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Feeding Britain since 1947

15th October 2007

When Marguerite Patten tells you off, she does it so delightfully that it is hard not to take it as a compliment. 'Oh, that's ridiculous,' she says, with a small lipsticked smile, when I make the mistake of calling her Britain's first celebrity chef. 'Absolutely ridiculous.' There is a pause. She pats down her immaculately curled white hair. 'Now, would you like some cake?'

Yet, however she might try to shake off the accolade, events have a habit of conspiring against her. She first appeared on BBC television 60 years ago, showing viewers how to cope with postwar rationing. Since then she has written 170 books, selling more than 17 million copies worldwide. In 1991 she was awarded an OBE. Ainsley Harriott calls her 'the cookery icon of our times', Jamie Oliver is a regular lunch guest and her advice on how to improve schoolchildren's diet has been sought by the government.

Tomorrow she will be presented with a Woman of the Year Award, a distinction normally equated with thrusting young businesswomen who know how to do impressive things involving Excel spreadsheets and lots of figures.

The awards, which celebrate achievements by women at an annual lunch, were established in 1955 by the late Lady Tony Lothian and previous winners include Ms Dynamite, Tina Turner and the charity campaigner Camilla Batmanghelidjh. This year, Patten is being honoured with the Lifetime Achievement award. Her fellow nominees included Sister Frances Dominica Ritchie, the founder of the first UK children's hospice, and Nicola Harwin, the chief executive of domestic violence charity Women's Aid.

At 91, Patten is the oldest ever recipient of a Woman of the Year Award and would no doubt cheerfully admit to believing an Excel spreadsheet was a type of luxurious bedlinen. Her home, an airy bungalow in Brighton, is filled with spotless appliances that appear to have come straight from the pages of a Fifties catalogue for housewives.

'I was the first to cook on television, but I don't think I'm a chef and I'm definitely not a celebrity,' she says in the sort of received pronunciation usually only ever heard in Christmas repeats of The Dambusters. 'My friend Phil Vickery [the chef, not the rugby captain] was saying to me only the other day that I must call myself a chef but I considered myself an informer, giving advice to people. The food was always more important than we were. The problem with celebrity chefs nowadays is that the personality overrides the food.'

She is far too polite to name names. 'Oh I couldn't!' she says with a whoop of glee. 'They're all good friends of mine, you see. I've worked with Ainsley, with Jamie, Antony Worrall Thompson and Brian Turner. I don't know Nigella, but I think that she probably has to exaggerate her mannerisms for television. There might well be a producer saying "Say that again" and often it spoils people. Probably Gordon Ramsay didn't swear as much before he started his programme. I don't particularly mind the swearing but I know my mother, who was an English teacher, would say, "You're using the same word too often." She was a very fine exponent of the English language.'

She attributes much of her own strength of character to the example set by her mother, who single-handedly raised three children after Patten's father died when she was 12. 'We were poor and it was hard for her, very hard. My mother had a big garden and we grew up with far more vegetables than anything else because they were cheap. I think the fact that we're all still going strong is thanks to that. She always told us we could do anything we wanted.'

For Patten, this turned out to be a career as a home economist, although she had a brief dalliance with acting and was accepted by Rada before spending several weeks in repertory theatre in Oldham. 'But by the end of it, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to go back to being a home economist. I loved meeting people, you see.'

She trained at the local technical college near the family home in High Barnet, north London, and was eventually employed giving cookery demonstrations for the Frigidaire refrigerator firm at a time when only a quarter of British households owned such an unspeakable extravagance.

After the outbreak of war, she was appointed one of the food advisers for the Ministry of Food in 1942, giving cookery demonstrations around the country in factory canteens, hospital catering departments and the East End of London, advising people how to make the best of their meagre wartime rations. The eggless fruitcake was a particular speciality. 'The secret is to soak the fruit in tea,' she confides.

'The government now has a finger-wagging approach to what food we should be eating, which isn't right at all. At the Ministry of Food, we were taught never to lecture, but to tempt people, to lure people. That's the single best bit of advice I've ever had. We used to stand in factory canteens and say "Ooh, what a lovely pudding this is! Isn't it a blessing that it wasn't made with an egg?"'

In the same year she married Bob, a highly decorated gunnery officer in the RAF who, by the end of the war, had flown 84 successful missions and survived three crashes. As a couple, the Pattens were a rather formidable wartime match - dutiful, uncomplaining and supported by the sternest British backbones. Indeed, it was only the birth of her daughter, Judith, in 1943 that stopped Marguerite travelling to blitzed-out buildings with her whisk, her perfectly coiffed hair and her perpetual smile.

'When the rockets and doodlebugs started coming, I began to be frightened and thought I really ought to be with my baby,' she says. So she took over the Ministry of Food Bureau at Harrods and in 1947 published her first recipe book and began filming cookery demonstrations for the BBC.

By the Fifties, she was filling the London Palladium with her demonstrations. She has never looked back: 'Television came naturally to me because of my acting experience and, really, I was just doing the same things I'd always done.'

Since then, she has published books at a rate of almost three a year, appeared on Desert Island Discs and become a regular contributor on Radio 4's Woman's Hour. Bob died 10 years ago after 54 years of marriage and she misses him terribly. 'He was the most undomesticated man, but you must remember that I never did anything like fill the car with petrol.'

She still takes great delight in rushing around talking to primary school children about wartime rations and how to make Lancashire hotpot.

Patten is also involved in the School Food Trust, a government-backed initiative that aims to create 4,000 after-school cookery clubs for parents and pupils. Jamie Oliver has sought her advice on his campaign to provide healthier school lunches.

'When he came here for lunch, he thumped the dining table and said, "Marguerite, do you KNOW that some families don't even have a TABLE like this that they can sit round?"' She laughs. 'And I said: "Yes, Jamie, I do."

'I am anxious to get more children cooking. There's no home economics in schools any more, which is all the government's fault.

'In their wisdom they've introduced this ridiculous subject of "Food Technology".' She spits out the words as if they are undercooked spam fritters. 'And all you learn there is how to design a perfect teapot or how to make a packet of flour, never mind about actually using the flour to cook something. It's madness.'

Despite chronic arthritis - she informed her doctor brusquely that she was 'too busy' to have a hip replacement - she continues writing and cooking. Our interview is punctuated by constant offers of crustless smoked salmon sandwiches, freshly made chocolate cake and an exceptionally moist buttered tea loaf. 'I make one batch, then I cut it into three and freeze the portions I don't use,' she says.

It would all be quite exhausting for someone barely half Patten's age. Does she ever feel like taking a long lie down in a darkened room, fanning herself with her Freedom Pass and being brought small platters of Jamie's organic bruschetta?

'I suppose I do feel older than I used to. I suddenly find that a cupboard is too high for me to get at and I know that it hasn't changed height, so it must be me. I never give any thought to dying,' she says. 'I just hope it happens quickly.'

Still, Marguerite Patten is so persuasive, I wouldn't be surprised if she managed to talk the cupboard down an inch or two. All it would take is a winning smile, a tilt of the head and a slice of homemade fruitcake. Made without eggs, of course

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