Nice work, if you can get it

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves trailing around the kitchens and dining rooms of the Mediterranean in the footsteps of Elizabeth David (below), soaking up rays, fine wine and top fodder. Strangely, this man did choose to accept it Nice work, if you can get it: the search for Elizabeth
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's a spring day on the banks of the Wye. Damp-looking clouds chase one another across the Welsh hills. The characters in this small drama - the hunt for Elizabeth David, the great food writer and social historian - are in their places.

There's Noel, our cameraman, more accustomed to hanging upside down out of helicopters to get authentic shots than to waiting for a flock of sheep to get off the road. His son, Austin, stands patiently by, microphone at the ready. Mark, the director, would ideally like the light to be "just so" - not too bright, not too gloomy - but he'd have liked it even more if I'd trimmed my nostril hairs. Rose, later primed to give me this intimate advice ("it's a woman's job"), watches knowledgeably over the birth of her infant programme - producer, glorious cook and food writer in residence.

Niki, our researcher - of whom it is not a sin against gender mainstreaming to say that she's pretty and blonde - lies curled up in the back of my car, walkie-talkie pressed to her ear, waiting to give me the signal to slip the Inspector Morse Jaguar into gear, U-turn without backing into the river, and drive into camera shot (for what seems like the 83rd time) to film the opening scene for our voyage of discovery.

But why me? Why exactly am I here? Why not Rick Stein or Michael Portillo? Well, I guess it's all because I'm one of the Elizabeth David generation and have written about my apostolate, for example, in an old anniversary edition of The Good Food Guide.

Setting up house in the early Seventies, my wife Lavender and I worked our way through most of the David canon. Lavender cooked her daubes and terrines, and we used to take our copy of French Provincial Cooking on motoring holidays to France, searching out her favourite hotels and restaurants. Among them were the Auberge at Inxent, in a pretty valley just behind Boulogne (where David picked up her recipe for sweet omelettes), and the magnificent Hotel du Midi at Lamastre, where we spent the second night of our honeymoon.

Others needed Lawrence Durrell to remind them of the light, the tastes and the unique aromas of southern France; but we turned to Elizabeth David.

So Rose tracked me down while I was working in France on a book on Asia, and here I am a year later. "Fancy three weeks eating and drinking around the Mediterranean?" she had asked. But she didn't mention the Wye in the wet.

We began the more exotic stuff in my favourite city, Venice, where every visit brings new discoveries. Elizabeth had been brought here under arrest during the Second World War - suspected by the Italians of spying. She returned in more congenial circumstances in the Fifties, while writing Italian Food. We wanted to find a chef who'd provide Elizabeth David's simple, honest and authentic food, and who would introduce us to the "pescheria" - the six centuries-old fish market. We found just the man in Franco Gasparini. He's got a little restaurant near the Arsenale called the Hostaria da Franz, a slightly longer walk from our hotel next to St Mark's than my favourite Venice restaurant, the Corte Sconta. Franco's restaurant is definitely "vaut le detour".

We went to the market at crack of dawn, and while Noel filmed wriggling and squiggling crustaceans and close-ups of bloody slices of tuna, I watched the vaporetti gurgling down the Grand Canal and under the Rialto bridge, with businessmen on their way to the office gesticulating into their mobile phones.

I cooked baby soft-shelled crabs with Franco, drowning them first in egg yolk. They were delicious. But better still was the bowl of clams cooked in their own juice with parsley, and the Venetian sardines in a sweet-and-sour marinade.

To demonstrate the authenticity of our Venetian experience, the charming fishermen whom we filmed on station in the lagoon ripped us off, making a large hole in our budget. So to recover morale I took everyone out to the ever-dependable Trattoria Madonna in the street of the same name near the Rialto. Along with La Famiglia in Chelsea, it is quite the best of its sort of Italian restaurant - noisy, cheerful, good straightforward cooking and the sort of waiters who appeal to my wife as well as my daughters.

From Venice, we drove (poor Rose drove, actually) through the tunnels and round the hairpin bends to Bologna and Tuscany. We filmed on a golden hillside south of Pienza, planned by Pope Pius II as a model Renaissance town, and then pushed on to Montalcino to sample the Brunello, Italy's greatest red wine, at the bar and wine-shop in the main street.

The next day was May Day, which I naturally spent with the workers. We invaded a contadini (sharecroppers') farm on the border of Tuscany, where we'd been told that the farmer's wife, Fosca, cooked as well as anyone in the neighbourhood. Fosca used the bread oven outside in the barn. I ate 14 courses once with Helmut Kohl in Hong Kong. He did not disgrace his country. But even he would have had difficulty cleaning his plate with Fosca in the kitchen. We had a vegetable soup that perked up the previous day's stale bread, home-made tagliatelle, salads, little purple- headed artichokes, chicken, lamb, ewe and goat cheeses and tarts. The only things that Fosca buys are coffee, sugar and salt. We drank some of the Brunello and, just to make sure that we really did like it, we had a further tasting on the way home in the cantina of a hilltop castle.

