Mary McCartney, the Queen of Green

Mary McCartney inherited her mum Linda’s passion for wholesome vegetarian food and dad Paul’s enjoyment of a tipple

At My Table author Mary McCartney. Picture / Supplied.

In her light-filled studio tucked up a cobbled mews in an unglamorous corner of northwest London, Mary McCartney is juggling the day’s engagements and talking about her books. On the table in front of us are the hefty volumes that comprise Monochrome & Colour. Published last year, they gather together images taken by the photographer over the past 20-odd years.

There are street scenes, still-lifes, celebrity portraits (actor Gwyneth Paltrow, musician Beth Ditto) and intimate pictures of family members. Here’s musician father Sir Paul and his wife Nancy Shevell, fuzzily caught embracing in his London garden at the reception after their 2011 wedding. There’s fashion designer sister Stella, shot in warm close-up. There’s her late mother Linda, snapped on Polaroid.

The 45-year-old is hugely successful at her day job, in-demand for portraiture, art photography and fashion images, following in the footsteps of her mother — a renowned rock photographer in the late 60s and early 70s. But despite that example, McCartney says she picked up the camera only relatively late in life.

“I wasn’t very into school,” says the energetic, straight-talking mother of four boys. Over cups of tea and slices of lemon drizzle cake, she explains she was “quite a late blossomer. Stella was always sketching designs in bed, obsessed with fashion. But I was, like, ‘I don’t really know what to do.’ And I think it was partly because everyone in my family could take pictures, so I just presumed everyone could do that.”

Now, 17 years after Linda’s death from cancer, McCartney is well regarded for sharing another of her mother’s passions. Recently she published a new book, At My Table: Vegetarian Feasts for Family and Friends. Like her committedly anti-meat mother, her enthusiasm for a vegetarian diet is boundless.

But candid to a fault, McCartney admits with feeling that completing the recipe book (her second after 2012’s Food: Vegetarian Home Cooking) has been “torture”. “It’s so much work. It’s writing the recipes and taking the pictures. And food photography is not spontaneous,” she laughs.

A couple of months after that studio encounter, it’s my turn to play host. McCartney turns up at my door toting boxes of ingredients and cookware. She’s here to make lunch, offering up a four-course sampler of dishes from her book.

I had been given my orders: get in olive oil, pumpkin seeds and garlic. After retrieving a barely used bag of sunflower seeds from the back of the larder, and making an emergency dash to the shop, I am ready. But do I have an electric whisk? I have to inform my multi-tasking guest that I do not.

“Okay, we’ll forget the chocolate roulade,” McCartney replies. “We’ll do the baked plums with fresh basil and amaretti crisp.” I don’t have the heart to tell her I hate marzipan.

She’s instantly to work. First on to the cooker are the ingredients for a warm mushroom salad. Shitake, oyster and chestnut mushrooms are chopped and tumbled into a frying pan with barely a thought as McCartney explains her recipe book’s mission statement. “I’m promoting vegetarianism, and a lot of people think it’s fussy and takes too long and you need lots of exotic ingredients.”

At My Table, though, keeps it simple. “I don’t ever get the time to go out and go to specialist shops. And I presume a lot of people don’t want to faff about with that. I try and make the ingredients stuff you can get at a normal grocery shop.”

McCartney has been a vegetarian all her life. She’s also just launched a blog, P For Peckish, that offers instant and free vegetarian recipe suggestions. It was her mother who first turned Sir Paul, then their four children, on to the health and moral benefits of not eating dead animals. “Mum was really passionate and would say to people, ‘Stop eating that rotting flesh.’ I love her for that.”

But she doesn’t browbeat or guilt-trip menu-planners, preferring an approach that’s not so much carrot-and-stick as, well, carrot-and-shitake. Today’s second course is a case in point. McCartney included a recipe for tostadas deluxe because she loves Mexican food, not least because “it’s really good for beans. I’m more aware of putting different proteins and different food groups in”.

And so to pudding. “Do you like it?” she asks after my first mouthful. “To be honest,” I reply, “I’m not so keen on marzipan, but this combination is fantastic.”

“You should have said!” she exclaims. “Sorry! But how does the basil go? Is it too much?”

“Well, it’s distracting nicely from the marzipan in the amaretti ... ”

“The first time I tried it I made the mistake of cooking the basil and it went all crisp and brown. That wasn’t nice.”

Even semi-professional cooks mess up sometimes. And with recipes like these — where embracing vege virtue doesn’t mean forswearing taste, pleasure or time, nor tracking down pomegranate syrup — everyone should give it a go.

Try Mary McCartney's recipe for black bean burgers.

At My Table cookbook. Picture / Supplied.

• At My Table: Vegetarian Feasts for Family and Friends, by Mary McCartney. Published by Chatto & Windus, Penguin Random House. $56. 

— The Daily Telegraph

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