Elizabeth David: And you thought Nigella was sexy...

She brought olive oil and garlic to Britain, but the very private life of Elizabeth David was even spicier than the recipes in her books. As a biopic comes to the small screen, Caroline Stacey reports

In less time than it takes to boil an egg, the woman who was to become Britain's greatest 20th-century cookery writer, and as famous for her froideur as her fricassees, is snogging her rough-diamond lover. As war loomed in Europe the one-time debutante and actress Elizabeth Gwynne was sailing away to France with East End Jewish charmer Charles Gibson Cowan, a fellow actor, writer and pacifist. And married man.

This is where BBC2's forthcoming Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes begins the story of the beautiful, unconventional Tory MP's daughter who changed what the British middle classes ate. When A Book of Mediterranean Food, her hymn of longing to the cooking around the southern shores, was published in 1950 there was still rationing. Most readers could only dream of trying out the crisply instructive recipes. Olive oil was sold at the chemist's shop, garlic did the devil's work; but she includes in her book a method for stuffing a whole sheep. She ushered not only olive oil and garlic, but also aubergines, courgettes and basil on to the stripped-pine tables of 1960s kitchens. She was probably responsible for the tables, too.

A Life in Recipes turns her life into a drama (though not half as excitingly as her biographies), interwoven with readings from her work and soft-focus cooking shots. The scriptwriter has also contributed to Shameless. At the opposite end of the social spectrum to the Gallagher family, David's early life was, for its time, almost as wild.

Long before the swinging Sixties began, back in post-war England, the by then Mrs David was misbehaving, despite having taken on her husband's name and the respectable mien of a married woman. Behind her evocative accounts of the sensual pleasures of the Mediterranean was a history of torrid affairs before, during, and after the war.

Hers was an extraordinary life, through which she discovered the pleasures of cooking in contrast to the cheerless British approach to it, travelled as far as India (although never much rated the food) and returned to Britain to flout convention behind an imposing patrician manner.

Until Lisa Chaney's unofficial biography lifted the lid on the steamy goings-on in her youth, little was known about her private life. Even now, 13 years after David's death, the keepers of the flame protect her reputation, and tell the prurient what is and is not relevant. Imagine how much they and she would loathe the BBC drama, making so explicit that which she never revealed. Her friends were kept apart, her lovers kept secret. It's rumoured she had affairs with women as well as men but neither the unofficial nor (not that you'd expect it) the official biography names names.

Life in Recipes is so irreverent it's hilarious. There's a mischievous thrill to be had seeing actors simulate the bedroom romps of a woman who was the embodiment of hauteur and guarded her privacy fiercely. "She was very unforgiving, very temperamental, very severe in her standards," her "friend" Sybille Bedford has said. A gutless performance by the breadstick-thin and brittle Catherine McCormack doesn't really get this across.

The journey with the charismatic but uncouth Gibson Cowan is a ripping yarn, though, and one which eventually gave her all the background she needed to become the scourge of bad British cooking. Aged 25, she was already extremely independent (even before running off with Cowan, David had an affair with a married theatre director). At 17, she'd lived with a French family in Paris and studied at the Sorbonne. She had visited ex-pat relatives in Malta between working as a vendeuse at the couture house Worth and as an actress before she set off for France in 1939.

From Provence, the lovers sailed to Italy where their little boat was impounded. From there they reached Greece and the island of Syros where they hid out in a primitively equipped cottage. David was living on handouts from relatives, despite the fact that they disapproved of her antics.

When Greece was invaded by the Nazis, the couple fled to Crete and thence to Egypt where David finally got involved in the war effort and free of her lover. She settled in Cairo with a Sudanese cook called Suleiman, and developed both a flair for mixing ethnic and couture clothes, and a wide circle of friends living life on the edge. Even by the standards of the time - think Mary Wesley novels but set in the Middle East - she played hard. But then her mentor was Norman Douglas, a gamey old libertine who had decamped to Europe after allegedly molesting an under-age boy. When he met David in Antibes, Douglas was 72. He passed on to his protégée his knowledge, contacts and his opinions on fish soup for her third book, Italian Food. He passed on his damn-the-consequences morality, too.

