Blog as Biography – a Fanny Cradock Retrospective

Recently I went on a food writing course presided over by Diana Henry and run at Otter Farm.

There was an eclectic and impressive mix of experience and backgrounds among the twelve of us – there were authors, broadcasters, caterers and social media specialists.

And at lunch I found I was sitting next to a fellow blogger who specialised on the subject of Fanny Cradock. I remembered my mother talking about her, half admiring and half laughing. My neighbour was summing her up in very similar terms.

He’d become fascinated by Cradock’s larger-the-life character, a woman who was wont to cook in her evening dress and pearls, and who became the first television celebrity cook. With her deep voice and smeared over lipstick she looked disconcertingly like a pantomime dame. The riotously colourful piping-bag-dependent fiddliness of some of her dishes as well as her bossiness also made her hard to take seriously, yet it was thanks to her that the British public was introduced to pizza, the prawn cocktail and the cheese soufflé. Her fans range from Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver to Amy Winehouse who cooked a welcome-home Cradock dinner for her husband Blake on his first night back from prison.

fanny cradock
At times she looked disconcertingly like a pantomime dame. By Allan Warren, creative commons licence

I discovered he’d decided to work his way through her vegetarian recipes, posting away on his blog, Keep Calm and Fanny On, about how he’d got on and what the imperious and acerbic Fanny might have had to say about his attempts.

I got home, turned on my computer, found the site and was lost. This was blog as biography, by turns funny, often insightful, intriguing…frequently eye boggling. Painstakingly researched, there is also a strong element of social history which weaves throughout. The not-so-distant past is, indeed, another country.

fanny cradock
Amy Winehouse, an unexpected fan, declared “I’m all about Fanny Cradock.” They both certainly had attitude. By Fionn Kidney (Flickr), Creative Commons licence

Of course I had to ask if he would be a guest contributor for Saucy Dressings, and I was pleased as punch when he agreed. Here’s what he made of my questions.

SD: What made you want to investigate a food celebrity in the first place?

KCAFO: I’ve always been fascinated by food, and love nothing more than reading through dusty old cookbooks or flicking through the food channels on television in search of something new to cook, or a new skill to learn.

SD: Why Fanny Cradock – what was it about her that interested you?

KCAFO: I only vaguely remember Fanny from the TV, more likely from gameshows and chat-shows of the 1970s, but she’s such an iconic name – people still know who she was all these years later. On one of my many rummages around a favourite second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh, I was delighted to find a lovingly bound collection of her 1970/71 weekly part-work series, The Cradock Cookery Programme – I just had to have it! Someone had very carefully put the five volumes together and had them professionally bound, but sadly they had barely been used. Pristine. I spent the next few months reading them every night before bed, chuckling along at the descriptions, chortling at the instructions and cackling loudly at the elaborate, technicoloured presentations. I was hooked. I was sad to discover that very little about her existed ‘on-line’ and what was there seemed to suggest that she was a terrible cook. How could this be with all these fabulous recipes and legacy? It struck me that it would make an excellent project to cook my way through them to see… And so the blog began!

“I spent the next few months reading them every night before bed, chuckling along at the descriptions, chortling at the instructions and cackling loudly at the elaborate, technicoloured presentations. I was hooked.”

SD: What did you notice about her that changed in terms of her style and personality as the series developed?

KCAFO: You know, by the time the series was published in 1970, Fanny had been cooking on TV for 15 years and had published nearly 40 cookbooks… Her style was pretty set by then, very individual, very visual, very colourful. Her motto was ‘Above all, garnish and presentation!’. I love her style – so over-blown, unexpected and full of the most unlikely colours!

SD: There have been many views on her relationship with Johnnie – what is yours? What role does he play in the series? 

KCAFO: I think they were besotted with each other, they were together against the odds for such a long time. I’ve seen their love letters to each other. They were also ultimately entwined in business – and sold themselves very much as a ‘double act’. Johnnie had a section in the weekly part-work devoted to wine – this was his niche and was devoted to helping us match the aspirational food with fabulous wine. Additionally, Johnnie appears from time to time in some of the pic-strips which show you step-by-step how to do a technique or instruction she mentions. Fanny often says things like ‘Even Johnnie can manage this, as you can see…’

SD: What do you think Fanny Cradock did for British cuisine

KCAFO: I could talk about this forever and ever! Recently, I decided to return to education, to complete a Masters in Gastronomy, and this was the focus of my dissertation! She changed perceptions of food after the war, encouraged people to understand and use available produce effectively, brought fun and entertainment to food, and transformed what we think of now as ‘food television’ from dry education to full-on entertainment. She was also a brilliant businesswoman and entrepreneur – she practically invented product placement, but don’t tell the BBC as they never noticed!

