Prayers and a proper picnic

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The Independent Online
Outside, the sun shone strongly on Trafalgar Square. Inside, the gilt and swirling plaster syllabub of a ceiling at St Martin-in-the- Fields looked down at a great gathering. Beneath were massed the famous of the English culinary scene, come to remember and celebrate the life of their doyenne - Elizabeth David, who died in May, aged 78.

And not only the English. On the right-hand side sat Julia Child, doyenne of American cookery writers. She had known Mrs David in the Sixties, she said. She last saw her two years ago, suffering from osteoporosis. 'She had broken a lot of her limbs - but she was sitting there with a bottle of champagne on her bed.'

'Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,' sang the congregation. Certainly if ever a woman succeeded in spreading happiness, albeit in a firmly material rather than spiritual sense, it was Elizabeth David.

Her writings jolted English cookery from its drab, rationed, post-war state - its 'flour and water soup seasoned solely with pepper; bread and gristle rissoles, dehydrated onions and carrots; corned beef toad-in- the-hole' - into an awareness that such things as olive oil, basil leaves, field mushrooms, home- baked bread and fresh cooked food existed; the 'rational, right and proper food', as she wrote in French Provincial Cooking, an extract from which was now being read in the church, 'for human beings to eat'.

An unusual blend of the sensuous and the practical ran through Mrs David's character. 'She loved beautiful and useful objects,' said Hugh Johnson, wine writer and old friend, talking of the days when she ran a kitchen shop. 'I never knew her more happily obsessed than buzzing about France in pursuit of pots and pans.'

No one could be more elegiac or more scathing than Mrs David. She denounced the second- rate and the makeshift mercilessly. 'Came 1846,' read her editor, Jill Norman, from her anthology An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, 'the year that Mr Alfred Bird brought forth custard powder, and Mr Bird's brainchild grew and grew until all the land was covered with custard made with custard powder, and the trifle had become custard's favourite resting place.' At this, Anton Mosimann, in a bow tie, laughed in his pew, and so did the rest of the congregation.

The choir broke into a madrigal written by one Thomas Weelkes in the early 17th century, well before fast food and glace cherries:

The Andalusian Merchant that

returns

Laden with Cochineal and china

dishes

Reports in Spain how strangely

Fogo burns

Amidst an ocean full of flying

fishes.

These things seem wondrous yet

more wondrous I,

Whose heart with fear does freeze,

with love doth fry.

Jennifer Paterson, who writes about food for the Spectator in a space which Mrs David once filled, silently mimed applause.

Now Gerald Asher, a wine merchant who lives in California, rose to speak of Mrs David's visits, of sitting talking in his kitchen surrounded by terracotta casseroles, of her embarking with his youngest son on an ice- cream crawl round San Francisco (for her book on the use of ice in cookery, which will yet be published), of enjoying good conversation and tomato salad.

Mrs David's later career is well known. Her earlier life - as a beautiful young woman, an actress, briefly as a vendeuse at Worth in Paris, her life in Egypt, working during the Second World War as a librarian to the Ministry of Information's Cairo office - remains largely unknown. An intrinsically private individual, Mrs David preferred it that way: she made clear before she died that she would prefer no biography to be written. Everything she wanted to say had, she thought, been said in her books.

But the actor Leslie French, 90, who now stood up, remembered her as a young woman. 'Sixty years ago, I played in Regent's Park, in open-air theatre, and there was a young actress called Elizabeth Gwynne,' he said. 'She was very beautiful and very serious, very reserved. She had tremendous poise - so much poise, sometimes I thought she would topple over backwards.' She had, he said, loved Shakespeare and been a modest person, once inviting him to dinner with a postcard which said: 'Come - if you can trust my cooking.'

The service drew to its close. The Right Rev Ted Roberts prayed a last prayer in the language of Shakespeare's age - no modern prayer books for Mrs David. 'We commit into thine arms of mercy the soul of thy servant Elizabeth, now taken from us; we beseech thee to grant to her the joys of the heavenly banquet of thy eternal kingdom . . .'

They streamed out, old friends, young chefs and old who had been influenced by Mrs David's writing: Simon Hopkinson from Bibendum; Martin Lam from L'Escargot; Ann and Franco Taruschio from the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, Mrs David's favourite restaurant outside London; Sally Clarke from Clarke's. Mrs David's eldest sister, Priscilla Longland, stood by the door of the church in which Elizabeth had sug-

gested her memorial service be held.

'I think she would have liked it - yes, I think so,' she said.

'Tremendously,' said Ann Taruschio.

But a church service, however appropriate, is, of course, an incomplete memorial to such a woman as Elizabeth David. Off went her friends to the second part of her tribute: a Picnic in Memory.

Mrs David was fond of picnics, as anyone who reads her Summer Cooking may discover. With proper relish, therefore, her friends and admirers retreated to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, there to celebrate her life appropriately, with cornmeal and rosemary bread, lentil and goat-cheese salad, spinach and Gruyere tart, baby beetroots with chutney, spiced aubergines, Piedmontese peppers, grilled tuna with red onions and beans, fruit and marzipan panforte, to the accompaniment of a Macon 1991 and a Chateau Gaillard 1991.

It was not the ideal picnic of course, for, on Mrs David's authority, that is held in France, and beside water, where you drink wine from a tumbler, sprinkle your bread with olive oil and salt, and eat ripe tomatoes or rough country sausage. This one was held just off the Mall, which falls some way short of the Dordogne.

Still, those who cooked it - Simon Hopkinson, Sally Clarke and Martin Lam - had done their best, they said, to produce rational, right and proper food, if not a heavenly banquet.

(Photograph omitted)

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