Enda O’Doherty writes: Elizabeth David (1913-1992) was probably the most important British food writer of that era before celebrity cooks began to promote themselves and their books almost exclusively through television. The Elizabeth David myth (not without a basis in fact) is that she widened the horizons of a generation of home cooks as Britain slowly emerged from postwar austerity and rationing, bringing colour and a glimpse of blue skies into the country’s damp and cramped kitchens and sculleries.
First came A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), followed by French Country Cooking (1951), Italian Food (1954), Summer Cooking (1955) and then French Provincial Cooking (1960). The recipe instructions tended to be on the minimalist side but the books were all wonderfully garnished with atmosphere, anecdote and romance: the office canteen might be serving Brown Windsor soup again – and is that cabbage? yes, unmistakably – but David’s books brought one to a world of sunshine, soft herb-scented breezes, open-air markets in medieval stone villages and formidable chefs with age-old secret recipes and all the time in the world to let their lamb and boar and hare marinate and then simmer in ancient copper daubières.
Holed up with a lover in a dismal British country hotel in the late 1940s and confined to her room by the awful weather, David began to put her thoughts about food on paper:
Hardly knowing what I was doing … I sat down and started to work out an agonized craving for the sun and a furious revolt against that terrible cheerless, heartless food by writing down descriptions of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking. Even to write words like apricot, olives and butter, rice and lemons, oil and almonds, produced assuagement. Later I came to realize that in the England of 1947, those were dirty words I was putting down.
This is indeed the quintessence of the Elizabeth David food myth. But should it perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt?
The reason that “apricot” and “olive” and “lemon”, and no doubt also asparagus and artichoke and aubergine and all the rest are portrayed as dirty words is because, from the perspective of the cosmopolitan upper classes, the English people in the late 1940s are oppressed by a Puritan regime which is imposing food rationing and insisting that everyone eats the same (awful) things. This regime is called the Labour government. In the warm south, by contrast, everything is plentiful –fruits and vegetables just grow in the bountiful sun and cannot be stopped growing, while the seas teem with bass and bream, octopus, squid and lobster. Such indeed were David’s memories of Europe and the Mediterranean, where she spent a considerable amount of time in the 1930s and where she was confined by the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. (Her wartime years were spent working for the British administration in Egypt.)
Certainly the food one might have come across in France and Italy, Greece and the Middle East in the pre-war years would have been a revelation to a young Englishwoman, and particularly perhaps to one whose “allowance”, as the daughter of a wealthy Tory MP and granddaughter of a viscount, was likely to have been sufficient to cover just about any delicacy. And it is quite likely that the food available in the restaurants and markets of southern Europe in the later 1930s was both plentiful and various. But what of the situation at the time that David was beginning to write, ten years later?
Tony Judt, in his history Postwar, outlines the food shortages afflicting most of Europe in the later 1940s, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the conflict:
The problem lay partly in destroyed farms, partly in disrupted communications and mostly in the sheer numbers of helpless, unproductive mouths needing to be fed. Where Europe’s farmers could grow food they were reluctant to supply it to the towns. Most European currencies were worthless; and even if there had been the wherewithal to pay peasants for their food in some hard currency, the latter held little attraction for them – there was nothing to buy. So food did appear on the black market, but at prices only criminals, the rich and the occupiers could pay … In the meantime, people starved and they fell sick … Children all over Europe were suffering from sicknesses of deprivation … Otherwise healthy children died from a shortage of milk (millions of head of European cattle were slaughtered in the battles across southern and eastern Europe in 1944-45) and most were chronically undernourished. Infant mortality in Vienna during the summer of 1945 was nearly four times the rate in 1938.
It was against the background of these problems, the vast disruption of productive capacity and means of transport, that Britain’s postwar government introduced food rationing and attempted to ensure that food would be available not just to the crooks and the rich and that whatever was there would be more equitably shared. No doubt the queueing and the coupons, the exiguous allowances (bacon: three ounces a week, cooking fat: one ounce a week) and the real shortages, exacerbated by terrible weather, leading to crop failure, in 1946 and ’47, made everyone more than a little depressed. Rationing became a major political issue and the Conservatives, promising to end it, won the general election of 1951, chiefly, it was thought, on “the housewives’ vote”. The system finally came to an end in the summer of 1954.
