Food & Drink: Lots to remember her by: At the sale of Elizabeth David's everyday culinary effects Michael Bateman joined the eager bidders. He did battle with the faithful to secure some treasured holy relics

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The Independent Culture
NEARLY two years after her death, Elizabeth David has been elevated to sainthood. The most influential food writer of the century was canonised last month by her most passionate followers at a reverential ceremony known as an auction.

Here, after a five-day vigil in Phillips' Bayswater salerooms, sifting and scrutinising her most personal household items, hundreds of her followers pressed into the auction room to compete for possession of the precious relics. They shook out fabrics from a trunk and rifled through the pages of books, scattering notes, cuttings and letters. Was it reverence, or was it rude curiosity?

Some, especially those who knew what a private person Elizabeth David was, thought the sale in bad taste. But they still came. Jill Norman, long-time friend, editor and now literary executor, admitted: 'She would have hated this. She would have thought people stupid.'

So why a sale at all? It was to solve a problem Mrs David inadvertently left to Stephen Grey, now living in Australia, who as the oldest nephew was the beneficiary of her will. As she grew older, and especially after the death of her sister Felicity, who had shared her Chelsea home, Elizabeth David allowed every room in the four-storey house to fill with what she referred to as 'clutter, the curse of every cookery writer'. A cousin, Henrietta Palmer, who helped clear the house, noted that she'd even kept Jiffy bags. 'She was a great hoarder. She never threw anything away. She was an old- fashioned kind of person.'

So someone was going to have to remove it all. Provision had already been made for her pre-1800 cookery books, they had gone to the Warburg Institute; the rest of her valuable cookery books had been donated to the Guild of Food Writers' collection at the City of London Guildhall. Choice bits and pieces had been shared among family and friends.

But there was still more. Initially the family thought of taking a stall in Portobello Road market, but Phillips the auctioneers persuaded them otherwise. Given Elizabeth David's name, they said, the items could fetch pounds 10,000. Then, after five days of unprecedented viewing, they predicted the figure would be twice that. In fact the total was to be nearly five times the original estimate: pounds 49,000.

The facts about the David family have come as a shock to Elizabeth David fans, in the same way that discovering a pop icon has ordinary parents can devastate a teenager. Mrs David kept details of her private life secret. Anyone who intruded on her privacy was given short shrift. As Henrietta Palmer puts it: 'If you crossed her, she cut you dead, forever. It was like Drop Dead - for a hundred years.'

Elizabeth David was one of four daughters (with Felicity, Diana and Priscilla) of the Conservative MP for Eastbourne, Sir Robert Gwynne. Only Priscilla had children, four sons; Mrs David remained devoted to, and affectionate towards, these four nephews. They knew her as Great Aunt Liza. Nephew Rupert managed to get to the auction - a tall, dark and handsome figure, in Dickensian full-length field-green coat, with an angler's rucksack slung over his shoulder. He described himself as an explorer and newspaper libel lawyer.

He was happy enough to talk about his Great Aunt Liza, rejecting the popular notion that she was reclusive. And food, he revealed, was far from being her main topic of conversation. 'She was a great English social historian. We had many arguments and disagreements. She invited us round often, though in the last 20 years it was never for a meal. It was 'Come for a drink at six o'clock'. Nice things to eat would appear, and we'd finish at half past four in the morning, having drunk about four bottles of very good wine.'

He surveyed the contents of the saleroom with irony, aware of people's surprise that things were so - ordinary. 'The best has been creamed off,' he said. 'It's gone to family and friends. These are the dregs.'

Could he possibly mean the Tupperware, which caused a few raised eyebrows? But in Summer Cooking (1955) Elizabeth David describes keeping a large bunch of chervil, 'the most perishable of all herbs', in a Tupperware box in the fridge for a fortnight. 'It emerged in perfect condition.'

The nephews had taken possession of the famous omelette pan (An Omelette and A Glass of Wine was her last book, in 1984, a brilliant collection of her more acerbic writing). They have agreed to keep the pan for a year each. The best cook is probably Stephen, in Australia. 'Over there,' says Henrietta Palmer, 'it's quite a brave thing for a man to put on a pinny and go into the kitchen to make roulades.'

The prize items to bidding cooks were the pots and pans Elizabeth David might actually have used, and, above all, the kitchen table and the kitchen dresser. But even the odds and sods aroused interest. Christina Bishop, consultant and purveyor of kitchenware, had joined a huddle of antiquarian dealers such as Mike McKirdy of Rottingdean and Janet Clarke of Freshford, near Bath, buying for the future. She was rubbing her hands with glee: 'This sale puts kitchenalia on the map. It makes us respectable.'

