Sex, drink and doomed love: the racy life of the first domestic goddess

Elizabeth David changed the nation's tastes. Now her love life is laid bare in a new film
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The Independent Online

She was Britain's greatest cookery writer of the post-war era. Elizabeth David, whose bestselling classics included Mediterranean Food and French Provincial Cooking, helped to influence the tastes of the nation for decades.

Yet away from the confines of the kitchen, Elizabeth David was a beauty whose sexual liberation was years ahead of her time and who used her smouldering allure to have flings with a string of men.

Now her racy life has been dramatised in a new BBC film, to be screened next month, which will expose the sensuality that few of her readers and followers knew existed. The BBC says the production paints a picture of "an uncompromising libertine who held deeply risqué views on female independence and sexual freedom".

Although her numerous affairs may not look out of the ordinary today, 50 years ago Mrs David's sex life would have been deemed outrageous had it been more widely known. David - whose books helped to change austere British tastes in the 1950s and beyond with her introduction of Mediterranean influences, using ingredients such as olive oil, saffron and courgettes - fiercely kept her private life away from the wider public.

Lisa Chaney, her biographer, said: "She had what you might call a racy love life. She had a series of affairs and may well have had a series of one-night stands.

"For her time, Elizabeth was definitely a libertine. She fell for men constantly. Her men were interesting, charming and dashing, but she was a hopeless judge and always chose the wrong ones.

"Elizabeth was a very sexy woman, but also extremely arty and elegant. She always took great care with her appearance and wanted to remain attractive to men. She spent the majority of her life unmarried, but after she parted from her husband, there was no way she was going to remain celibate for the rest of her life."

Ms Chaney also came across suggestions of lesbian relationships as she researched her book, which was first published in 1998, although there was no documentary evidence.

Mrs David's writing and enthusiasm for extending the range of the British palate through her bestselling books, which also included Summer Cooking and An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, influenced a range of well-known foodies such as Sir Terence Conran and the River Café gurus Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers.

The Sorbonne-educated writer, who died in 1992 at the age of 78, came from a privileged society background, living in a Sussex manor house with her Tory MP father Rupert Gwynne. But to her parents' horror she became an actress in London, and their disapproval was compounded when she left Britain with a married lover in 1939.

It was this trip, however, that pricked her interest in Mediterranean food, and on her return to London shortly after the end of the Second World War she began to write articles about cooking for a British public still steeped in a diet of Spam and powdered egg. Within a few years she was offered her first book deal, for which she spent many months in Italy researching her recipes. She went on to become a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in recognition of her skills as a writer.

In the film, Elizabeth David - My Life in Recipes, which will be screened on BBC2, Mrs David is played by Catherine McCormack, who starred in Braveheart, while Peter Higgins - her most long-standing lover - is portrayed by Greg Wise. Her misery at splitting from Higgins contributed to her ill-health, which ironically affected two of the key elements in her life - her sense of taste and her libido.

Colette Flight, the film's producer, said: "She was a very independent woman and had a great appetite for life. Obviously we reference her love affairs. She was a revolutionary woman and her writing was fantastic."