“She practically invented product placement, but don’t tell the BBC as they never noticed!”

SD: Why do you think the series was so successful – what need did it fill?

KCAFO: I think by the time the 1970s came around, Fanny had worked hard on television to persuade viewers that hosting dinner parties and buffets in your home, primarily to impress the neighbours that you never really liked very much, was how we should all be spending our time. The weekly part-work was crammed full of ideas certain to impress, each with it’s own full colour picture. It was new at the time, and a change from the recipe pages in the Women’s magazines. A weekly collection entirely devoted to food, for people who were obsessed with food, wanted to look at food all the time, and wanted to talk about it with some authority. Fanny cleverly also ramped up the aspiration stakes by offering equipment and pieces of essential kitchen kit to loyal readers at discounted prices. You too could collect tokens, buy the items Fanny was using and featured in her photos, wow your guests and sit back smug in the knowledge that you had finally obtained ‘Fanny Cradock’s Dream Kitchen’ in your very own home.

Fanny promised her audience that she would enable them to impress ‘that Mrs Jones, next door’. 

SD: You mention on your blog that she came up with some very odd recipes – can you give some examples?

KCAFO: Well, they seem odd now, to modern eyes. She had a playful way with food, and was determined to bring foods of the Continent to Britain, even if you couldn’t get the ingredients here. She included a section ‘Specially for Small Fry’ each week to encourage young children to cook and make things to surprise their parents with. These often involved transforming lemons in to pigs, bananas into candles and eggs into ‘angry chinese men’. It was all about fun. For adults, she gave her own versions of dishes like pizza, using puff pastry instead of dough, that kind of thing. Each dish would be accompanied by sides of elaborately piped mashed potato, coloured vividly with her very favourite green food colouring, always noted to be ‘harmless vegetable dye’.

SD: How has your cooking changed – if at all – as a result of your research?

I’m definitely much more adventurous in my cooking, and have become more obsessed with forgotten recipes and techniques – my collection of old and vintage recipe books has taken over. Fanny was particularly keen on French cookery, so I’ve been learning lots of ‘classic’ techniques, but she loved other cuisines too – especially Scandinavian, somewhat surprisingly. So, I’ve gone on to learn more about that too… Overall, I’m much more aware of seasons, much more aware of reducing food waste, and much more aware of elaborate garnish and presentation! My collection of food colourings has grown considerably too!

SD: What is the next step – biography?

KCAFO: I’ve become so completely obsessed with Fanny! I’ve also become besotted with research and archives. I have a real burning desire to tell the ‘real’ story about Fanny, so for me, the biography is a ‘must do’. I’ve fallen in love with writing too, which is handy!

SD: Which is your favourite recipe, and why – could you also give it, written in a different format (or just tell me, and I will rewrite – it’s so as not to be punished by google for duplication.

KCAFO: I really love Fanny’s recipe for choux pastry – or choux paste as she correctly calls it. It’s only pastry once it is cooked! She makes wonderful Choux Swans with it, with glorious blue plumes of feathers pipes in coloured cream. I think it really sums her up – we don’t often go to such trouble these days. Whenever I make them, people just smile. I did some demos last year as part of the Foodies Festival in Edinburgh, and they were really popular – not just to eat but also to snap and post on Instagram! I think she would’ve loved that!

Water Choux Paste

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 1/2 oz flour
  • 2 oz butter
  • 4 1/2 fl oz cold water
  1. Cut the butter up roughly and place in a small pan with water.
  2. Bring to boiling point to allow butter to melt. Toss in flour, wait a moment until it seethes, remove from heat and beat.
  3. When thick break in first egg and whip until smooth again. Repeat with second egg.
  4. When very smooth, cover and leave to cool at room temperature.
  5. Pipe and bake as required, at Gas Mark 8 for between 12 and 27 minutes depending on size. Pipe large mounds with a wide nozzle for the Swan body and using a thin nozzle, ‘S’ shapes for the heads and necks.
  6. Once baked and cool, slice the top off the ‘bodies’ and divide each slice in two lengthways t make wings.
  7. Whip double cream, perhaps flavoured with vanilla and coloured with blue food colouring until stiff and pipe into the bodies.
  8. Attach the wings and finally stick one end of the ‘S’ into the body to resemble the swans head.
  9. Serve on a mirror to resemble a lake.
Fanny Cradock's chou swans
Fanny Cradock’s chou swans – image courtesy of Keep Calm And Fanny On

Things didn’t always go well for Fanny…… how not to make an omelette…

For a post on another sixties’ cook and food writer, Lee Miller, follow this link.

For a post on the 60s dinner party, follow this link.

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