Elizabeth David

When, after her death, I bought Elizabeth David’s kitchen table at auction for £1,000, my husband declared I could have bought a better one for half the price at Junk City. Indignant, I countered, “You don’t understand. This is a sacred table. It belonged to Elizabeth David.” He said, “And I suppose these old crumbs stuck in the cracks are sacred too?”

Devotees of ED (and there are many, just look at the internet) tend to think of her, as I do, as some kind of saint.  

But saint she certainly wasn’t.  Born just before the First World War, she had a protected upper class childhood in Wootton Manor in Folkington, Sussex, with an aloof mother, philandering Tory MP father, and a succession of governesses and private schools.  She did the debutante season, was presented at court, then packed off first to Paris to learn French, then to Munich to learn German.

But if her parents were hopeful of a successful marriage for their second daughter (she was one of four girls) they were to be disappointed.  Back in London, she thought she might be a painter, was briefly an actress, even more briefly an assistant at the fashion house Worth, and taught herself to cook. In 1939 she then ran off (or rather sailed off in a boat) with a married actor, Charles Gibson Cowan. The two of them navigated the Channel, then the canals of France, spent six months in Antibes (where she came under the spell of the ageing writer Norman Douglas, who encouraged her rebellious nature, her love of the Mediterranean, her interest in food) and then sailed to Corsica and Sicily, where their boat was confiscated and they were arrested on suspicion of spying. Three weeks later, penniless and hungry, they were freed and managed to get to Yugoslavia and eventually to Greece. Gibson Cowan got a job teaching English on the island of Syros and Elizabeth fell in love with Greek lemons and octopus, just as she had with pissaladière and bouillabaisse in France.  

The couple managed to escape the German invasion of the Greek islands and fled to Egypt. By this time Elizabeth was long out-of-love with Charles and they parted. She became part of the North African wartime whirl of officers, expats and adventurers (and adventuresses), living the ‘Casablanca life’. She mostly worked for the British Government, first in the naval cipher office in Alexandria and then running the Ministry of Information’s reference library in Cairo.  She had many lovers, fell in love (unrequited) with one of them and married another, Lt. Col Tony David.  The marriage, in 1944, was not a success and, after a short spell with her husband in India, she came back to England alone. When he finally returned they made half-hearted attempts at living together but the relationship eventually petered out.

Meanwhile Elizabeth found England desperately dreary, the weather miserable, the food unimaginative, stodgy and dull. This was the stimulus that finally got her writing professionally. She longed for southern skies, flavourful food and good wine. She got a job writing on Mediterranean food for Harper’s Bazaar. 

Remarkably for an apprentice writer, she had the foresight not to part with the copyright for these pieces and they eventually became “A Book of Mediterranean Food”.  

From the start ED’s writing was different. In that first book, she linked her recipes with literary quotes from contemporary writers like Gertrude Stein, Compton Mackenzie and DH Lawrence.  And she was not over-anxious about accurate measures or precise instructions.   But the reader knew she had truly experienced (by which I mean cooked, eaten, and understood) the food she wrote about. Not for her a quick trawl of the internet for an idea, a re-hash of someone else’s recipe and a talented food photographer to give it gastro-appeal. She lived or travelled for months in the countries she writes about, she read widely, researched the history and origins of recipes and ingredients, and she knew the cooks, bakers, restaurateurs and producers whose food excited her.

Above all, her books were, and still are, a joy to read. I remember, as a young cook, looking for advice on the poaching of eggs. I started reading what she had to say on the subject, which was a lot, all of it fascinating (she debated the merits of making a whirlpool, adding salt, adding vinegar, the shape of the pan, and the de-merits of cheating with little buttered moulds which made coddled, but not poached, eggs).  So absorbed was I that I quite forgot to poach the eggs.

Of all her many awards and accolades the one she was proudest of was her fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature.

I knew Elizabeth, but not well. I doubt if many people other than her long-time friend, editor and eventual executor, Jill Norman, knew her well.  She could be intimidating and unfriendly.  She was too outspoken to be easy company, and lunch with her, always stimulating, could be scary. Though generous in her praise of wine merchants or chefs she liked, she spent a lot of time castigating other writers, cooks and restaurateurs.  She complained of frequent plagiarism (you can copyright the words of a recipe but it is hard to establish that the combination of ingredients or the method is original); she hated elaboration, unnecessary garnishes, anything pretentious or “ersatz”; she loathed the use of words such as “crispy” and “yummy”; she disapproved of chefs prancing around on TV - she thought they should stay in their kitchens and cook.  She disliked fashions in cooking (I remember her complaining of the ubiquity of lentils, forgetting that her writings might have had something to do with that); she would have abhorred the modern circus of book signing, twitter and interviews, and the only time she was persuaded to have a TV programme made about her was cringe-making. Poor Jancis Robinson got nothing but bad-tempered monosyllabic answers out of her. 

But for all that she was, for me, a fixed star in the culinary firmament. I first met her when she came to my restaurant in the seventies. She was pleased, not just because I had credited her (the menu included “Elizabeth David’s Mushroom Soup”) but also because I had followed the recipe correctly, thickening it with bread and putting large handfuls of parsley into it.   When I got to know her I would occasionally take her a box of lovingly picked young vegetables (new runner beans, baby broad beans, peas, tiny courgettes, herbs and nasturtium flowers, pea-tendrils or rocket) from my Cotswold garden. I enjoyed podding the peas, or washing the spuds, a kind of tribute.

I persuaded her to visit Leith’s School of Food and Wine, which she did, but only, she insisted, to have lunch with the teachers, not to talk to the students. When she came she was charming, but would only sign battered, be-spattered books, not the brand-new ones bought for the occasion.

I wish she knew that, along with the table, I bought all her kitchen knives (mostly old and worn from much sharpening, some with split handles expertly bound with string) and had them mounted in a glass fronted box and positioned above the main teaching kitchen with the words “These tools belonged to the twentieth century’s greatest food writer, Elizabeth David CBE 1913-1992”.  I’d have liked to show her that.