Long before celebrity chefs captured the headlines, Simone Ortega transformed the culinary lives of millions of Spaniards – and reputedly saved countless marriages – with her best-selling 1,080 recetas de cocina, translated into English last year as 1,080 Recipes. Her collection of simple – she claimed, foolproof – home recipes has reprinted 49 times since it first appeared in 1972. With 3.5 million copies sold, her book is believed to be outranked in the Spanish-speaking world only by Don Quixote and the Bible.
With her refined, kindly manner, Ortega was no vulgar populariser, but attained huge fame as the person who taught three generations of Spaniards to cook. "I love it when people come up to me in the street to say I've saved their marriage, or helped them survive when they first left home," she said.
Simone Klein's father was French, from Alsace, an engineer posted in Catalonia. Her mother hailed from Burgundy. The well-to-do family employed a cook. But young Simone was interested in cooking and inherited handwritten notebooks of recipes from her grandmother. When she was nine, the family moved to Madrid where she attended the Lycée Française. Between the early death of her first husband and her second marriage – to the son of Spain's most distinguished philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset – she worked as a children's nurse, ran a guest house, and later opened a do-it-yourself shop.
Her husband urged her to publish her recipes, when she was 53. The philosopher's son and founder of El País newspaper later grumbled affectionately that he was best known as the husband of Simone Ortega.
She worked meticulously on her own recipes which included basic principles of French cuisine that Spaniards welcomed for their supposed sophistication. She tried her recipes endlessly, and assured nervous beginners they need only follow them to the letter to guarantee success. It's said there were only four popular cookery books in Spain before she came on the scene: three harked back to the days of servants, and the fourth was produced by the women's section of the fascist Falange.
The huge success of her best-seller overshadowed a shelf-full of other cookbooks she wrote, some in collaboration with her daughter Inés. And her columns on kitchen tips and culinary shortcuts were as eagerly read on the pages of El Pais as in Hola!
She opted for simple, family dishes, particularly what Spaniards call "spoon dishes" or stews. She disapproved of pressure cookers, but reckoned frozen foods were a great boon to the modern cook. She was never convinced by nouvelle cuisine, or what she called "impossible mixtures". None the less, today's super chefs hail her as laying the groundwork for their imaginative flights.
Ferran Adrià, chef of El Bulli, who wrote the preface to her Catalan and English editions, was an ardent fan. "Without her book, today's boom of Spanish cuisine would never have happened," he said. France awarded her the Order of Arts and Letters in 2006 for her services to French cuisine in Spain. In her acceptance speech she said: "You have made very happy an old lady who always needed friendship, love . . . and chocolate."
Simone Klein Alsaldy, cookery writer: born Barcelona 29 May 1919; twice married, secondly 1949 José Ortega Spottorno (one son, two daughters); died Madrid 2 July 2008.