After seven years abroad, London in the bitterly cold winter of 1946-47 was a wretched place. David was driven to put down her memories of the sights and sounds of Mediterranean markets, the heady scent of herbs, garlic and the "the sound of air gruesomely whistling through sheep's lungs frying in oil". Her Indian Army officer husband, Tony David, unromantically acquired in Cairo, had been unregretfully left behind in India, and unceremoniously sidelined once he eventually made it to Britain. By then, staying in a hotel in Ross-on- Wye with unspeakable food, she'd started on the book that began her career. What she never admitted but - with much squeaking of bedsprings - the dramatisation lays bare is that she was not staying alone in the hotel but with another lover she'd first met in Cairo.

Elizabeth David insisted that everything there is to know about her is in her books. Both biographies and Life in Recipes make it grippingly apparent this is not the case. Even now, not everyone agrees how much more there is to know. The TV drama bigs up an affair that the unauthorised biography mentions in passing. Greg Wise smoulders as Peter Higgins, the "PH" to whom she dedicated French Provincial Cooking in 1960.

When that was published, she had reinvented cookery writing and the national diet in just 15 years. Drawing on dishes she had eaten and learnt from cooks in France, Italy, Greece and north Africa, her books are evocative pieces of travel writing, creating an instant connection with the places she had visited, and indispensable for reference. Although her delivery can be horribly imperious, her taste in food still seems impeccable. Her taste in men never was.

Life in Recipes leaves off after the end of the love affair with Higgins. He'd married another woman. Shortly after that, David suffered a stroke at the age of 49 and lost not only the ability to taste salt but also her libido. But she carried on working. She spent the next 25-odd years working, often in bed, on magazine articles, and switched the focus of her scholarship to English cookery - the spices, the seasoning and the breads.

Her effect on British kitchens didn't stop there. Until then kitchens had been purely functional and often out of sight. Her singular existence of cooking, writing, entertaining, drinking and smoking revolved around her farmhouse kitchen table, surrounded by open dressers stacked with terracotta and earthenware pots, cast iron pans, peasant pottery bowls of eggs and artfully arranged Mediterranean fruit and vegetables. Avant garde for 1950s Chelsea, this was how the kitchens of the future would look.

When David opened a cook shop with friends, (with whom she later, inevitably, fell out) selling the artisan cooking euqipment she loved and everyone else later copied, its launch in 1965 was headline news. She was responsible for Le Creuset introducing its cast-iron pans in blue - inspired by the colour of her Gauloise packet.

At the same time, working with the food photographer Anthony Denney, she changed the way recipes were presented in magazines. No studio shots of mashed potato masquerading as ice-cream as was the practice then; the photographs are simply of what she had cooked. Her prose style is echoed by contemporary writers such as Nigel Slater.

The hold she had over the gastrocenti remained after she died. At an auction at Sotheby's, the kitchen table on which she had done much of her writing sold for £1,100, a colander for £320. I bet the buyers and all those who fetishise her will be up in arms about the TV dramatisation. There's plenty to object to. Those tortellini look rather thick. Would she have bared her midriff, aged 39, as a single woman in 1950s Capri? Surely she'd have complained about the stubby wine glasses in a smart restaurant in the 1960s? Above all, wouldn't she have been furious that her private affairs were being acted out and broadcast?

Her life was remarkable and her legacy astonishing. Her recipes stand the test of time and her brilliant writing was the outcome of racketing around the Mediterranean, travelling, drinking and eating alone in Italy, and holing herself up in Ross-on-Wye with another man while her husband was in India. By all accounts she was disagreeable, but that shouldn't put anyone off her books. And now that we know how extraordinarily racy her life was there's even more reason not to forget her.

'Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes' is on BBC2 on Tuesday at 9pm

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