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Food & Drink: Secrets of Mary's success

AFTER we reported the results last week of the Lurpak/Independent/Four Seasons cookery competition, the requests flowed in: more about Mary, please, writes Emily Green.

Mary MacRae is the 52-year-old sixth-form teacher who was our winner. Many of the contestants were veterans of famous competitions, including Masterchef, but she had never dreamt of entering one.

'It was really an impulse,' she says. 'I started to think about a menu one weekend, and had to write it down quickly because it's a busy time of the school year - which accounts for the scrawly state of my entry.' She has taught all her working life, for the past 10 years at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich, south-east London. And her maturity told in her cooking.

The secret of her success was timeless simplicity: her menu consisted of courgette souffles; a whole baked seabass with lemon and garlic; home-made rolls; rocket salad; roast potatoes; and moulded cream with summer berries.

Her emphasis was on the basic goodness of her raw ingredients. None was more impressive than the fish, which she ordered from a fishmonger named Geoff Griggs (Fisherman's Landing Beach, Range Road, Hythe, Kent, 0303 266410).

'He was so helpful,' she says. 'He said he would make sure the bass I cooked would be one caught by a line and not a net, so it wouldn't be damaged.' It was a spectacular fish, against which flabby, farmed specimens look particularly lacklustre.

Does she require state-of-the-art tools? 'No, I'm more of a garlic press and back-of-the-knife sort of person,' she confessed. And what was her seminal cookbook? 'As for anyone of my generation, it must be the books of Elizabeth David.' Was she nervous? 'I was a bit at first, seeing everyone looking very glamorous and young. Once I got going, though, I didn't have time to worry.'

How did she think she had done? 'I can honestly say it never once crossed my mind I would win. It seemed to me what I did was very ordinary.' The judges' response: if only such good food was ordinary.

The reader recipe column returns next week.

(Photograph omitted)