Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Piercingly aromatic

I'm not sure how well-known one of the most literate of food writers, Elizabeth David, is this side of the Atlantic, but if you like simple, authentic French food then let me recommend her books to you. She was not the kind of writer who played the celebrity game, though she certainly was famous - but, unlike many today, very private. Her books, generally speaking, are without illustrations, except perhaps for decorations at the beginning of chapters, and she uses Imperial measurements which means using a scale and weights. There is little glamour beyond verbal sketches of the places, the countryside, small regional restaurants and cafes, occasionally a very grand restaurant, charcutiers and patissiers, and the markets - but the descriptions of the ingredients, the methods and the final results are superb.

I was trawling for something else when I came across these photographs, published a year after her death, of Elizabeth David's kitchens - summer and winter - shockingly and unexpectedly ordinary by today's standards, but the kitchens were where she cooked for good friends, tested her recipes and, sitting at her kitchen table, wrote her erudite, authoritative and immensely readable cookery books. Luddite by our standards today,  these kitchens were without dishwashers, built-in double ovens, microwaves, food processors, gadgets and fitted cabinets. Elizabeth David furnished her kitchens, she did not fit them out.

I remember a similar sink and wooden draining board from my childhood. I remember too, the fad during the 1960s and 1970s for all things French - the rage for beige, white porcelain tureens and soup bowls with lion-headed handles, rivet-handled knives, wide, heavy, green, gold-rimmed coffee cups, the cafetière, iron casseroles, oval earthenware gratin dishes, fondue, pissaladière, gratin dauphinois, ratatouille and Moutarde de Meaux, sea salt and herbes de Provence - oh and lest I forget, quiche lorraine, which, according to Elizabeth David, is a simple mixture of eggs, bacon and cream in the thinnest of crusts.

They still ring true, these words below, a quotation from her Summer Cooking, written nearly fifty years ago, about simplicity, appropriateness and taking part, however temporarily, in the foreignness of life going on around one.

"In the summer there is also holiday cooking. That may well mean food cooked in an unfamiliar kitchen equipped, more than likely, in an impersonal and inadequate fashion by the owners of a house, holiday villa, or caravan hired out for the summer. For some, and the numbers are increasingly yearly, this temporary Paradise will be situated close to a Mediterranean shore. Food shopping will be done in a general store, or in some chaotic little market where the best produce will be sweet ripe tomatoes, mild onions, olives, and cheese of an undistinguished nature. The eggs, however, will be fresh and the bread authentic. Meals will be primitive - and, so long as one has learned to be adaptable and not to hanker for roast meat and steaks - entirely delicious because perfectly appropriate to the time, the place and the circumstances. There will be cheap coarse red wine to drink and the wise will follow the example of the local people, dilute the wine with ice and have a supply of bottled mineral water as an alternative."

Elizabeth David belonged to the same generation as Van Day Truex and Roderick Cameron, and in her writing subscribed to the same standards as they, or at least the standards I ascribe to them - suitability, simplicity and proportion.

Frequently Mrs David writes of her great friend, the writer Norman Douglas. He was seventy-two and she twenty-six when they met and their mutual admiration was immediate - teacher and pupil, master and disciple, friend and friend. He is someone to be looked at in a later post. In the meantime a quotation from her book An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.

" 'For Liz. Farewell to Capri,' Norman wrote in the copy of Late Harvest which he gave me when I said goodbye to him on 25 August, 1951. For me it was not farewell to Capri. It was farewell to Norman. On a dark drizzling London day in February 1952 news came from Capri of Norman's death. When, in the summer of that year, I spent six weeks on the island all I could do for Norman was to take a pot of the basil which was his favourite herb to his grave in the cemetery on the hill-road leading down to the port. I went there only once. I had never shared Norman's rather melancholy taste for visiting churchyards. A more fitting place to remember him was in the lemon grove to be reached only by descending some three hundred steps from the Piazza.

"It was so thick, that lemon grove, that it concealed from all but those who knew their Capri well the old Archbishop's palace in which was housed yet another of those private taverns which appeared to materialize for Norman alone. There, at a table outside the half-ruined house, a branch of piercingly aromatic lemons hanging within arm's reach, a piece of bread and a bottle of the proprietor's olive oil in front of me, a glass of wine in my hand, Norman was speaking.

