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.

Love Potions

In my time as a cookery writer I really enjoyed the whole process of making up recipes: the thinking, the shopping, the testing and tasting, and finally the writing, editing, perfecting and publishing.

Once or twice I thought I had created something new (or nearly new – all food writers and chefs steal from other cooks, or build on their ideas, all the time).  Once I went to Denmark on a press trip and was served a delicious soup, made out of Samsoe cheese.  When I got home I had a go at a cheese soup, using a celery base and Stilton cheese. It was delicious and I used it everywhere. In my Guardian column and in the cookbook I was writing at the time, I served it in my restaurant, dished it up for banquets and events, and taught it to students in my cookery school.

All in all, it was a huge success and many a seventies restaurant in London nicked the idea. Stilton soup was everywhere and I was proud as any inventor could be. Until I found a soup, in a Victorian cookbook I’d bought from an antiquarian bookseller. It was almost identical: a celery soup with a heap of Stilton melted into it.

But I’d still had the fun of believing I was inventing something, mixing ingredients like an alchemist to produce magic. But when, twenty years ago, I decided to succumb to the nagging desire to write novels, I realized the only way I’d create the time for fictional writing was to get away from food. I made a vow never to write another recipe, a promise I have just about stuck to, with the odd exception of a recipe for a charity or some such. But I did miss it.  Inventing characters and story lines is exciting, but you don’t get a near-instant opportunity to see if you have produced anything good, as you do with recipes. 

But last month Glyndebourne Opera asked me to invent a love potion to compliment their production by the touring company of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. www.glyndebourne.com Well, I quickly decided my self-inflicted prohibitions as regards recipes was never meant to include drinks.

I tell you what: testing alcoholic beverage recipes is even jollier than testing food combos.  We had a great time.

We decided at the kick-off that there would be two potions, one for girls to give to boys and one for boys to give to girls.  Pink for a girl, blue (“the colour of Viagra” said one friend) for a boy.

The pink one was easy. We could have made twenty combinations to get a pretty pink drink: raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, pink grapefruit, pomegranate, tomato, even beetroot, whizzed with something mild like red wine, rose, pink champagne or grenadine, and spiked with serious booze like white brandy, gin, or vodka, or a white liqueur such as Cointreau. No problem. 

So, to make it harder and ensure it was an Elixir of Love we decided to stick to aphrodisiac ingredients. (Warning: don’t put “aphrodisiac” into your search engine unless you want an un-ending stream of pornographic ads).

We ended up with a pink recipe every ingredient of which is thought by someone, somewhere, at some time to be aphrodisiac.

Then we got even more ambitious and decided to freeze the basic mix (without the spirits or liqueur) and then chop it into a granité in a liquidizer , spoon it into frozen glasses and freeze until serving. Then top up with the hooch and add the pretty bits.   Yum.  

The blue one had less options. Most “blue” fruits whizz to a dirty purple.  I could not find any blue long drinks. And how many blue spirits or liqueurs are there? I’m sure someone will tell me otherwise but I think the options are Blue Curaçoa, Blue Curaçoa or Blue Curaçoa. If you are serious about the love potion side of things, then don’t use lemonade. Citrus fruit was once thought to make men sterile. 

But the good news is that the Blue Dream we ended up with was the winner. Delicious and stunning to look at, it includes that aphrodisiac of all time, chocolate.

Knickerdropper Glory, for Boys to give to Girls

(Makes 2 – 3 cocktails)  

  • Large teacupful of liquidised watermelon
  • Same amount of pomegranate juice
  • Two tablespoons coconut cream from a can or box
  • Half a cup Grenadine
  • 2 large slugs white plum, peach or apricot brandy
  • Fruit sticks of fig, cherry or raspberry, watermelon and mint

Whizz  together the fruit juices and the coconut cream. Pour into a shallow container and freeze.

Mix the grenadine and brandy together

Put cocktail glasses into fridge or freezer too.

Just before serving, chop the frozen mixture into chunks and liquidise to gravelly/sandy texture.

Spoon into the glasses.

Top up with the grenadine/brandy mix and garnish with fruit stick


 Blue Dreamer, for Girls to give to Boys

(makes 2 – 3 cocktails)

  • Chilled blue curacao
  • Chilled Barak Palinka (Hungarian Apricot or Peach Brandy)
  • Chilled Tonic water or Lemonade
  • Fresh blueberries and white chocolate buttons for garnish

Chill the glasses.

Mix one part curacao, one part brandy and two parts tonic water or lemonade in a shaker or jug with ice.

Pour into the glasses.  

Garnish with fresh blueberries and white chocolate chips.

Colour, Glorious Colour

Are you not thoroughly sick of grey, cream, beige and brown? Or minimalist black and white? I am. I go to a lot of hotels, most still stuck in the fifty shades of grey spectrum.

True, a bridal-type suite of billowing white muslin, deep goose-down duvet covered in finest white cotton, pale painted furniture and soft cream carpet exudes purity and luxury, but add a great wham of colour -- bucket of amaryllis or huge Howard Hodgkin picture of swirling green and orange -- and that virginal room will elicit a gasp of pleasure rather than a sentimental sigh.

I am delighted that, at last, at last, colour is back. In clothes, decor, kitchen stuff, everything.  Going to a kitchen shop used to feel like going to a hospital supply store, all stainless steel and gleaming white. Only expensive le Creuset casseroles stood out in flaming orange. But now plates and bowls, utensils, napkins and pots are all a riot of colour.

Maybe we've caught the colour bug on our travels. The Far East, Asia, Africa, Mexico,

South America, India has always been great with colour. I love those Indian trucks lit up like a Christmas tree, and sarongs and longis dyed in jewel like stripes, tropical flowers of glorious vulgarity. I recently saw, in Sri Lanka, a household mop head, the bristles made of half a dozen violent clumps of different colour. Also a flashing light which jumps from red to blue to green to yellow. Useless, but irresistible. We bought four.

I have always had a penchant for vulgar colour. I have a garden terrace and flower beds stuffed with red, purple and orange flowers and dark leaved plants. I excuse it on the grounds of my South African childhood, where colours are strong: red flame trees, purple bougainvillea, blue plumbago against blue sky or yellow veld.

My drawing room has had the same bright turquoise leather sofas for twenty years. And every time I redecorate a room somehow it turns out orange and turquoise.  

But I have been tastefully restrained with my new kitchens, of which I confess to having two in my re-jigged Cotswold house. One is pale dusty blue and one is pale dusty green but to be honest they are so subtle and classy, so “Farrow and Ball “that no one can tell the difference. But I do love them. If you spend as much time in the kitchen as I do, you need it to be calm and peaceful, not an exciting clash of glorious colour.

This brings me to colour for children and is one area where I think the love of colour has gone too far.    Don't infants sometimes need a rest from strident primary colours absolutely everywhere?  I know babies are supposed to need constant stimulation, but does every toy, dress, piece of nursery furniture have to be in fairground shades?

Maybe all that colour in childhood promotes the teenagers’ addiction to black?