Obituary: Margaret Costa

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The Independent Culture
MARGARET COSTA was at the height of her career in the late Sixties and early Seventies as cookery writer for The Sunday Times colour magazine as well as food and travel writer, based in England, for the highly successful American magazine Gourmet. In fact Jane Montant, the then editor of Gourmet, once told me that she found Costa one of the finest writers she had ever come across.

She was born Margaret Murphy in 1917 in Umtali, where her father was a senior official in the customs and excise department of the then Southern Rhodesian government. Because of his job, the family moved constantly while Margaret was growing up - including a stint in Mozambique - before they came to England in 1932.

After two years at St Mary's, Ascot, in 1936, Margaret won an Exhibition to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to read English but switched to French in her second year. She graduated with a Second which, according to her professors, would have been a First had she not been so heavily involved in the social side of life and worked only on subjects she enjoyed.

Early on in the Second World War she was employed for a while at Chatham House, then based in Oxford, before moving to London, to a compact, top- floor garret flat in Monmouth Street, London, where she acted as Air Raid Warden for the street. She worked as a senior civil servant, and during this time her love of the theatre blossomed. For some time she was literally the right hand for the blind theatre manager Jack Pemberton.

By the end of the war she was a freelance journalist for women's magazines and actually hired herself out to cook dinners in people's homes - way ahead of the later trend. She also accompanied high-flying businessmen on trips to France where she would translate for them at important commercial meetings. A good friend at this time was Raymond Postgate and she assisted him compiling the earlier editions of The Good Food Guide. By the time she started at The Sunday Times in 1965 she had been twice married; her first husband was Bill Costa, and it was as Margaret Costa that she wrote.

Whilst writing totally inspired weekly articles for The Sunday Times, she met the accomplished chef Bill Lacy and they were soon at the height of the London food scene running Lacy's, their highly acclaimed, but controversial restaurant off Charing Cross Road.

Their passion for fine food came through loud and clear with the most imaginative menus (many of us still drool over the memory of their spinach, turbot and salmon terrine), but it was the innovative and eclectic wine list which was the talk of the town as it was their policy to allow diners to select any - yes any - wine from the list and to drink just what they needed, returning the bottle to the cellar and being charged for the relevant amount imbibed. We all soon caught on to the fact that the final total invariably included one or two glasses downed by the staff during the short journey from table to bar.

Costa literally starred nightly at Lacy's which was besieged with loyal fans from Gourmet. She became genuinely distressed and upset at the smallest hint of criticism and would ask to join the offending table and as a peace offering give generous glasses of the house wine whilst she went through their comments. Of course the diners were soon "eating out of her hand" and invariably left extolling Lacy's virtues.

Margaret Costa translated Paul Reboux's Food For The Rich in 1958 and wrote the highly successful booklet London at Table, but it was her beautifully written Four Seasons Cookery Book (1972) which was her pinnacle. I know of numerous kitchens that have well-thumbed copies which are still referred to each year as fresh seasonal produce comes on the market.

John Tovey

I became Margaret Costa's editor when she joined The Sunday Times magazine in the mid-Sixties, writes Brenda Houghton. (She had previously written recipes for Farmer's Home, a collection of which were published as A Country Cook in 1960). And I can still remember the first meeting with her and the magazine art editor in Margaret's little flat in Monmouth Street to talk through the content of the next few columns. We had finished a bottle of sherry even before we sat down to lunch, and we got back to the office at 5 o'clock - floating. She was always enormous fun to be with, a great girl for a party.

Three things made her a fine and influential cookery writer. The first was her love of good food - she cooked well because she wanted to eat well, and you can absolutely rely on her recipes to taste gorgeous. Secondly, she was passionate about ingredients - then considered an eccentricity. I remember her giving a dinner for Andre Simon on his 80th birthday: she raced over to Earl's Court in the afternoon to buy the cheese that had just won best of show at the Royal Agricultural Show to serve to him. She confounded readers of the magazine by devoting a whole column to salt, pepper and mustard - and thus introduced a generation to something called black pepper.

She reached out to the French chefs who were just attempting the education of the British restaurant scene. Her first discovery was Raymond Zarb, the first Maitre Cuisinier de France to work in Britain, and through him she was soon introducing two young boys in the magazine "who will be famous one day" - Albert and Michel Roux. They, and the chef she married, Bill Lacy, encouraged her quest to insist on the highest standards and accept no substitutes.

Thirdly, but crucially, she wrote in a friendly, enthusiastic style that encouraged people to get up out of the chair and cook. Who but Margaret would describe skinning a fillet of mackerel as: "First you must remove their little mackintoshes". So clear, so unforgettable! Where other cookery writers were read in the living room, Margaret was read in the kitchen, spoon in hand. And in the end it was this - her ability to convey her enthusiasm, to galvanise readers, to welcome everyone into her world, that has kept her memory alive.

Margaret Murphy (Margaret Costa), cook and cookery writer: born Umtali, Southern Rhodesia 1917; three times married; died St Leonards, East Sussex 1 August 1999.