The winter of 1946-47 was the second coldest this century. Adding to the public's woes while recovering from six years of war - and the ensuing rations and rehousing problems - was heavy snow followed by a freeze that would last through to Easter. Temperatures dropped below -20C. In the cities fuel was scarce, the gas ran out and there was no hot water. In the country water supplies froze, there were 20ft-deep snowdrifts, and livestock perished.
Elizabeth David, or Elizabeth Gwynne as she was then, had spent the war years in Cairo working for the Ministry of Information and, aged 33, returned to England late in the summer of 1946. Despite her valiant efforts to continue to eat and live well in her London flat, by mid-January both gas and solid fuel were unavailable. In an inspired moment, she threw her thin clothes into a suitcase and decamped to a hotel in Ross-on-Wye, Hereford, that promised warmth and a cheap all-in rate.
But her problems were not over. The dishes that came out of the kitchens in such hotels were dismal - flour-and-water soup and bread-and-gristle rissoles were among the horrors set before her. This post-war food made for a miserable stay, which had by now been extended because of a sudden thaw that caused massive floods. "Ross was in the Wye rather than on it," she said.
Depressed, cold, damp and longing for another life with her bare feet in warm sand, a dish of olives and a glass of wine before her, David, who had never written much more than letters, sat down in her dark and dreary hotel room and began to write,"to work out an agonised 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 realise that in the England of 1947, those were dirty words that I was putting down."
These dirty words became a small book, illustrated by the evocative line drawings of the young artist John Minton, that would change the way a nation ate. Readers, struggling with stockpiles of powdered egg, were encouraged to make expeditions to the food shops near Tottenham Court Road in London for such exotic items as sheep's-milk cheese from Greece, olive oil and chick peas.
After the austerity of the war years, A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) inspired a new perception of cooking. The recipes were often imprecise, rarely offering a fail-safe method or an opportunity for the lazy cook to cut a corner. What they did do was educate the reader. David's authoritative writing described the correct way to make a risotto and the right type of spaghetti to buy. Hitherto unheard-of dishes - paellas, polenta, cassoulet and bourride - were explained: where they came from, who cooked them, who ate them and when. Armed with this background knowledge, the slightly more confident cook was encouraged to practice preparing the recipes. Gratins, partridges stuffed the Italian way, and omelettes were all set before families; a minor revolution had taken place in our kitchens because of one woman's nostalgic longing for the places in which she had once lived.
The story of the writing of her first book, told by David in an autobiographical essay she wrote for the Spectator in 1963, is a rare peek at her life. Before her death in 1992, she said that all there was to know of her was in her eight books. There are few cookery writers about whose lives we would want to learn, but in David's case the insights into the author's character through the essays and books seem inadequate. Her poetical but light style of writing, strong opinions, sharp wit and perfectionist's obsession with detail, tell little of the actual course of her life.
Her love of privacy was perhaps spurred on by a comment from her great friend and mentor, Norman Douglas, who said, "I like to taste my friends, not eat them", referring to his own loathing of gossip and chatter. In this, as with his attitude to life and how to live it to the utmost, his influence over David endured throughout her life.
Marketing analysts now claim that the British middle class regard the culture of food as second in importance only to bringing up their children. The media obsession with cooking, the glut of recipe books, Arborio rice on sale in Sainsbury's, Delia Smith, Terence Conran, pestles and mortars, chicken bricks, millions of gallons of extra-virgin olive oil - without Elizabeth David perhaps none of these things would have entered our lives. Before the publication of English Bread and Yeast Cookery in 1976, bread on the shop shelves was likely to be sliced white Sunblest, with a texture which David described as "boiled wool". The first print run of 10,000 English Bread's walked off the shelves: there were two more hardback print runs within three months. Suddenly, people were baking; redundant mills were restarted, producing traditional, unbleached flour; stoneground flour was in the shops. Within three years, "hot-bread bakeries" were quite the thing.
Born in 1913, Elizabeth David grew up in a family where food was never discussed at the table. Her father, Rupert Gwynne, was the MP for Eastbourne and came from a family of successful Victorian industrialists, designers of a bilge pump that carried the family's name and which sold well in its day to the Navy - as a result of which the Gwynnes were very well off. David's mother, Stella, was a clever, erudite woman and a member of the Ridley family, political heavyweights and aristocrats, her father having been Home Secretary.
