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Long before Delia Smith taught us how to boil an egg and Jamie, Gordon and Hugh burst onto our television screens with their "pukka" recipes and hand-reared roasts, one woman guided us through the most difficult of culinary times.
As a home economist and adviser to the Ministry of Food during the Second World War, Marguerite Patten - who, at 92, still tours the country giving talks on the merits of champ and bubble and squeak - taught a nation at war how to survive on one egg a week and stay fighting fit on a shoestring.
When meat, butter, milk, eggs and sugar were scarce, Patten took Britain back to basics with recipes for cheap, tasty meals. Now, with an updated edition of Best British Dishes due out later this year, her thrifty approach is set to attract a new generation of followers.
Jamie Oliver has already cottoned on, announcing plans for a television series in which he will teach Britain to cook nutritious meals on a budget, inspired, he says, by wartime rationing.
And, as the credit crunch starts to take its toll with inflation, poor wheat harvests and global demand prompting food shortages and soaring prices, many of us may need to tighten our apron strings and rethink the way we shop and cook.
"Food prices really are shattering all of a sudden - even the simplest of ingredients," says Patten, referring to recent reports that worldwide food prices have surged by 55 per cent in the past nine months, pushing up the price of eggs and butter in Britain by 34 per cent and 37 per cent respectively.
"No one would want to go back to doing things the way we did during the war," she continues, "but maybe it's not such a bad thing if circumstances make people look again at how they shop and eat, and reconsider ingredients they may have been ignoring. Too many of us have got into the habit of buying whatever we like, not what we need or what fits into our household budget."
Considering cheaper cuts of meat, she says, is one of the simplest ways of lowering the shopping bill. "People are so short of time, so they buy chops and steaks - things they think cook quickly but can be expensive. The quality of most meats is excellent, and cuts such as best-end of neck and mince are cheap but quick to cook. Stuffed hearts are another long-forgotten dish. They are inexpensive and a wonderful source of iron. So, too, is liver, which is so easily cooked with onions and can be jazzed up in curries."
Mixing and matching cheaper ingredients with more expensive items is another way to have your cake and eat it, believes Patten. "If you want to splash out on a really good steak, but you don't want to spend a fortune, serve it with a selection of root vegetables, which are always inexpensive, like swede, or some lovely hot-sliced beetroot with chopped chives."
Eating seasonally is an often overlooked way of keeping costs down. "As a golden rule, if you buy things in season, not only will you get the most economical price for them, but you will also get them fresher, which means they will last longer. Simple, really."
The original "celebrity chef" - though she is quick to dismiss that such a thing exists - Patten published her first book in 1947. In November of that year, as the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh married, she became the first woman cook on British television in the BBC's Design for Women, showing flummoxed females how to cope with post-war rationing.
Today's chefs continue to look up to her. Ainsley Harriott calls her "the cookery icon of our times", while Jamie Oliver ("a dear friend," says Patten) describes her as one of the "food greats", and is a regular lunch guest at her Brighton home. Both Oliver and the Government have sought her advice on how to improve schoolchildren's diets.
She has written more than 170 books, selling 17 million copies worldwide, and in 1991 was awarded an OBE for "services to the art of cookery". "I considered myself an informer, giving advice to people," she says. "The food was always more important than we were. The problem with celebrity chefs nowadays is that the personality overrides the food.
"Advice was given in a better way then," she continues. "Today they alarm you, but we never did that. It was essential to keep people healthy and happy. Imagine if the men fighting were getting letters from their wives and mothers saying, 'We're so hungry!'?"
For Patten, who remembers when throwing away bread might see you prosecuted, waste is among the worst of all modern-day crimes. Last week, Wrap, the Government's "Waste Resource Action Programme", reported that food waste accounts for 40 per cent of household rubbish. According to Wrap, each person throws away £430-worth of good food every year. "I am shocked by what we waste," Patten says. "In my day, food was precious and you learnt to respect it. Now, very few of us think about what and how much we are buying when we go to the supermarket."
When Patten lost her husband, Bob, 10 years ago, she was forced to reconsider what she did with her shopping when she came home from the supermarket, something she believes many of us could benefit from doing more often.
"When you're unpacking the shopping, have a look at that packet of fresh peas or two portions of fish, and think about whether or not you are really going to eat it all in the next couple of days. If not, put whatever you won't need into the freezer. Frozen fresh peas can always be quickly turned into a lovely pea soup, with a bit of grated potato to thicken it."