" 'I wish you would listen when I tell you that if you fill my glass before it's empty I shan't know how much I've drunk.'

"To this day I cannot bring myself to refill someone else's glass until it is empty. A sensible rule, on the whole, even if it does mean that sometimes a guest is obliged to sit for a moment or two with an empty glass, uncertain whether to ask for more wine or wait until it is offered.

"In the shade of the lemon grove I break off a hunch of bread, sprinkle it with the delicious fruity olive oil, empty my glass of sour Capri wine; and remember that Norman Douglas once wrote that whoever has helped us to a larger understanding is entitled to our gratitude for all time. Remember too that other saying of his, the one upon which all his life he acted, the one which does much to account for the uncommonly large number of men and women of all ages, classes and nationalities who took Norman Douglas to their hearts and will hold him there so long as they live. 'I like to taste my friends, not eat them' "

Appropriate, pagan, simple, loving, sacramental, that hunch of bread sprinkled with oil, swilled down with sour wine.

Photographs by James Mortimer to accompany text by Mirabel Cecil written in August 1993 for The World of Interiors. 

Image of Summer Cooking, a Penguin Handbook, Penguin Books Ltd, 1974 (when I bought it). 


  1. Many of my friends would be surprised to learn that I really enjoy reading cook books, as my menus for entertaining tend to be relatively simple. But I often find them interesting and I slowly have enlarged my reportoire.

  2. Was introduced to E.D. by husband #1, who died 31 years ago today---funny you should mention her now, as I was literally just thinking about it. It was love at first sight (both husband # 1 and Elizabeth David, respectively), and she has been one of the dozen must haves of both my library and my kitchen ever since---everything I love---simple, elegant, without pretension, and writing to die for. I learned a lot about the best of life from both

  3. The Devoted Classicist, thank you. There is not one of Elizabeth David's books I would not recommend. I too like reading cookery books but I must admit of late I find most recently published to be of little literary merit - and literary merit is something that David's books have. Other food writers I recommend are Claudia Roden - her Book of Jewish Food is superb - and Madhur Jaffrey

  4. Dilettante, thank you. Strange, isn't it, and if it caused pain I'm sorry for it, how coincidence can work? Have you read her Bread and Yeast Cookery in the English Kitchen? Perhaps a bit esoteric for a non-Brit but a good read. Good recipes too!

  5. Oh, Blue, gosh no---it's been a very very long time---what it caused was pleasant remininsce, as should any good association. We're so lucky for those who pass through and the things we discover through them.

  6. I'm now starving......I need to find her books!

  7. I am on my way to the library now to seek her out--her book/s.

    I have Madhur Jaffrey, featured in this post:

  8. ArchitectDesign, thank you.

    Is There a Nutmeg in the House? - one of my favourites and a collection of essays and recipes - thus, not a straightforward cookery book. Another excellent set of essays (newspaper articles, etc and recipes) is An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.

  9. Bruce Barone, thank you.

    Madhur Jafrey's book on Indian Food, a falling-to-bits old paperback, is one of my mainstays in the kitchen. I'll check out your link later this morning when I've done my morning walk.

  10. She did have a farmhouse sink.

  11. Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher taught me that food is a joy as well as a holder of deep memories. Long before I read Proust, these women took food out of the realm of the quotidian and made it sacred for me.

    I, too, am drawn to the honesty of David's and Julia Child's kitchens. Today's monoliths are sterile and lifeless. Research shows we only need about six feet of prep space in a kitchen (think of the runways of granite and marble that line many US kitchens today that are nothing but landing ramps for clutter.

    But, ah to sit in one of these kitchens where people really cook, is to be reminded that life is to be lived in the smallest moments in real time: of cracking farm fresh eggs into hand-made bowl; of grinding beans to make the best brew; of simmering food and lots of wine at the ready. Where the perfection is in the intent to please.

  12. Terry, she did indeed have a farmhouse sink though back in the old country they are known as Belfast sinks. The house I grew up in had one and was as equally bare of modern "conveniences" as was Mrs David's.

  13. home before dark, thank you.

    I hesitate to admit this but I have never read M K Fisher and I think it a mistake I need to remedy immediately.

    I read recently, and I cannot remember where, that the latest thing to replace the kitchen island is a large table - and so the world turns. I work on the principle that the more kitchen storage there is the more crap can be stored. We retained our galley kitchen rather than combine it with the dining room and we are completely happy with it. By the window is a one-person banquet with a round table and chair in front of it and that's where we sit on summer mornings to have breakfast; where the Celt sits whilst I am cooking of an evening - we both love it.