David's father died when she was 12 and her mother left a year later to remarry and live in Jamaica, abandoning her four daughters. In 1926 this seemingly cruel behaviour would have appeared less surprising to a girl of Elizabeth's background, when it was common to be brought up by a nanny in a separate part of the house, before being sent to boarding school. In later years, the mother's marriage failed and she returned to England and re-entered David's life. She took great pride in her favourite daughter's success, but was faintly surprised at her interest in food - something that to her mind had always appeared on the table without any fuss.
David's early experience of food was not inspiring: "hateful teatime milk", puddings that were "slippery and slimy" and tapioca, "invented apparently solely to torment children". In 1929, aged 16, she was taken out of the confines of her boarding school in Tunbridge Wells and sent to Paris. The Paris stay was to be an extended cultural tour, but after visiting every museum and important house, she signed up for a course in art and literature at the Sorbonne. During her two-year stay in France, David lived in lodgings with a French family, the Robertots.
In French Provincial Cooking she describes her time with this clan with a hilarious sniping at their affliction of greed and respect for their devotion to eating good food. The Robertot's cook, Leontine, was bullied from morning until night as dish upon dish of pastries and petits fours, roti de veau and moules a la creme was set before these gluttons. David's introduction to French country food left a lasting imprint - far more so than the reams of poetry that she learnt by heart at the Sorbonne.
At the time, however, she wanted to be an actress and after her return to England she worked at the Oxford Repertory Theatre, followed by a season with the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. Then, in 1936, feeling the urge to travel, she once again left England for Europe. She formed a friendship with the novelist and travel writer Norman Douglas whom she came to regard as her inspiration. A lover of all things Bacchic and aesthetic, Douglas held as his motto the Rabelaisian injunction, "Do what thou wilt", and he rampaged his way through life gaining a reputation for sexual promiscuity and general over-indulgence. "Always do as you please, and send everybody to Hell, and take the consequences. Damned good rule of life," he told David.
South Wind, Douglas's great novel of hedonistic pursuit, based in the countries around the Mediterranean, mirrored the life of its author. Born in 1868, he was originally trained as a diplomat, but abandoned his career after disgracing himself with a woman while he was on a posting to Moscow. His only marriage ended acrimoniously and he promptly transferred his attention exclusively to young boys with one exception when, later in life, he caused a further scandal by having an affair with a 10-year-old girl. Oddly, his life's trail of disgraceful behaviour did nothing to temper the loyalty of his friends, who always loved the man with the "thatch of silvery hair ... sharp Mephistophe-lean eyes and wicked, tufted eyebrows". In the author Compton Mackenzie's words, he was "crisp as a pippin, ruddy and comfortable as a plum, spicy as a peach, shameless as a fig."
To David, Douglas was irresistible. They met for the first time in the South of France in 1937. Norman Douglas was 72 and David 24. He was living in relative poverty in Antibes, having made a hasty departure from Florence after yet another misdemeanour. Spotting a natural and eager scholar in Elizabeth, he would drag her off on long walks, bombarding her with information about every conceivable food and wine that could be bought locally; which shops to avoid; what market days she should never miss. A steep climb up a hillside might be rewarded by lunch in a village restaurant or perhaps a picnic. Douglas never travelled anywhere without a supply of good food in his pockets, ensuring there was never a danger of eating badly. (Picnics were also to become something of a speciality of Elizabeth's, who later always advised her readers that it was as good to buy a piece of great cheese, a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, as it was to sit in a restaurant recommended by the Michelin Guide.)
It was Douglas who passed on to her the importance of the origin of simple ingredients: he would know who cultivated the sweetest figs on Capri; the pasticceria who made the finest ravioli; the culprit who picked his grapes too green for wine. He told David stories of the people who grew, sold and cooked the food, and the significance of many dishes in history. Food was more to him than sustenance on the table, it was also about places and personalities. David wrote very little in detail about her friends, but in 1952, 17 years after Douglas's suicide, she produced an essay for Gourmet magazine about the loss of her friend. With great sadness she pointed out that had they never met, she would never have written about food.
David was living in Greece in 1939 when the Germans invaded and was evacuated to Alexandria in Egypt. She had set up home briefly on one of the Greek islands, a place she clearly missed when writing about it later in Mediterranean Food: "You can sit at a table on the sand with your feet almost in the Aegean as you drink your ouzo; boys with baskets of little clams or kidonia (sea quinces) pass up and down the beach and open them for you at your table; or the waiter will bring you large trays of olives, dishes of atherinous (tiny fried fish); small pieces of grilled octopus, all this accompanied by limes or lemons and a mound of bread."
