Photographer turned cookbook author Mary McCartney talks to Metro about carrying on her mum Linda’s legacy through her vegetarian food range.
Mary McCartney is skinning a stick of celery the way one might a rabbit. Dainty slivers are gathering on the immaculate steel surface. As she skins, she chats – extraordinary multitasking to those less blessed chefs (ie me) who are incapable of cooking and talking at the same time.
‘To be honest, I’m making it up as I go along,’ she says airily, chucking the celery into a pot along with some baby leeks and checking the chilli bubbling away on the stove. ‘Really I ought to be writing this recipe down.’
McCartney, sister of Stella, daughter of Macca, is, like her late mother, a photographer by trade but has reinvented herself in recent years as the public face of Linda’s food legacy.
Linda, as you probably won’t need reminding, promoted vegetarian food through the Linda McCartney Foods company and several vegetarian cookbooks at a time when salad leaves were considered an exotic luxury. Her frozen ready meal business is now run by the entire family – summoning up images of Sir Paul discussing the merits of soya mince for the family’s Meat Free Monday campaign in between strumming Hey Jude – but it’s Mary who is leading the company’s latest move into chilled meals.
‘It’s a range aimed at anyone, it’s not specifically for vegetarians,’ she says, fishing out the PR bumf on the new dishes, which include vegetable hot pots and lentil-based cottage pie. ‘They are hearty, convenient and give you two of your five a day.’ (Macca is doing his promotional bit too, by the way – he’s written a song with Mark Ronson to accompany the TV advert.)
McCartney, who published her own cookbook, Food, last year, may be channelling her mother’s family- centric food legacy but in today’s very different, cosmopolitan food scene, she is quietly promoting a minor food revolution of her own.
She hates the proselytising image of holier-than-thou vegetarians and the preconception that it’s a fussy, time-consuming way to cook. Her principles – reflected in the McCartney food range – are a mix of Jamie Oliver bish-bash-bosh and her mum’s down-to-earth New Yorker background. In other words, a belief in easy, nutritious food that just happens to ensure you won’t end up mistakenly eating horse.
‘My mum would do these great custards, pestos, sauces – big tomato dishes such as lasagnes and cheesy oniony pies, which I love,’ she says, chucking smoked chilli powder into the saucepan. ‘She used to call herself a peasant cook, her style was very tactile. It was all about gathering round the table. The kitchen was the centre of the house. I have a strong memory of her caramelising onions – the smell was amazing. She hated to be alone while she cooked.
‘But it was never about being a righteous veggie. The animal welfare and environmental facts are important but there’s no point bashing people round the head with documentaries like Food Inc and The End Of The Line. Far better to entice them with a good meal.’
To be fair, Paul and Linda McCartney’s decision to turn vegetarian while Mary was still at primary school was precisely motivated by ethics: they were tucking into a plate of lamb in a restaurant when they spotted lambs frolicking in the sun; later, they were driving behind a lorry stuffed with caged chickens.
But McCartney says vegetarianism was never an edict. She and her siblings were allowed to eat meat if they wanted to – although McCartney didn’t take advantage of this until she moved out. She ate a tuna sandwich, didn’t like it and went back to being vegetarian.
She agrees it’s much easier to be vegetarian now than in the 1970s. But doesn’t the continuing ghettoisation of vegetarians irritate her? It’s still pretty hard to get a decent vegetarian meal in a restaurant that doesn’t include goat’s cheese and risotto.
Esteemed reviewers still take schoolboy delight in dismissing the country’s piteously few vegetarian restaurants with tired clichés about hemp bracelets and hessian smocks. Even the term veggie has vaguely insulting connotations.
‘Yes, but there is much less of a sense of them and us these days,’ she says, mashing leek soup. ‘People care more about where their food comes from. And you can get good vegetarian food in restaurants. I often ring ahead. Often the chef will suggest something if you do that.’
Leaving aside the fact that calling a restaurant to see if they can cook a meal is a bit like asking a hotel if they are able to provide beds, McCartney is right to pinpoint localism, fresh produce and a greater interest in the origins of food – be it meat or vegetables – as powerful modern food trends. She recalls the moment she realised where food actually came from when, as a child, she ‘stole’ fresh peas from the garden at her parents’ Scottish home and discovered, for the first time, what a potato looked like.
‘Being a city kid, it’s easy not to see vegetables actually growing in the ground,’ Mary says, ‘although there’s a lot of that around, of course. Kids grow up not knowing how to peel an onion.’
For her, the key to eating vegetarian is not viewing vegetarian food as a side dish but as a proper replacement for the meat at the centre.
‘Mum’s real skill was in using vegetables the same way you would meat, like making sure you dressed it in amazing sauces,’ she says. ‘I remember our first meat-free Christmas: my parents were determined to replace the turkey with something you could slice and came up with this baked macaroni cheese roll. My mum was always excellent at knowing what would provide flavour.’
