common Market. Health foods such as brown rice, wholemeal flour and bread become popular. Nouvelle Cuisine imported from France, aubergines, courgettes, fennel and basil from the Mediterranean, bean sprouts from China, kiwi fruit from New Zealand.

What we ate Vichyssoise, sweet and sour pork, avocado and seafood salad, chilli con carne, pecan pie, bread- and-butter pudding.

1980-90 The Thatcher Years. Health concerns about food, and recognition that too much fat in our diet contributes to high rate of heart disease. Madhur Jaffrey and Ken Hom demystify Indian and Chinese cooking on television. Sun-dried tomatoes arrive and supermarkets import strawberries and asparagus all year round.

What we ate Grilled goats' cheese salad, beef Wellington, turkey with cranberry sauce, Chinese stir-fries, risotto alla Milanese, banoffee pie, tiramisu.

1990-2000 The Gulf War. USSR breaks up, as do members of the Royal family. The decade of the Mad Cow fuels fears about food safety. Rise of organic food movement. Britain embraces foreign food culture. Divide between food sophisticates and those satisfied with convenience food.

What we eat now Prawns in lime and coconut, twice-baked cheese souffle, polenta au gratin, pesto, Thai green chicken curry, sticky toffee pudding.

CLASSIC STEAK AND KIDNEY PIE

Serves 4-6

shortcrust pastry (see recipe below)

675g/1lb 8oz stewing steak, diced

225g/8oz ox or lamb's kidneys, diced

25g/1oz plain flour

salt and freshly ground black pepper

50g/2oz beef dripping or fat

450ml/34 pint beef stock

150ml/14 pint red wine or more stock

To glaze:

1 egg, beaten

Make the pastry.

Mix the steak and kidney together. Blend the flour with the seasoning and coat the meat. (The easiest way to do this is to put the seasoned flour into a large bag, add the meat and shake firmly.)

Heat the dripping in a large saucepan, add the coated meat and cook steadily for about 10 minutes, stirring all the time. Gradually add the stock, bring to the boil and stir until slightly thickened. Then pour in the wine or more stock. Cover the saucepan; cook gently for one and a half hours, or until the meat is nearly tender. Cool. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6.

Spoon the meat with a little of the gravy into a 1.5 litre (212 pint) pie dish with a pie support. Save the rest of the gravy to serve with the pie. Roll out the pastry and cut out narrow bands to fit around the edge of the pie dish. Roll the rest of the pastry to cover the filing. Moisten and seal the edges and flute neatly. Make a slit on top for the steam to escape. Use any leftover pastry left to make a rose or tassel and pastry leaves: press on top. Brush all the pastry with the beaten egg. Bake the pie for approximately 40 minutes. If the pastry is becoming too brown lower the heat slightly.

If you prefer to use puff pastry start the cooking in a preheated oven set to 425F/220C/Gas 7 and lower the heat after 20 minutes.

SHORTCRUST PASTRY

175g/6oz plain flour

75g/3oz butter (or half butter and half lard)

pinch salt

cold water to mix

Sift the four and salt into a mixing bowl. Cut the fat into small pieces and drop into the flour. Rub the fat into the flour with the tips of your fingers then add sufficient cold water to make a firm rolling consistency. The exact amount of water depends upon the type of flour used so always add this slowly and carefully. Knead gently, roll out to a square or oblong shape on a lightly floured board. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes. This process known as "relaxing" makes the pastry easier to handle.

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