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Interview: getting to know Mary-Anne Boermans

by Julia Pal

published on 6 November 2013

Mary-Anne Boermans first came to public attention as a finalist on series two of The Great British Bake Off. Ever since, she has been writing about food and, in particular, the history of British baking. She is now the author of a wonderful book, Great British Bakes: Forgotten Treasures for Modern Bakers. The product of years of meticulous research, the book uncovers many forgotten historical treasures. Each recipe is accompanied by an informative and entertaining introduction from Mary-Anne. It is a joy to read, as much as it is an indispensable guide to baking.

In this fascinating interview with The Happy Foodie, Mary-Anne Boermans introduces us to her food heroes and influences, revealing the names of long-forgotten cookery writers whose work has inspired her as a cook and author.

If you could only keep three cookery books from your collection, which would they be and why?

Dorothy Hartley – Food In England. I love the details and the history of this classic book, not just recipes but all the different cooking, storing and preserving methods. There are even instructions for digging your own hygienic latrine!

Florence White – Good Things in England. Written nearly 80 years ago, Florence White was, even back then, keen to preserve the cooking traditions of Britain before they were eroded by conveniences of modern life. It’s a fantastic mix of regional favourites and history.

My laptop. Totally cheating – but hey, it’s book-shaped! On it are stored electronic copies of all the out-of-copyright books and ancient manuscripts that I could never afford to buy, or are too delicate to handle, but which contain the potential to discover many exciting and long-forgotten recipes.

What was the first cookery book you ever bought?

Poor Cook by Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran. It was back in the early 1980s and recommended by a friend. Its main attraction was that, unlike many recipe books of the time, you could open to almost any page and make whatever you found there from the contents of your cupboards, instead of going out and shopping specifically for a list of ingredients.

Who is your food hero and why?

There were others before her, and many that followed, but I’m going to go for Hannah Glasse. With her cookery book, she stripped away much of the affectation and obsession with a wasteful French influence and presented recipes simply and in a straightforward manner. The recipes might not all have been original, but the enhanced details of her explanations and her clarification of methods was refreshing.

Who is your favourite food blogger?

All of them. Anyone who is prepared to put their cooking ‘out there’ and record their experiences, trials and triumphs, helps us all. That being said, there is one place that has a special place in my heart, and that is Joe Pastry ( His site is a mine of information on baking and cooking skills and is my first port of call if I’m unsure of anything.

Do you come from a long line of great cooks or are you the first passionate foodie in your family?

It depends on your definition of ‘great’ Both my grandmothers and my mother cooked instinctively on next to nothing, because money was tight. Cookery books were few, and rarely read. Improvisation and frugality was key. I’m just trying to follow their example.

Who first taught you to cook and enjoy food?

We were allowed to ‘help’ with cooking from an early age – making turnovers with the pastry off-cuts and cleaning the cake bowl *ahem* – but the formal training, if you could call it that, came with school Domestic Science lessons. It was there that I learned the basics: pastry, cakes, cheese cookery, puddings, meat cookery, bread, etc. Everything else has, to a great extent, been frills.

Which dish says ‘home’ more than any other to you?

Shepherd’s/Cottage Pie. It should be eaten on a Monday and made from the remains of the Sunday roast – Shepherd’s Pie for lamb, Cottage Pie for beef. No vegetables in the pie itself, just meat, gravy and mashed potatoes.

Have you discovered any exciting new restaurants this year?

To be honest I’m happy with ‘fresh’ and ‘tasty’ rather than looking for new and exciting.

How do you make a perfect poached egg?

Add a splash of vinegar to simmering water, swirl into a whirlpool and gently slide in the egg from a saucer. The cooked egg should be completely free from moisture and served on wholemeal toast.

How do you like your steak?

Ground up, grilled to medium and served in a bun.

Is there anything that you just can’t cook, no matter how many times you try?

I was reading this list aloud to my husband, and when I got to this question he muttered “Steak”. After a moment’s affront, I had to chuckle and concede that yes, he’s probably right. I think the main reason is I’m not really bothered about steak (see above), and where there’s no enthusiasm, it shows.

Is there anything you really dislike eating?

Technically, no – because if I don’t like it, I don’t eat it. However, there are several things that I don’t eat at all, including fish, seafood, porridge, marzipan and jelly.

What is your ideal destination for a foodie holiday?

Skipton. We went this year and are going back next year. The town is bursting with fabulous places to eat, it quite puts the (much larger) town where I live to shame. As if that weren’t enough, the glorious dales of surrounding area are just as teeming with fantastic pubs and other places to eat. Great scenery, fabulous food, friendly welcome – sounds pretty ideal to me.

Who would be your dream dinner party guest and what would you cook for him/her?

Mrs Maria Eliza Rundell. Before Mrs Beeton and even Eliza Acton, there was Mrs Rundell and her book A New System of Domestic Cookery formed upon Principles of Economy and adapted to the use of Private Families (1806). She was born nearby, in Ludlow, and her book was a huge best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. To make her feel at ease, I’d just make it simple but full of flavour – roast chicken with all the trimmings and lots of seasonal veggies, and follow it with taster-sized portions of traditional British desserts. We could then have a good old gossip about recipes.

Have a look at Mary-Anne’s cookbook Great British Bakes: Forgotten Treasures for Modern Bakers for classic recipes that are true historical treasures of British cooking.


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