Netta, the owner of Cumpa Cosimo in Ravello, would approve of Fosca's cooking. Netta, in between giving me rib-breaking hugs, served us the mellanzane parmigiana, layers of aubergine and mozzarella, then stuffed peppers and home-made gnocchi. She'd done the same for Humphrey Bogart and Gore Vidal. Afterwards, we drank Limoncello, ice cold, and a hazelnut drink which probably makes you blind after the first bottle. It's the sort of thing you have after dinner on holiday, knowing that you're making a big mistake.

How could filming in Greece beat all that? In late May, we flew to Syros after a tiresome wait at Athens airport for the evening domestic flight. It's not an island much visited by tourists because there's a shipyard there. But it's fascinating and largely unspoilt with a beautiful capital, Hermoupolis, tumbling down two hills, one Catholic and one Orthodox, to the handsome harbour.

Syros used to be the trading centre for the galleys from the Levant, and grew sufficiently prosperous to pave its streets in pink marble and build an elegant piazza, where I ate several multi-coloured ice-cream sundaes with the excuse that in between mouthfuls I could do a piece to camera on Elizabeth David's last book on ice.

David had escaped with her lover from Athens to Syros during the war, keeping just a step ahead of the Germans. They lived in a house on the beach at Vari, where the old men in the taverna still remember from boyhood the young Englishwoman who used to plunge into the sea, dazzling them with her brazen beauty. To make ends meet, she used to cook piccalilli and Christmas puddings to sell in the market.

I suspect we ate rather better than that as a guest of Jorgos Bailas, a local tax inspector, who runs a restaurant up the hill at the back of Hermoupolis. Jorgos, a big, bearded man who plays the guitar and the bouzouki and laughs a lot, had some difficulty placing us. Knowing my political past, he wondered what I thought of "Margaret David". That bit of film, alas, will have hit the cutting room floor. I don't know what Jorgos is like as a tax collector, but he's a grand cook. He made a vast tray of meze. The star was an exquisite little sausage reeking of wild fennel. Jorgos's view is that you need a lot of meze so that you can drink more. We ate prodigious quantities of meze, and - yes - the pitchers of wine kept coming. Not memorable wine, but certainly plentiful.

In July, we took the tough decision to film our final sequences in Provence. We spent a couple of

nights in Uzes, where Elizabeth went to stay with her doctor, Patrick Woodcock, and whose market she celebrated in an essay in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. The last time I'd been to Uzes, Lavender ate a bad moule on the first night and spent the next day in agony in bed, while I sat selfishly under the trees next to the famous fenestral tower and read two Graham Greenes.

Patrick Woodcock took us to dinner on the outskirts of town, to the Jardin d'Olivier, where we ate bowls of Provencal food by starlight and drank several bottles of very good Rhone wine, St Joseph and Cornas.

We filmed in the market next morning. Uzes is a real treat - stalls chock-a-block from the fountain to the colonnade. I bought cheeses, olives, flowers and sausages over and over again, while the sun kept on quite deliberately getting into the wrong position. By lunch time, I am Monsieur Grumpy.

When Lavender and I first visited the petit Luberon, nearly 30 years ago, the villages seemed genuine centres of rural life. Now, pretty as they still are, they look as though they are full of second homes for people who almost deserve to have Peter Mayle for a neighbour. Menerbes was the setting for his own patronising dollops of imaginary France. A land where every man wears a beret, has a baguette under his arm and says "zis" and "zat". Just compare Mayle writing on Provence with Frances Mayes' beautiful books on setting up home in Tuscany, and spot the difference between tat and class.

We had a stunning river-side picnic not far from Goult, where we bought treats in industrial quantities at the charcuterie and the epicerie. Did I prefer the stunning pie or the lemony chicken? As David wrote, it's possible (more often today, unfortunately) to eat badly in restaurants in France. But unless you're a fool, you can't have a bad picnic.

The last stop was where Lavender and I had come in. We drove north up the Rhone Valley, buying more St Joseph in vineyards on the way, and climbed up into the Ardeche to the mountain village of Lamastre. This is where Madame Baraterro made the Hotel du Midi famous. Today, it's run by the son of the chef who was there back in David's day, Monsieur Perrier. He still cooks the same menu of famed pain d'ecrevisses sauce cardinal (crayfish sausages), going on to a Bresse chicken. It's steamed slowly with lots of alcohol in a pig's bladder. "You mean you can't get a pig's bladder in England?" M Perrier enquired of my wife, as his predecessor had enquired of Elizabeth David.

The food was as good as we'd remembered, though this time we could afford it. But Lamastre itself seems to have been bypassed by today's holiday- makers racing down the auto- route for the traffic and beach jams on the coast.

Between all the meals and bottles, the olive groves and the white sand, the apricots, the aubergines and the artichokes, did we find what we were looking for? Did we find the elusive Elizabeth David? Maybe we did. What's for sure is that Noel thinks it certainly beats hanging upside down out of a helicopter in an anorak.

`In the Footsteps of Elizabeth David' will be shown on C4 on 26 (9pm) and 27 (8pm) Dec