    My grandmother's kitchen when I was young had a gas stove (similar to Mrs Davids with the grill (broiler) at eye level) the same sink and draining board as she, a kitchen table, two chairs, a cabinet similar to the Hoosier cabinet, a gas-heated washing machine and a hand-made peg rug on the lino floor. Undoubtedly sounds like hell to a modern kitchen designer but it worked for no reason other than it was all there was. I think the cliche that the kitchen is the heart of the home is true but little understood in modern times.

  14. If there is one cookery writer whom I keep returning to it would
    be Elizabeth David. The cool intelligence, the authoritative (but somehow
    accessible) prose style and the utter lack of pretension~all those qualities have a bracing effect. And like The Devoted Classicist I often
    read cookery books for the pleasure of the words, with no intention of
    attempting every recipe.

  15. Mr Worthington, thank you. I am in agreement with both you and The Devoted Classicist about reading cookery books for the pleasure of the words. I must admit, though, its a hazardous activity because it has on occasion driven me drooling to the kitchen in the small hours of the night.

  16. A beautiful post with some good points on kitchens today and the lives lived (or not) within them. I did laugh at your description of fads in the 1960s & '70s...I have all of them! Everything from the white porcelain tureen, cafetière, iron casseroles, sea salt and herbs de Provence and I still make classic quiche lorraine with all the horrifying ingredients.

    Wonderful photographs of Elizabeth David's kitchen...her tiny stove in a space that is warm and welcoming and full of objects that delight the eye. It makes me think of our cottage kitchen where I feed the summer multitudes and then wash the dishes by hand.

  17. What a lovely profile... I must seek out her books. And that cover of Summer Cooking is practically demanding that my next drawing of fruit shall be figs. (I don't comment often, but please know that I'm out here reading!)

  18. smilla4blogs, thank you. Beyond the cafetiere I have little left of those days except, perhaps for an abiding taste for a simple, well-made quiche and the skills that became the habits of a lifetime. The pleasure in cooking from scratch is still with me. Quiche lorraine is too delicious when made well to drop from the repertoire - it just doesn't have to be eaten every day.

    I agree about the wonder of David's kitchen - what we might now call a time capsule - I spent some time going across each surface remembering and remembering. A delight to me and many others and totally against the aesthetic of modern kitchen design.

  19. Sarah Melling, thank you. I find that book cover the most reminiscent of that time. Williams Sonoma sells that kind of French white porcelain still, I think, but beyond that the image is just classic. When I first saw that book (1970s) I had never seen a fresh fig though dried ones were available everywhere as was fig jam (hated it) and if not the first, certainly the best figs I have ever eaten were from a market in Avila, Spain - meltingly soft and sweet as heaven.

    My attitude to commenting is that I do it when I want to and don't if I don't. Sometimes when I read comments the point I might have made is already made by someone else. I'm glad you're reading the blog and am grateful for it.

  20. This is a person of awesomely handsome character. I am emphatically devoted to her; by coincidence, her "Italian Cooking" is by my bedside now and commends itself for her vigorous humour as well as for her profound good sense. She was an absolute bear on the subject of risotto (as I trust you know) and I have often considered publishing a tribute to her from the point of view of her appreciation of ingredients. She had very great conviction and respect for other cultures, without pedantry or posturing, and with no use whatsoever for affectation. Her cookbooks are literature of a moral force and high spirits at the same time.

  21. I made spinach quiche two nights ago, and I think Elizabeth would be proud. Only the simplest of ingredients, including fresh farm eggs with deep yellow yolks. Beautiful blue kitchen Blue!

    Happy weekend.

  22. Laurent, thank you. I too have her Italian Food on my table as I write and am looking again at the fish soups. One book you might be interested in, and it's rare and is called (I think) Harvest of the Cold Months. I read it once and was astonished at the scope of the ice trade in the 19th century.

  23. Janet, thank you. Spinach kitch as we drolly called it in the London of the seventies. It sounds delicious.

    The kitchen color is wonderful, I agree, but then I've yet to see the blue that is not beautiful in my eyes. The softest of blues and the yellowest of egg yolks - very Monet at Giverney!