But if there is just one piece of advice that she wishes people would take, it is this: "Don't throw out good leftovers." How many of us, she asks, are guilty of throwing away that bag of withered salad that has seen better days, when what we could be doing is steaming or frying the lettuce leaves with a bit of onion as a base for lettuce soup?
And instead of binning the blackened bananas in the fruit bowl, says Patten, mash them up and add them to yoghurt for breakfast. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Think about it - if you have a good breakfast, you shouldn't need snacks later on."
Patten also believes that the Sunday roast leftovers are too often discarded when they could be made into Monday's lunch and Tuesday's dinner. "Any leftover vegetables can go into a Russian salad or be fried up as bubble and squeak with a bit of extra butter. Or is butter a naughty word these days; should it be olive oil?" she adds, mischievously.
As the recession bites, Carole Cadwalladr meets Marguerite Patten, 93, grand dame of frugal cuisine who numbers Jamie Oliver among her disciples.
It would take a little more than global economic meltdown to alarm Marguerite Patten. She has seen it all before. Born in 1915, she remembers the 1930s Jarrow marchers and has lived through every recession since. "I do feel very sorry for people who have lost their jobs. That is awful," she says. But on the other hand, "nothing is as terrible as a world war".
The author of 170 cookery books, which have sold more than 17m copies, she's best known for her work during the war as an adviser for the Ministry of Food. Now she's back in fashion, alongside a rediscovery of thrift cuisine - doing creative things with leftovers and using cheaper cuts of meat.
There has been a recent glut of thrift cookery books, and last week, Sainsbury's published a report on changing patterns of customer shopping called "The New Sobriety". It contains such insights as people "will be very conscious of getting value for money". Patten was employed by the Ministry of Food to make Britain's meagre wartime rations seen more appetising. And Sainsbury's seem to be trying the same trick, recruiting her to the "Food Futures" panel, who compiled the report, to make it appear more interesting than it really is.
It is genuinely fascinating to hear Patten talk about wartime privations and her best tips for getting round them. "The first lesson is don't be defeated. Sit there as if you are planning a campaign. Ask yourself: do we spend too much on food? Over the years, we've tended to ignore the cheaper foods. In meat, we've tended to go for the lovely chops and steaks. But have a look at what clever things you can do with mince, the cheaper cuts or with offal."
There's some evidence that people have begun to embrace this philosophy. Sainsbury's claims that sales of lambs liver and kidney are up 220% and beef brisket 110% since the start of the year. Patten would go further.
"What about hearts? Have you had them? No? Well, that's because you're a modern person. But they're delicious. Stuff them with sage and onion. And cook them very slowly so they melt in your mouth. What about tender, young lamb's kidneys? Mmmm. Wonderful!"
At 93, Patten's enthusiasm for cooking and her desire to pass that enthusiasm on is undiminished. As neat as a pin in a pink and white knitted twinset and freshly done hair, she still travels the country giving talks and has experienced a new wave of popularity among younger cooks: Jamie Oliver, for example, consulted her when filming his Ministry of Food television series.
Patten has a refreshing take on most gastro subjects. She won't use the word "nutrition" because "it allows all sorts of extraordinary people to mount on soapboxes and give extraordinary information". And she won't disparage convenience foods. "The number of times I've been asked to wag my finger and say thou shalt not buy convenience foods. I won't do that. I grew up with a working mother. And I know what a tough thing it is to have three children and a job. And a limited income."
She refuses to lecture, but it's impossible not to come away with the impression that, recession or no recession, we've still got it impossibly good. Patten's wartime recipes included doing creative things with whale meat. "And if I talk about it I shall start to smell it. Ugh. When it was cooked, it was very much a cross between liver and stewing beef and was actually very pleasant. But to prepare, it had a terrible rancid smell." She made chocolate cake from cocoa and potatoes, and ersatz cream out of cornflower and margarine. "It took about half an hour of whisking. And you had to add the cornflour mixture very slowly and carefully. But don't get the wrong idea, it was actually delicious, not unlike a light buttercream."
Her top tips are to rediscover the joys of root vegetables ("lovely swede - top it with cinnamon or breadcrumbs") and use a pressure cooker ("it makes an old carrot young again"). But mostly it's this: "Encourage your readers not to look on the dismal side. I know life is difficult but find the good things, find the rainbow." And don't call it thrifty cooking. "Oh no. That makes is sound second best. It's simply delicious cooking."
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