In 1940 she was sent from Alexandria to Cairo where, for the next four years, she ran a reference library for the Allied Ministry of Information. The 26-year-old David was a beauty: 5ft 8in, with brown hair, high cheekbones and extraordinary slanting, somewhat heavy-lidded eyes that she enhanced with make-up so that they looked even wider. At that time she had a passion for wearing ornate kaftans, carried off with a superb grace inherited from her acting experiences.
She was clearly loved by the circle of British people in Cairo. And while others complained of the nasty foreign "muck" set before them, David hired a Sudanese cook, Suleiman, who was known to her friends as "master of the Primus stove". In typical Norman Douglas style, she threw her energy and curiosity into seeking out the best her surroundings had to offer. She never tired of robust, gutsy vegetable dishes, colourful pilaffs, and salads with cooling dressings made from yoghurt and mint.
In Cairo she became close to the author George Lasalle. He said that before her arrival in his life, the city had been nothing for him but a "tawdry, fly-infested slum". Through meeting her, and eating the food cooked by the dedicated Suleiman, Egypt became a happy place for him. The besotted Lasalle wrote that there was no place "which she did not adorn and enliven with her wit and uninhibited sense of humour".
After Lasalle's posting from Cairo, Elizabeth met and married a young officer in the Indian Army, Anthony David. At the end of the war he returned with his wife to India but she found her new home uncomfortable. The climate was so disagreeable to her that it made her ill, and she was invalided back to chilly England in 1946. They spent 1947 together in London but by 1948 the marriage was over. She never told anyone why, believing it to be only her business. David remained fond of her husband and according to her friends always spoke well of him.
David never remarried or had children. It is possible that her marriage was an intrusion into her extraordinarily independent life. In the Fifties, when "the family" was highly rated, David chose to devote her life to her passion for learning. Although her work could be solitary, she did have many friends. The few who are still alive are unwilling to talk about her personal life, even five years after her death; absolute discretion seems to have been an essential requirement in order to be a true friend of Elizabeth's.
THE MANUSCRIPT she gave in 1948 to John Lehmann, a publisher with a small, eponymous firm was, in his words, "an unprepossessing bundle of grubby typescript". Not feeling enthusiastic about a treatise on Mediterranean cooking, he gave it to his reader Julia Strachey who very quickly advised him to take a risk on it, recognising that it was written by an expert.
At the time, Britain was still steeped in post-war austerity, and Lehmann thought the book should be decorated with uplifting, evocative images. He asked the artist John Minton to illustrate it. Minton's pen and ink drawings of eggs in ceramic bowls, baskets of fruit and shining fish, market traders, oxen and fishermen, went perfectly with David's lyrical text and startling recipes. For the cookery writer Marguerite Patten, reading the book was "like the sunlight coming in".
In 1951, David followed Mediterranean Food with French Country Cooking. Cookery books with French recipes - or the pre-war British cookery writers' versions - were nothing new, but no one had up to that point suggested that French cooking could be anything but the grand dishes found in the great restaurants, or that country wine was in any way notable and not something you drank locally when supplies of Margaux had dried up.
Her book was saying that ordinary French people cooked, too, but more simply; and, what was more, this cooking varied from region to region. Suddenly an appetiser did not have to be layer upon layer of items, pureed, poached and surrounded with thick, buttery sauces, but could be a simple plate of sliced cured saucisson bought from a charcuterie. Again Lehmann published French Country Cooking with Minton drawings. Both of David's books sold well in hardback, but it was not until after 1955 when Penguin put out the paperback versions that the books found a wider audience and the impact of her work was fully felt on the British way of life. More than a million copies sold between 1955 and 1985.
As well as books, Elizabeth David wrote for many magazines and newspapers throughout the Fifties and Sixties, most notably for the Spectator and Vogue. In 1960 Audrey Withers, Vogue's editor, asked David to write a series on France's markets to be accompanied by authentic photographs. Withers duly despatched David and the photographer Anthony Denny. The "food travelogue" has now entered mainstream journalism, but David, Withers and Denny can lay claim to its invention.
David had by now based herself in London. Her mother had purchased her a house, 24 Halsey Street in Chelsea, which was to be her home for the rest of her life. When asked why, in view of the fact that she wrote about the great richness of life in France, Italy and the Mediterranean with complete admiration, she chose not to continue to live abroad, she replied that she was "where she belonged", preferring the secure boundaries of London. London was, of course, where the work was, and David was kept busy as a writer. Despite coming from a wealthy background she still had to earn a living, since the Gwynne family money had not fallen into the laps of the Gwynne daughters after the death of their father. In comparison to a successful author today, David did not make a fortune from her writing, but was able to live well.