It is perhaps not surprising in this historical context that people enjoyed reading of the food which – it was suggested – was freely available elsewhere, even as relayed in heroic feats of gourmandise, such as this anecdote from French Provincial Cooking gleaned from a Victorian memoir by the English writer George Musgrave:
He watched a couple (on their honeymoon, he thought) on board the river steamer at Rouen consuming a midday meal of soup, fried mackerel, beefsteak, French beans and fried potatoes, an omelette fines herbes, a fricandeau of veal with sorrel, a roast chicken garnished with mushrooms, a hock of ham served upon spinach. There followed an apricot tart, three custards, and an endive salad, which were the precursors of a small roast leg of lamb, with chopped onion and nutmeg sprinkled upon it. Then came coffee and two glasses of absinthe, and eau dorée, a Mignon cheese, pears, plums, grapes and cakes. Two bottles of Burgundy and one of Chablis were emptied between eleven and one o’clock.
There was little chance that English cooks were going to try to reproduce this at home, even in the more plentiful era of 1960. It suggests rather another function of food writing, that of vicarious gratification, at a time of shortage and scant foreign travel perhaps a little like the longing of the child whose nose is pressed to the confectioner’s window, but now often simply called “food porn”. In A Book of Mediterranean Food, David quotes a recipe for lièvre (hare) à la royale, which a regular political columnist with the newspaper Le Temps tendered for publication one day in 1898 in place of his usual offering.
The ingredient list is not excessively long, at least not by Ottolenghi standards, but the preparation may take some time, seven hours certainly to prepare and cook; how long it will take you to catch your hare I cannot say. And on that subject:
You require a male hare, with red fur, killed if possible in mountainous country; of fine French descent (characterized by the light nervous elegance of head and limbs), weighing from five to six pounds, that is to say older than a leveret.
Something like Albrecht Dürer’s Feldhase (pictured) might do, though I cannot vouch for its descent.
You’re not going to need much else, except for some goose fat, fat rashers and (separately) a piece of bacon, red wine vinegar, two bottles of Macon or Médoc, not less than two years old; a carrot, four onions, twenty cloves of garlic, forty cloves of shallot and a bouquet garni. Then, if you carefully follow the four operations that are to unfold between noon and 7 pm there is very little that can go wrong, unless of course you’ve been dipping into the Macon as you work. Perfect sobriety, I think, will be required for those crucial final stages in the last half-hour before serving, not least to negotiate the author’s fancy shifts of tense and voice:
Your hare therefore having had the fat removed, can continue to cook, still on a very low fire, until the moment comes for you to add the blood which you have reserved with the utmost care as has already been instructed.
Fourth Operation (quarter of an hour before serving)
At quarter to seven. The amalgamation of the sauce proceeding successfully, a fourth and last operation will finally and rapidly bring it to completion.
Addition of the blood to the hare …
Seven hours may seem a long time, but the Le Temps columnist, one Senator Couteaux, who it must be admitted did not do the heavy lifting himself but had the dish cooked for him and his guests in his favourite restaurant, testifies to its impact:
… by six o’clock the exquisite aroma had penetrated the doors of Spüller’s restaurant, floated down the street and out into the boulevard, where the passers-by sniffed the scented air; an excitable crowd gathered, and the whole quartier was ‘mis en émoi’.
One of the chief pleasures of reading Elizabeth David is that she is a food writer before she is a cook or chef – indeed I’ve heard it said that not all her recipes work. But you can read a book with pleasure that is more than a simple recipe book and is in fact stuffed (truffé) with the lore of food and illustrated with anecdotes illustrating the (in France) sometimes stern temperaments of those who have devoted their lives to gastronomy, and all of this conveyed in language which I’m sure was just right for The Spectator, where much of her writing was first published, more than fifty years ago, but which now sounds not unpleasantly antique. Besides, it is not necessary to try to eat everything whose principles of composition are laid out in a cookery book any more than it is necessary to commit all the sins listed in the catechism. Much pleasure can be derived from just reading:
Warm autumn fruits with Amaretto cream
500ml white wine
250g vanilla sugar
A cinnamon stick, broken in two
3 firm pears
6 small dessert apples
A squeeze of lemon juice
200g unsalted butter
200g brown sugar
200g whipping cream
6 ripe figs
4 Amaretti biscuits
Total number of calories in the above words: 0.