Marguerite Patten: Let her eat birthday cake

On Friday 4th November, her 90th birthday, Marguerite Patten, the doyenne of British cookery, will not be enjoying a well-deserved celebratory lie-in as one might expect. Instead, she will be up at 6.30 a.m. to catch the train to London for an interview with BBC Radio 4's "Woman's Hour"--a mere 59 years after she first appeared on the programme.

Then it's off to Covent Garden for a cookery demonstration in the afternoon at Henrietta Green's Food Lover's Fair, where she will sign copies of her latest book with Grub Street, Marguerite Patten's 100 Top Teatime Treats. The book is a reissue of a title originally published 15 years ago by Piatkus as Marguerite Patten's Complete Book of Teas, now repackaged and sporting a tribute from Gary Rhodes on the jacket: "Marguerite Patten gave me my first inspiration to cook."

In the pretty Brighton bungalow she and her husband built in the early 1960s, Patten is a tiny figure who, despite walking with a stick since an accident three years ago, still exudes a sparkling vitality.

Self-made woman

She presides over tea served in fine china cups, with asparagus and brown bread sandwiches and a heavenly raspberry sponge (made by herself, of course), while the telephone rings with messages about a forthcoming television appearance. Marguerite Patten does not believe in retirement.

"In many ways I'm busier now than I was a few years ago," she explains. "My husband died in 1997, and for some years before then he was very unwell, so I turned a lot of work down. Now I'm on my own, instead of saying 'no', I say 'yes.'

"I was at an event at the Imperial War Museum recently, with Dame Vera Lynn and others, and we were sitting there and saying, 'we're all healthy, really'. We're told the wartime diet was healthy and I think it was."

Patten first began cooking as a teenager, producing family dishes to help out her mother, who returned to teaching after her father's early death. She trained as a home economist, but her ambitions lay elsewhere: "I was going to be Lady Macbeth, I was going to be a Shakespearean actress, of that there wasn't a shadow of doubt."

She did a season in repertory and "loved every minute", but then landed a top sales job with Frigidaire, "the big boys of refrigeration", and found her theatrical skills well employed giving demonstrations of this new and covetable technology up and down the country.

During the war, Patten was a Food Advisor, employed by the government to help show the public how to make their meagre rations go further. Working from Harrods in London, she produced her first book--Harrods First Book of Recipes--and her career took off. By now married to an RAF officer, and with a young daughter, she spent the '50s and '60s "going round Britain like a spinning top".

Patten helped launch the first pressure cookers, electric mixers and food processors while writing her cookbooks--most notably Cookery in Colour (1960), which came out with a revolutionary new use of colour in what was "still a very grey world". It has since sold more than two million copies. She was also a broadcaster, first appearing on television in 1947 demonstrating a recipe for eight-minute doughnuts.

From rations to celebrity chefs

Patten is famous for classic British cookery--a cuisine she describes as "at its best, very good; at its worst, like every other kind, absolutely rotten." Her long career has seen her through many culinary changes, as her book Marguerite Patten's Century of British Cooking (2001) demonstrates, with its collections of recipes spanning the decades.

"We changed so much," observes Patten. "In the war the diet was low in fat and very high in vegetables. In one way it was easier then because there was no choice. The British buckled down and ate what they often didn't like--salad with raw vegetables, very little meat, no fruit in winter.

"In the '50s, more fruit was coming in, and things like chicken. Coronation chicken was invented for 1953 and we've all been eating it ever since. Then came the '60s, and we were getting bolder with meat, there was pasta coming in, and we began to flambé everything--we were going up in flames all over. We started with cheese and wine parties and ended with fondues."

Of the current breed of celebrity chefs, Patten says tactfully: "I admire them all in different ways. I admire very much the stand Jamie Oliver is taking about school meals. Gordon Ramsay, I admire his cooking, I think his food is delicious, but I don't like his language."

The photographer arrives, and, although it is that time in the afternoon when many over-70s start to feel the need for a nap, Patten isn't flagging. It's time to share her personal birthday plans: her gift from her daughter is a trip in a private plane to France for lunch. "I love flying," she smiles. "I learned to fly but gave it up when I had to go solo because I suddenly got frightened. I'm promised I can sit next to the pilot so that I can pretend I'm flying. What a lucky woman I am."