Foodies scrap over a saint of gastronomy's dog-eared leftovers

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The Independent Culture

They looked more like the leftovers from a bring and buy sale than objects of antiquarian interest, but lots 317 to 404 at Bloomsbury Book Auctions' sale yesterday had a provenance special enough to raise almost £12,500.

They looked more like the leftovers from a bring and buy sale than objects of antiquarian interest, but lots 317 to 404 at Bloomsbury Book Auctions' sale yesterday had a provenance special enough to raise almost £12,500.

Although a corrective note said this collection of food books, manuscripts and letters was not strictly the property of Elizabeth David, who died in 1992, since they were being sold by her literary executor and former editor Jill Norman, their status was undiminished. However battered, these books had been dog-eared and stained in the hands of a star.

Elizabeth David had already shown her ability to transform culinary bric-a-brac into treasure: an auction of her cooking equipment at Phillips in recent years fetched saleroom prices for wooden spoons that have yet to be matched. And yesterday's sale extended the effect, the biggest lot a collection of 27 handwritten and 17 typescript recipes that went for £900.

Before the sale, the managing director of Bloomsbury Book Auctions, Rupert Powell, said there had been considerable interest from overseas buyers but said the intersection of foodie enthusiasm and dealers' unsentimental eye for profit made it hard to predict prices.

The sense that these were the relics of a saint of gastronomy was not surprising, however. Elizabeth David might not have been a domestic goddess - her private life was a little too turbulent for that - but she was a stern prophetess who paved the way for a transformation of English attitudes to food.

She took on British eating habits like a Calvinist - as stern and unyielding in her prescriptions about how to yield to appetite as John Knox was about resisting it.

Writing at a time when the only olive oil you could get came from Boots and was intended for softening ear wax, she inveighed against post-war British cuisine: it betrayed, she said, a "hatred of humanity and humanity's needs", holding up in its stead the gilded example of simple French and Mediterranean cooking.

Her passion for good food was built on a foundation of culinary scholarship -in evidence at the sale in lots such as Alexandre Dumas's Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, bookmarked with Mrs E David's National Trust subscription invoice and four editions of Law's Grocers Manual, an encyclopedia of information about comestibles, which was one of her favourite reference books.

Fans who want to know the entries she perused can refer to the grubby paper markers that offer information about the duty-free importation of ice to England and rates of pay for female current-pickers.

Fans could also pick up a flavour of her tart impatience with affectation and heresy; some of the promotional pamphlets she wrote, such as Cooking with Le Creuset and Entertaining with Grand Marnier, offer a distillation of Sixties bourgeois aspiration.

One of the sale's important items, Hippocrate de l'usage du boire a la Glace, which eventually went for £480, carries the testy annotation: "This book is in every way a fraud".

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