The piece de resistance, Mrs David's kitchen table, had been earmarked by Prue Leith, the cookery writer and restaurateur. She knew Elizabeth David as well as any food writer. 'I used to take her en primeur (baby) vegetables. It felt like taking an offering to a goddess. I sometimes took her out to lunch. It wasn't always a pleasure; she was not always well, and she was very critical. The food wouldn't be perfect, or there would be a lentil dish and she'd say: 'I'm surprised there's still a lentil bush left in the Middle East.' Or she felt put upon. People plagiarised her.'

(Indeed, in the auction room earlier, a David fan, a retired Swedish doctor, found between the pages of one of her books a recipe cutting from a famous rival cook; she'd scribbled on it: 'Straight out of Mediterranean Food.' Now we know why she cut him dead for a hundred years.)

Prue Leith didn't actually call Elizabeth David a goddess in print, but Paul Levy did in The Official Foodie Handbook. Unhappily, he had given some inaccurate details about the military status of her husband (long-divorced, never-mentioned). Drop dead for a hundred years.

Paul Levy wasn't the only person to deify Elizabeth David. When Clarissa Dickson- Wright was manager of Books for Cooks, she remembers taking a phone call from her: 'I dropped the phone. It was like answering the phone to God.'

At last week's sale, auctioneer Richard Madley set off at a cracking pace; he was clearly overwhelmed at the value placed on such things as storage jars, whisks, lemon squeezers and chopping boards. As a jar of wooden spoons and forks went for pounds 400, he begged: 'Everyone bring your wooden spoons to Phillips to be auctioned.' Mrs David's kitchen dresser was the high point of the sale, fetching pounds 1,850. Prue Leith did indeed snap up the kitchen table - a bargain, she said, at pounds 1,100.

The press were also struck by the absurdity of the prices. The Independent's Steve Boggan marvelled at the bidder who splashed out pounds 320 on a colander; the cook who spent pounds 200 on a glass sugar-crusher; and the man who bought a rolling pin for pounds 280.

You can laugh, Steve, but it wasn't any old rolling pin. It's made of lignum vitae, the densest wood on the planet, in two shades of chocolate, shiny as marble and almost as heavy. And, look, as I haven't thought of a way to tell my wife yet, can you keep this to yourself for a bit?

It would have been nice to have boasted that this was the very rolling pin Mrs David used to roll out her first pissaladiere (A Book of Mediterranean Food, her first book, published in 1950), or to flatten the thin pastry for a quiche lorraine (French Provincial Cooking, her great classic, published in 1960). But was it?

Having paid my pounds 280, a buyer's premium and 1.5 per cent credit card commission, I presented my find to Jill Norman, one of Mrs David's oldest friends, for her opinion. 'I don't remember Elizabeth using this rolling pin,' she said. 'She used a long, thin, rather light one.'

Happily, Lot 65 also comprised some other wooden items. Jill Norman scrutinised them. Five wooden ducks which might be guides for cutting pastry shapes, still in their wrapper, unopened (nuff said). A present no doubt, like the pristine Chinese ginger grater made of saw-toothed bamboo (Mrs David had a prejudice against Chinese food). There was a barrel pepper-grinder, with a few twists of ferociously hot pepper left (Mrs David was often more than a little peppery).

A ridged wooden implement might have been used for marking pasta (her Italian Food was published in 1954) or for shaping butter pats (Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, 1970). A long wooden implement could have been a tool for the dairy or bakery (English Bread and Yeast Cookery, her finest work of research, published 1977).

There was also a wooden bowl, eight inches across, etched with a criss-cross pattern, as well-worn as the step on a monk's cell. Aha, this may have served as her hachinette. 'Invaluable,' she says (French Country Cooking, published 1954), 'for cutting up small quantities of parsley, herbs, shallots or onions.'

It met with Jill Norman's approval. But it was the last item that startled her - the image of a cat, carved from a flat piece of wood. 'Good Heavens, I gave that to Elizabeth. I bought it in New York in 1984. It used to stand on her dresser in the kitchen.' On the kitchen dresser, no kidding? You mean on the altar itelf. Goodness, this is not just one of your holy relics, this is a veritable household god. How much did you pay for it, Jill? -

(Photograph omitted)