Work would always demand trips abroad, and her desire to research and put together a comprehensive book on the regional cooking of Italy took her there for a year. David was always most proud of her book, Italian Food, published in 1954. When she began work in 1952, provincial Italian cooking was uncharted territory. British holiday-makers who visited the tourist hotels on the Italian Riviera, would have been unlikely to encounter more than a veal escalope or perhaps spaghetti Bolognese in their hotel dining rooms. And to venture out to a restaurant where local people ate would have been considered foolhardy.
Again David pointed out that there is no such thing as Italian food, but the food of Genoa, Veneto, Toscana and Napoli among others. Warned by an English friend not to bother writing the book (" ... all that pasta, we've got enough stodge here already; you won't find much else in Italy. You'll have to invent it"), her discoveries of the risottos, the polenta dishes, the shellfish soups, pizza, buffalo mozzarella, bruschetta and osso buco were a revelation.
As with the previous two books, the explosion of Italian country food into mainstream cooking in Britain did not happen for another 10 years, when Penguin brought out the first paperback edition. Up to that point, obtaining authentic Italian ingredients involved a trip to shops such as Camisa & Sons in Soho, as the only remotely "Italian" food to be found on a grocery shop's shelves would have been Quaker macaroni. As a literary work Italian Food met with wide acclaim. Evelyn Waugh nominated it his choice for Book of the Year in 1954. The most astonishing passages are those that talk not just of food but succeed in bringing Italy to life.
Of a food market in Venice she wrote: "The light of a Venetian dawn in early summer ... is so limpid and still that it makes every separate vegetable and fruit and fish luminous with a light of its own ... Here the cabbages are cobalt blue, the beetroots deep rose, the lettuces pure clear green, sharp as glass. Bunches of gaudy gold marrow flowers show off the elegance of pink and white-marbled bean pods, primrose potatoes, green plums, green peas. The colours of the peaches, cherries and apricots, packed in boxes lined with sugar-bag blue paper matching the blue canvas trousers worn by the men unloading the gondolas are reflected in the rose-red mullet and the orange vongole. In Venice even ordinary sole, and ugly great skate are striped with delicate lilac lights, the sardines shine like newly minted coins, pink Venetian scampi are fat and fresh, infinitely enticing in the early dawn."
Food had never been written about in this way, David's natural talent as a scholar and writer had, and would continue to, set her apart from all food writers. Although delighted to have sparked off a never-ending demand for cookery books on all subjects, she was scornful of many of her heirs and despised being named the doyenne of cookery writers. "Who wants to be doyenne of them?" she said. It is amusing to imagine her reaction to Ainsley Harriot and Gary Rhodes's camp arm-waving exploits on television.
After her next book, Summer Cook (1955), David revised her work already done on the cooking of the provinces of France, adding to it the fruits of her journalism, and many new ideas gleaned from trips to France over the next five years. The end result was French Provincial Cooking (1960). With even more arduous travelling and thorough research than Italian Food, she had created the definitive book on cookery in the various regions of France. Then, after a fruitful 12 years, she stopped writing almost completely and moved on to a new fascination - cookery equipment.
The Elizabeth David Cookshop opened in Bourne Street, Pimlico in 1965 and contained every type of pan, spoon, mould and knife. Previously unidentifiable objects such as Parmesan cutters, diables (earthenware pots with closely fitting lids), omelette pans and little pots for coeur a la creme were piled in pyramids in the window. Elizabeth herself would mind the shop and explain to interested visitors how to use the goods.
David's nephew, Johnny Grey, remembers a special treat would be a visit to the shop after school where, mooching around in the basement storeroom, the tightly packed, dusty space would reveal cooking implements from all over the world. The cookshop gave David a chance to indulge in her love of beautiful things. There was little functional plastic here: hand-hammered aluminium pans, rustic Turkish ceramics; cast-iron casseroles and delicate white-porcelain serving pots. Johnny recalls that she was unable to walk past a hardware store without sticking her head round the door, and would stop on London streets to examine the drain lids to discover who had made them. This was not, he says, so much a sign of the industrialist's grand- daughter in her but a love of the aesthetic in made things.
Unnecessary objects were of no interest to her. The insistence by her partners in the cookshop to stock items that she deemed to have no place in the kitchen, such as garlic crushers, was one of the disagreements that brought about the termination of her dealings with the shop in 1973. She was deeply upset that she was unable to remove her name from the store, which continued to trade, believing that she had in some way lost part of herself.
