The Henry Ford of vegetarian cooking!

YOU don't need more than a shelf of Rose Elliot books to chart the rise in popularity of cook-it-yourself vegetarian food. When she published her first recipes in 1967, vegetarians were viewed as slightly odd.

YOU don't need more than a shelf of Rose Elliot books to chart the rise in popularity of cook-it-yourself vegetarian food. When she published her first recipes in 1967, vegetarians were viewed as slightly odd. Forty years and nearly 60 books down the line, there are millions of folk who know that meat-free fare can be imaginative as well as nutritious and ethical.

Mind you, there's still no opportunity to rest on laurels. “Vegetarianism” might be a household word, but too many eateries still believe the notion of choice is adequately met by a lone non-meat dish on the menu.

A friend had that very sense of deflation last autumn, when looking for somewhere to eat in East Anglia. The vegetarian option was a take-it-or-leave-it single offering - and a none-too-inspiring one at that.

It's not an uncommon tale, Rose reports.

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“I had a similar experience over Christmas, when I went out to a pub with family. We had to book in advance. It was so disappointing, the choice: just boring things.

“Vegetarianism has come on greatly, but there is still a huge amount of work to be done in getting really interesting food choices, and educating people. It comes as quite a shock to me, sometimes, in quite how much work there is to be done in getting these thoughts across to people.”

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Let's make the year of her first book - 1967 - our starting point: zero. And 100% marks universal understanding of vegetarian principles and a wide availability of food in restaurants. Where does she think the UK stands on that spectrum?

“Goodness me! When I started, you just couldn't get any vegetarian things when you went out except the two things you would always be offered: a cheese salad or an omelette. We have made progress since then. I don't know . . . what would you think? Fifty or 60%?”

Her latest publication, Veggie Chic, shows just how much progress has been made in four decades, however. Plain omelettes are consigned to history: we're now talking taste-tinglers such as brie and cranberry soufflés, aubergine steaks with mint glaze, and chocolate gelato with citrus drizzle.

Rose's mission was to combine simplicity and stunningness, while steering clear of appearing intimidating or complicated.

She isn't a holler-it-from-the-rooftops type of battler for hearts and minds, and stomachs; more a quiet persuader. She laughs a lot and is happy to put the start of her publishing success - more than three million books sold so far, and the MBE from the Queen in 1999 “for services to vegetarian cookery” - down to luck.

She was born in 1945 and was a vegetarian from the age of three, being raised on wholemeal bread and brown rice. Art school was tempting, but never came to pass.

“I had pressure put on me by both my headmistress and my parents not to go - because my headmistress wanted me to do something academic and my parents didn't want me to go to a nasty, sexy art school!

“I decided not to, which was a bit weak of me, really, but I also had met my husband by then and had gone off the idea of any real career. I wanted to leave school and basically get married. If I hadn't met him, I might have pushed harder to go to art school and goodness knows what might have happened. I might have been a Mary Quant, or the Stella McCartney of my time! I just don't know,” she laughs.

Her family ran a spiritual retreat centre in Hampshire, White Eagle Lodge, and Rose worked there, inventing and cooking vegetarian food. Her ideas proved so popular that a steady stream of people kept asking for the recipes.

In those days there was but one book available on vegetarian cooking. Rose, then a young mum in her early 20s, wrote down her recipes and Simply Delicious was published in 1967 through White Eagle Lodge's own publishing arm.

“Whether I'd have got a publisher if I hadn't had that very first leg up the ladder I just don't know. I think it would have happened at some point, but that certainly helped me.

“The way the original book was perceived was amazing. Bookshops in those days ordered their stock independently and they were ringing up from all over the country to get hold of copies, and we had to do a second edition.

“Although I've been lucky since then and produced many beautiful books, that was by far and away the most exciting, because it was so unexpected.”

Not Just A Load Of Old Lentils was published in 1972 - the year Fontana sought the paperback rights to Simply Delicious. It was the start of a fruitful relationship with mainstream publishers.

Subsequent titles include The Bean Book and Rose Elliot's Vegetarian Mother and Baby Book.

The Jewish Gazette said Simply Delicious “does for vegetarian cookery what Ford's Model T did for vehicular transportation”. Did it feel like that? “I do feel I have been in the thick of it at the beginning,” she smiles.

Part challenge, part evangelical crusade, then?

“That's a good way of putting it. I've done it because I've always believed in it and wanted to show people that vegetarian food can be really wonderful to eat as well as being good for you.

“It was quite simple in the days when I started, because there were fewer ingredients around and vegetarianism wasn't particularly sophisticated then. It's developed; all food has. Even what meat-eaters eat now is very different to what they had in the '60s.”

