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Norfolk writer’s traditional recipes create following among today’s celebrity chefs

Mary Norwak at a book signing. She sits at a desk holding one of her cook books and looks into the camera
Mary Norwak specialised in regional British food and wrote more than 100 cookbooks

Mary Norwak was one of Britain’s first domestic goddesses. From her kitchen in the North Norfolk coastal village of Cley, she became a nationally acclaimed cook. She broke new ground with her culinary advice and knowledge while producing more than 100 cook books in her 50-year writing career.

Now her recipes and methods of handling and presenting British food are making a remarkable return in Britain’s top hotels and restaurants.

Mrs Norwak became renowned for her knowledge on regional and British traditional cooking. Film directors and television drama sought her advice to prepare authentic meals for photoshoots. But the bulk of her work was aimed at preparing, preserving and cooking meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables for family meals.

‘She just loved food and cooking’ says her daughter Sophie Archer who lives in the neighbouring village of Blakeney. ‘Christmas was always special with a huge turkey and all the trimmings. She loved cooking for gatherings and special events like Christmas or any festival. The house was always full of lovely cooking smells and nice things to eat. She just loved entertaining.’

A flint and brick house in Cley village was Mary Norwak's home where she wrote her cook books
Mary Norwak wrote many books from her Cley home

Mary Norwak was a believer in substance over style. She wrote recipe books using wholesome food at a time when meal times were observed by families and when everyone sat at table eating, sharing the day's news and ‘minding their manners’.

Mrs Norwak was not a great fan of celebrity chefs, but was at the real cutting edge of new trends. She appeared on television and in film as well as giving talks and demonstrations.

She broke new ground when freezing became popular and was known as ‘the freezer lady’ after writing three books on home freezing which embraced the new style of preserving fresh ingredients. Her Guide to Home Freezing, Home Freezing: A beginners Guide and the A to Z of Home Freezing were huge successes. They, along with many of her books, are still available on Amazon and online bookshops.

Mary Norwak was a writer all her life. She began by writing about fashion for trade magazines and later moved to Vogue magazine. But her interest in cooking, dating from the age of eight, was what established her writing career and made writing her lifetime’s work.

Her first cookery book was published in 1960. It reflected the times with the title The 5 o’clock Cook Book - A Collection of Family Recipes for Tea-Time.

The Five o'clock Cook Book was Mary Norwak's first cook book.
Mary Norwak's first cook book was published in 1960

Her best-known work was English Puddings: Sweet and Savoury which was published in 1981. It remains a standard reference and includes a traditional figgy pudding dating back to 16th century England.

Traditional favourites in the book include Steak and Kidney Pudding, Bread and Butter Pudding, and Pease Pudding. Other dishes include flummeries, syllabubs, fools, fritters, dumplings, pies and tarts, along with the history of each dish.

Mary Norwak’s cook-book career began when, while working as a fashion journalist she and her husband moved from London to Essex. Sadly, her husband died in his thirties and she was left, at the age of 36, with three children aged three, five and nine.

Mrs Norwak moved to Cley in 1975 and combined her loves of cookery and writing. Cley became her adopted home, and she played a leading role in the local community while writing her cookery books and writing on all things culinary for leading national newspapers and magazines.

Mary Norwak, as an authority on British cooking, was prepared to tackle any culinary challenge and even cooked a coypu trapped on North Norfolk’s Cley marshes for Anglia Television, the regional broadcaster.

She embraced the coypu challenge explaining that the coypu, a river rat native to Argentina, had been on the menu in South America since time immemorial. Coypu, or swamp beaver, are a large semi-aquatic rodent weighing about 6.5 kg (14.3kbs) and are around 52 centimetres (20 inches) long. They were introduced to Norfolk in 1929 to be bred for their fur. When cooked, they apparently taste like a cross between turkey and pork. But some coypu escaped into the wild and became a major pest. They damaged flood defences, crops and caused a threat to wildlife with 200,000 living wild in East Anglia at one time. They were finally eradicated in 1989.

Mary Norwak’s 40th cookery book - East Anglian Recipes: 300 Years of Housewife's Choice - was just one of three books she published in the same week in 1978. Her fame crossed the globe.

Two recipe books by Mary Norwak on a surface with cooking apples and eggs
English Puddings still has an enthusiastic following

But she also collected cookery books as well as writing them. Her collection of 4,000 cookery books included 50 hand-written volumes of recipes.

She became a great Norfolk advocate of wholesome country cooking and good food. She was therefore the obvious choice to bake a cake for the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles, when he visited Cley in 1976 for the 70th anniversary of the Norfolk Naturalists' Trust, which is now the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

But her writing career began 20 years earlier when The Lady magazine accepted a contribution in 1956. Articles followed in Farmer's Weekly which made her cookery editor for the next 13 years. She then became cookery editor of the Daily Express followed with work for The Times and The Guardian newspapers.

Mary Norwak helped other writers and chefs and advised the BBC on Mr Pickwick's gluttonous tastes for a TV drama. Her book The Complete Vegetable Cookbook is still available in the National Library of Australia’s collection.

Mary Norwak served as secretary and president of Cley Women’s Institute (WI) and vice chairman of the Norfolk WI federation in 1987. She was a churchwarden at St Margaret's Church, Cley, for many years, secretary to the parochial church council and involved in the British Red Cross and the Norfolk Society as well as being a village correspondent for the North Norfolk News and contributor to The Glaven News. She even found time to be a keen member of the Cley Amateur Dramatic Society. She died aged 81 in 2010.

Mary Norwak’s book English Puddings: Sweet and Savoury has a cult-like following and is said to be the definitive guide to puddings. And her work has developed a new generation of followers with many of today's superchefs featuring Mrs Norwak’s classic dishes on their signature menus.

The delights of England’s native puddings, sweet and savoury, have been rediscovered in the smartest hotels and restaurants as chefs turn again to a style of eating consisting of simple, unfussy plates of delicious slow-cooked meats and gently stewed seasonal fruits.

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