My friend Marguerite Patten has died just short of her 100th birthday. There will be many tributes to her long career published over the coming days but this my personal tribute to a friend who was a truly influential cookery writer and demonstrator.
Marguerite and her husband Bob lived in Brighton, the south coast town in the UK where I grew up. Amongst all her other commitments she was Cookery Writer on the Brighton Evening Argus - the Argus, as it is now known - and I remember writing to them when fresh out of college to ask for a column, only to be told that they were quite happy with Mrs Patten! Marguerite came to Brighton Tech where I did my home economics training and it was so thrilling to meet a published cookery author of such influence. Our friendship blossomed years later when, as members of the Guild of Food Writers, we attended many of the same events and meetings.
We were both rooted in the utility industries. The Electricity and Gas Boards were big employers of home economists in the 60’s and 70’s to help people with their still-new-fangled domestic appliances, and Marguerite and I both worked on early microwave cookers and were linked through the Microwave Oven Association. To be a microwave expert in the early days was almost a kiss of death to any cult or fashionable food writing: it has taken BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme until 2015 to acknowledge that microwaves do cook (some things) very well indeed!
Both being Sussex-based helped our friendship along: many a trip back to Victoria Station together! She would say things like “You and I have never been paid enough for what we do” - an interesting comment made years ago as recipe writing is still being paid at about the same rate as before the millennium.
Marguerite loved the opera and, never being afraid of technology, had an opera channel on TV at her home as soon as such things were possible. We went to Glyndebourne together but in the autumn, when the performance was not interrupted by finishing your picnic!
Marguerite’s home was surrounded by a garden that gave her much pleasure: she loved roses. The land was not easy as it sloped steeply so the flat lawn at the back was treasured. Hence her horror when some urban badgers discovered it and started digging! Using her old ties to MAFF, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, she discovered that peanut butter sandwiches put out at dusk could save her grass, and thus began a ritual campaign of bribery - which worked!
Until robbed of coherent speech by a stroke Marguerite was still in demand for radio recordings and comments on everything from eating in the war to royal jubilees and street food to serve for community celebrations. She held her own with Chris Evans when he presented the BBC Radio 2 Drive Time show, replying to his quick-fire questioning with aplomb. I asked her once if there was anything she would have liked to do more of? Her reply was a few more shows at the London Palladium would have been fun!
She gave talks for me in Waitrose Food & Home Studios when I was working closely with the supermarket. They always sold out quickly and she was reliably a delight. All she needed was a car to get her to the venue having long-since stopped driving herself and given up her beloved Jaguar. On one occasion, driving back from Salisbury, I arranged a visit to the beautiful Water Gardens at Longstock on the Waitrose farm and estate near Stockbridge. Imagining that I would get the keys and show her around I was surprised when Top Management arrived at the Garden to accompany her. People always wanted to meet Marguerite.
My happiest memory of actually cooking and performing together was at a fund-raising event for Chichester Festival Theatre which we titled Well Preserved! Marguerite talked about cooking in the war and made her favourite apple and orange peel marmalade while I made a ‘modern and exotic’ chutney of aubergines and lemon grass - but Marguerite knew lemon grass from a trip to Australia with their Woman’s Weekly magazine decades before. She quite literally saw the wheel of food fashions go round and round! People connected to the Theatre still talk fondly about that day, and I made a jar of her marmalade for her once a year when teaching preserves at West Dean College and took it to her nursing home.
After her stroke Marguerite did not want visitors as she could not chat to them. One day my friend Janie Suthering and I took a jar of the marmalade that I had made to Marguerite’s nursing home, thinking we would just leave it with the staff, but we were encouraged to go to her room and see her. We were surprised but enjoyed twenty minutes or so with her in which she was able to explain that she tired quickly and her speech deteriorated. But we got by and it was so good to see her. Judith, Marguerite’s daughter, wrote to us that evening to say how pleased she was that we had been and that Marguerite realised she could have visitors, and so a few Guild members did call as the years went by and Marguerite continued to be cared for at the home. Once she was very sleepy but we had taken a posy with lots of herbs like fennel and her beloved lemon grass in it and she smiled warmly when scenting much loved aromas.
My first non-text cookery book was Marguerite’s Perfect Cooking. She taught at least two or three generations how to cook good family food in post-war Britain. Like Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson she was a founding member of the Guild of Food Writers and one of the earliest to be honoured with their Lifetime Achievement Award. I treasure the fact that she was my friend.
Marguerite Patten’s Orange peel and apple marmalade (from my West Dean notes)
Dictated and discussed on the ‘phone from a recipe in The War-time Kitchen, pub Hamlyn
450g sweet oranges
1.2-1.8 litres water
450g Bramley apples
1.4kg granulated sugar
1 Squeeze the juice from the oranges for the children. With all the fruit pulp still in the shells shred the orange peel into your preserving pan. If your shreds are fine add the smaller amount of water, if thicker add the greater amount. Leave to soak for 2-3 hours or overnight, then bring to the boil and simmer gently until the peel is beginning to soften.
2 Peel and core the apples, tying the debris in a muslin bag to utilise the pectin for setting. Dice (not slice) the apples into chunks. Add to the pan with the muslin bag of peel and pips and continue cooking until the apples are a purée and the peel is soft. Remove the bag (squeezing any juice back into the pan between two dinner plates) and add the sugar, stirring until dissolved.
3 Bring to the boil and boil rapidly for about 15 minutes before testing for set as above.
Marguerite said that this was one of her favourite preserves, with a complex flavour and a different texture to pure orange marmalade. It is, however, in her words - delicious!