With time on her hands again, David set down to work on two books, the first Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970) and English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977). She had discussed with Jill Norman, her editor at Penguin, the idea of writing a book about good English food, which she felt had been neglected. With Spices, Salt and Aromatics she revealed her own collection of old English recipes, tied in with her knowledge of history. Extraordinary facts about the origins of sauces such as tomato ketchup emerge - (it was believed that tomatoes, a relative of the deadly nightshade family, should be eaten cooked to avoid poisoning). English Bread was even more of a scholarly and deeply researched work. She and Jill Norman toured the country, read every book, trawled through every ancient document concerning the subject until the book was ready. Jill says: "Bread grew and grew. Almost as if there was yeast in it".
Young food writers and chefs often approached David for help when starting out; they received erratic responses. Anyone whom she suspected to be without integrity, or cashing in on her name, would be dismissed with a sharp remark, others given encouragement. Her nephew Johnny Grey remembers well that she had a way of cocking her head to one side and closing her eyes that was both questioning and unnerving, and she never hid her contempt for any foolish utterance. She disliked any sort of personal publicity. If she was to be photographed, she had to approve the photographs. Her concern over her appearance, and insistence on looking not just good but beautiful for her publicity shots, was at odds with her deeply practical nature. The workaday food writer would always be seen in immaculate make- up, hair set, and chicly dressed. Cecil Beaton and Bailey were among those permitted to take her photograph.
She did not give many interviews, finding the process uncomfortable and daunting. On one famous occasion in 1987, she travelled to the Walnut Tree restaurant in Wales to be interviewed by Jancis Robinson for television. Robinson began the questions. Never having sat in front of a camera before, without a dry run, an elderly and therefore slowed David appeared distracted and irritated. Twirling a wine glass in her hand her answers were vague and there were many silences. The resultant broadcast was a disaster and the word was that David was drunk. In fact, the inexperienced interviewee complained that she "couldn't understand why Jancis kept asking her silly questions that she perfectly well knew the answers to", and that she suspected Robinson had not read her books.
Even when Radio 4's Derek Cooper, arguably radio's most skilled interviewer, met her for the Food Programme in 1984, he found it hard to use more than a few minutes from two hours of tape. Cooper believes she was not being deliberately difficult and that she was upset at being unable to give a good performance.
Her embarrassment over these and other attempts to persuade her to talk about her life, further set her apart from the majority of cookery writers who leapt at any opportunity for publicity.
As she aged, David acquired a reputation for being difficult and impatient. She felt that with all she had learnt she had a natural right to set the same high standards for others as she had for herself. There was something very un-English about her willingness to complain if the situation was dire enough. A pretentious establishment might well find itself the target of a cutting remark.
With the onset of the fashion for nouvelle cuisine in English restaurants, the hater of food fads was in her element. Taking a friend for lunch she was horrified at the arrival of the friend's order - a huge plate in the centre of which sat one and a half mushrooms. "My friend has not come here because she is on a diet!" she barked at the waiter. A proper-sized portion duly arrived.
This did not make her a bad guest in people's homes. She always made a great effort, and very rarely remarked on the food, party because she did not want her hosts to be uncomfortable and also because, perhaps surprisingly, she did not discuss food when she wasn't working. She preferred to talk about the theatre, to which she had always remained devoted since her early exploits in repertory.
A combination of illness - she suffered from a condition that caused her bones to break easily - and her hatred of publicity, resulted in David becoming increasingly reclusive. Her health gradually deteriorated and she was housebound for long periods in Halsey Street in the 10 years leading up to her death in 1992 at the age of 78. She rarely ceased working, either in bed or, if she was able to get down the stairs, at the kitchen table. For a long time she had lived with her favourite sister, Felicite Gwynne, who had a flat on the top floor of the house. When Elizabeth was ill, Felicite was her link to life outside. The sisters rarely met for long in the house, eccentrically preferring to talk by telephone between their separate living quarters. With Felicite's death, David was alone and depended on just a few close friends.
One of these was Jill Norman, who has now produced an anthology of the writer's work, combined with contributions from David's friends and admirers, called A South Wind Through the Kitchen, the title David gave to her essay on Norman Douglas.
News of David's death in May 1992 was a relatively quiet affair. Apart from her obituaries and frequent mention of her food in cookery writers' columns, perhaps not enough credit had been given to the person who had a monumental influence on the way that this country literally regained its appetite after the Second World War.
Perhaps for Elizabeth David any furore would have been inappropriate, as for her, all aspects of life were to be kept simple: "An omelette and a salad and a piece of cheese ... we won't make any fuss, but what we will have will be well chosen, and go nicely with a glass of wine".Reuse content