Mary McCartney shows off her veggie cooking expertise with these recipes created especially for Metro.
One Pot Wonder Chilli
2tbsp vegetable oil or olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
200g green beans, topped, tailed and chopped
1 x tin kidney beans, drained
100g veggie mince
1tsp chipotle paste or 1/2tsp chipotle powder
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
4 tbsp water
1tbsp Worcester sauce
1tbsp soya sauce
1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander or parsley
sea salt and black pepper
Heat the vegetable oil in a medium to large saucepan, add the chopped onions and gently fry for 5min. Stir in the finely chopped garlic and chopped green beans, and gently fry for 2min. Increase the heat slightly, then stir in the drained kidney beans and the veggie mince and cook through for a minute.
Stir in the chipotle paste or powder, then stir in the tinned tomatoes, water, Worcestershire sauce and soya sauce. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover with a lid and cook for 30min, checking and stirring occasionally.
Taste the mixture and add more seasoning as necessary. If you prefer it more spicy, add an extra pinch of chilli flakes. The sauce should be rich and thickened. Add the fresh coriander or parsley and cook for a further 5min.
Nice served with rice, or mashed potato, with a dollop of sour cream on top and the watercress and avocado salad.
Watercress and Avocado Salad
1 x bunch (approx 100g) watercress, washed and dried
1 x hass avocado, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
Dressing: 2tbsp extra virgin olive oil ♦ 1tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice ♦ sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
Firstly, remove any tough stalks from the watercress. Then put the watercress and avocado pieces in a medium salad or mixing bowl. Drizzle the olive oil and lemon juice over the salad then season with a pinch of sea salt and a little bit of fresh ground black pepper.
By Paul McCartney Musician
I've been a vegetarian for a long time now and over the years I've seen how the attitudes have changed around the world, so I'm not surprised when I see new research that shows more and more people are increasingly adopting 'meat free eating'. Even 20 years ago, it could sometimes be difficult to find vegetarian options in good restaurants. Now it's great to see more and more choice with some brilliant creative dishes in restaurants, cafés and supermarkets. There is definitely now an overall greater acceptance of being vegetarian.
Linda played a massive part in all this. Over the years, she converted many people we knew. Our friends, people we worked with and even some of our roadies on tour. She had a non-aggressive forcefulness about her. We dreamed that one day you could be driving down the motorway and stop off for some food and there would be options for us and now of course there are. When Linda originally brought out her range she was pioneering. It kick-started a revolution of choice in the food industry. Over the years we saw more and more products being added to the market but instead of being a competitive business woman Linda thought this was great. The more the better.
People don't just see it as an issue about kindness to animals. For us, at the time it was about that. One day I had an epiphany. I was taking animals' lives. These days though, people are better educated about their diets and the health benefits of reducing meat intake but also and crucially the environmental impact that meat production has on our planet. The UN actually produced a report in 2006 (Livestock's Long Shadow) outlining how the livestock industry was responsible for more harmful gases than the transport industry - they said the best thing you can do is reduce your meat intake. For this campaign some interesting research was produced, predicting a 50% rise in vegetarianism in the UK and the idea of 'flexitarianism' becoming more widespread as people become educated about the impact of meat eating on health and the environment. It's becoming more and more clear that one of the most effective things any individual can do to help the environment is to eat less meat.
We launched a Meat Free Monday campaign in 2009 in order to encourage people to look at their diets and make a meaningful change by giving up meat just one day a week. It's not a new idea; it's something that is done in many places around the world. We thought Monday was a good day to do it as many people tend to overdo it at the weekend. People thought recycling was a bit weird at first but now it's weird if you don't recycle!
Over the years Linda's food company has continued to grow from strength to strength. Recently, new chilled ranges were launched in all the major supermarkets and sales continue to rise. We felt now was a good time to launch a national ad campaign to remind people. We wanted to create something really special. Something that really captured the spirit of Linda and what she loved and what she was all about. We worked with the guys at Passion Pictures (I knew them through their work for Beatles Rockband), my son-in-law Simon Aboud worked as the creative director for the project and the kids were all involved too, so it's a family affair. I love the animation and the way we are portrayed as different characters, especially the way some of us are given quirky animal personas. I think she would have highly approved of this, as it shows her looking after her family and all the animals at the same time.
Linda would also have loved the woodland setting and creative detail of the animation, which I think is just beautiful. It's got a classic, timeless feel, which is hopefully reflected by the new recording I did of my song Heart of the Country. The countryside is at the heart of this project, so it felt like the right fit. We were also lucky enough to get Elvis Costello to do the voiceover. He is an old family friend and someone who knew Linda well.
The ad will air from 28 January and will be on TV through February and March. Myself and the whole family are all really proud of it, and we think Linda would be too. Linda's values and ethos from 40 years ago are finally being adopted by many people. We are committed to supporting her vision and ensuring that we play a central role in shaping a healthy future for vegetarianism and meat-free living.
Check it out for yourself: