"Every day holds the possibility of a miracle"
Her first book published in 1950
Elizabeth David was my first food hero and her books are as timely and evocative today as when they were written fifty years ago. The most important cookery writer of the 20th century she revolutionised the way we think about food introducing French and Mediterranean influences to the rather dull English palate. Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater are some of many well known chefs and food writers who cite her as their biggest influence.
"Good cooking is honest, sincere and simple and by this I do not mean to imply that you will find in this, or indeed in any other book the secret of turning out first class food in a few minutes with no trouble. Good food is always a trouble and it's preparation should be regarded as a labour of love"
Elizabeth Gwynne, the intelligent, beautiful and witty daughter of a Tory MP, travelled extensively at an early age starting at the Sorbonne in Paris then later to Antibes, Corsica, Tuscany, Capri, Greece, Crete, Egypt, Morocco and eight months in India. Before she left on her travels she worked as a vendeuse at the couture house Worth and as an actress.
David was a breath of fresh air when cookery in Britain was at an all time low after the war with hideous things like Spam and powdered egg. Introducing us to ingredients we now take for granted including olives, garlic, olive oil, pasta, avocados, courgettes, aubergines, saffron and basil to name a few. She was driven to write in detail of the experiences she had, the history of the food, interspersed with anecdotes and crisply instructed recipes.
"True civilisation only begins where garlic and olives start to grow"
Her mentor was the writer Norman Douglas, a libertine and a dandy who she met in Antibes when he was seventy two. Douglas decamped to Europe after a molestation charge, although it turned out he gave sweets to and attempted to kiss a sixteen year old boy, who then complained to the police). Elizabeth and Norman both played hard and became close friends mixing with Europe's bohemians of the time. He taught her a great deal, passing on to his protégée his knowledge, contacts and his damn-the-consequences attitude.
She had an extraordinary life, her biographies paint a picture of an independent woman who did exactly as she pleased. In 1939 after an affair with a theatre director, she had run off with another married lover and gone travelling. After this she had a marriage of convenience with Lt. Colonel Tony David during which she continued to have many lovers and affairs (allegedly with men and women), most notably with Peter Higgins who she credited with spurring her on as a writer and is the who is the "PH" she dedicated her book, French Provincial Cooking to in 1960.
Higgins went off and married another woman without telling her, she was so distraught she suffered a stroke, possibly related to her drinking and although she recovered it robbed her of the ability to taste salt and her libido. She carried on working and writing, often from bed and switched her interest to English cookery.
Catherine McCormack as Elizabeth David
Her colourful and tempestuous life was featured in a biopic made for BBC4 by Wall to Wall Television starring Catherine McCormack as the witty, straight talking, hard drinking and smoking Elizabeth. I first watched the film when it came on BBC4 in 2006 but four years later it was like watching it for the first time! I know most of the actors, whose performances were all fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed Elizabeth David - A Life in Recipes, do try and catch it if you can, it was a great quality piece of drama.
Her influence on Britain's kitchens also extended to the decor. Kitchens had been purely functional, her existence of cooking, writing, entertaining, drinking and smoking revolved around her farmhouse kitchen table, surrounded by dressers stacked with terracotta and earthenware, cast iron pots, peasant pottery and artfully arranged Mediterranean fruit and vegetables was very avant garde for 1950's Chelsea.
Her life was remarkable and astonishing. Her recipes stand the test of time and her brilliant writing was the outcome of racketing around the Mediterranean, travelling, drinking and eating alone in Italy, holing herself up to write with another man while her husband was in India. By all accounts she was disagreeable but that should never put you off her books. Now we know how extraordinarily racy her life was, there's even more reason to remember her.
Now I'd like to add to the ever growing stack of books in my bedroom and buy her biographies.
Elizabeth David's Books
Mediterranean Food, 1950
French Country Cooking, 1951
Italian Food, 1954
Summer Cooking, 1955
French Provincial Cooking, 1960
Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, 1970
English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977
Elizabeth David Classics, 1980
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, 1984
Harvest of the Cold Months, 1994
South Wind Through the Kitchen: The Best of Elizabeth David, 1998
Is There a Nutmeg in the House? Essays on Practical Cooking, 2000
Elizabeth David's Christmas, 2003
"If I had my way - and I shan't - my Christmas day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of Champagne on a tray in bed in the evening"