Rose worked at the retreat for about 15 years, and when she left was able to turn her cookery and journalism into a job.

Like many professional cooks, she laments the way society has given food a lower priority.

“I think one of the worst things was stopping teaching cookery at school. We got a generation who themselves don't know how to cook, and so their children don't learn how to cook. People are really scared of ingredients and cooking, and because of that they will go to a shop and buy things like packaged mashed potato: one of the easiest things in the world to make!

“So it's partly a lack of confidence and partly that we're all so busy and so giving less time to food. And also seasonality: we can get anything, any time, and I think things have become devalued because of that, too.”

On the plus side, she laughs, people now don't look at vegetarians as if they are aliens.

“The only bad thing that has happened is that a number of celebrities are saying they're vegetarian and give a menu of what they eat - and include fish. The belief going around that vegetarians eat fish is completely wrong. They don't eat anything that's been killed. So that's something that's crept in of late and needs to be knocked on the head.”

Several times she has had talks with a couple of companies about a ready-prepared line of vegetarian meals, but it hasn't come to anything.

“I just let it go, thinking, in my usual way, 'If it's not meant to be . . .' I'd be interested in doing it at some point in the future, but if I did it it would have to be healthy food - delicious but healthy. At the time, I wanted different things: I wanted organic and I wanted other things, and maybe my ideas were a bit ahead of their time, and it didn't happen. But who knows? I'd rather get people cooking healthy food in their own homes, actually, but there definitely is a place for it.”

What's really needed to spread the message far and wide is a dedicated television series, she feels.

“I've been involved with numerous independent television companies, and proposals have been turned down by the decision-makers as too niche,” she says, sadly. An appearance on Radio 4's Woman's Hour once triggered the biggest request ever for recipes, so it seems the appetite is there. (No pun intended.)

What about it, Michael Grade? - or any of the other TV bosses. Rose could bring to the party infectious enthusiasm.

“The reason I like cooking so much is partly because of the colours, textures and vibrancy of it - especially vegetarian cooking, when you're using all these lovely vegetables. My need to be creative expresses itself through cooking, really.

“I love making people happy too - oh, I know that sounds like an old cliché, but you can make so many people happy in such a simple way by producing a lovely meal. It's one of the joys of life.”

ROSE Elliot is best known for her recipes, but she's got another string to her bow: astrology.

She started learning it in her teens; no surprise, really, as her mother was an astrologer and her grandmother a medium and seer.

So, not content with trying to persuade folk about the benefits of vegetarianism, she's spent much of her life attempting to show that our futures lie in the stars, then . . .

She laughs. “One oddball subject's enough, really, isn't it? But there I go . . .”

She has confidence in her readings. “The forecasts are accurate and there's a lot more to it than people realise, if they're used only to stars columns in newspapers.” Her approach examines the time, place and date of birth, among other factors.

“You can really explain things. It's just so helpful to know, for instance, if you're going through a slow, difficult time, to have a look and see that 'Ah, things are going to start moving again in a couple of months.'

“It's almost like a weather forecast for your life. It doesn't say specific things like 'You're going to fall off a bus tomorrow,' but you do get a very clear picture of the trends.”

Rose is a Cancerian: “A sign of the home, nurture and care. If you know the contradictions in your nature, and why they are like that astrologically, you understand yourself so much better. So do your family and loved ones.”

She has three daughters - Claire, at 27 the youngest, has just left home - and five grandchildren.

Husband Robert was a chartered electrical engineer who gave it up to work at the retreat. That's how

Rose met him.

Robert is a Sagittarian. “We're very different, but understanding our charts is very helpful in understanding our relationship,” says Rose. “I've learned a lot from him. I think it's made me more balanced; Cancerians are so sensitive and retiring and emotional, whereas Sagittarians are more warm, outgoing and optimistic. I think we've blended: I've made him more sensitive and he's made me more outgoing!”

Today the couple run an astrological service from their home - a former rectory near Southampton - though food, writing about it, demonstrating techniques and doing TV and radio broadcasts accounts for most of her time.

There's a chance to dine with Rose Elliot when she co-hosts a midday lunch at The Food Company in Marks Tey on January 24, 2007, to talk about Veggie Chic. Tickets cost £30, including two courses, coffee and a signed copy of the book. During coffee a question and answer session will take place and Rose will be available to personalise copies. Advance booking is required: The Food Company, 86 London Road, Marks Tey. Phone 01206 214 000.

Veggie Chic is published by Hamlyn at £16.99. ISBN-13: 978-0600613992

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