The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Delicious Mrs David

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The Independent Online
MAY I add a few of my own memories of the estimable Elizabeth David to the pot au feu?

I well remember the day, way back in '55, when I first chanced upon her blessed volume, Boiling an Egg the English Way. It was nothing more nor less than a revelation. For years I had been attempting to boil eggs without first placing them in that most underrated of all ingredients, namely water, with results at once disappointing and damaging. But it was an essential part of Mrs David's genius that she made such things look easy.

After three or four chapters on the history of the English hen, and a further 30,000 words on choosing your egg, Mrs David revealed in her penultimate chapter that the secret of a perfectly boiled egg was a good splash of water in the pan at the crucial first stage.

Aux vacances a la Dordogne in the Summer of '61, I chanced upon another volume by the admirable Mrs David. It was her undoubted masterpiece, An Omelette and a Glass of Nesquik, later revised for the more sophisticated palate and reissued as An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (1983), and subsequently published in a special edition for the Sainsbury group as 'N Omelette, a Glass of Wine, Some Oven-ready Chips and a Tin of Alphabetti Spaghetti (1990).

It became my Bible, and I would find myself reaching for it as I prepared one of my justifiably renowned and intime little dinner parties for a group that was likely to include the Dr (later Sir) Roy Strong, Lady Antonia Fraser, Lord (then Sir) Kenneth Clark and Bubbles, Lady Harmsworth (now Rothermere).

'Mmmm . . .' Roy would chorus as he placed the first of the petit fours - Tinned Peach wrapped in Bacon - into his mouth, 'what an ingenious combination] Don't tell me] It's . . . myum . . . myum . . . yes - raw bacon on the outside, and on the inside . . . myum . . . myum . . . yes] Tinned Peach]' And the rest of us would then heartily applaud dear Roy for his culinary acuity.

I wonder if any Independent on Sunday readers managed to catch my appearance on the dread gogglebox last Sunday? I was appearing on the splendid Masterchef series as a special guest of the presenter, Loyd Grossman, the agreeable Norwegian television 'personality'. While the three little ordinary members of the public set about their chores, rolling pins at the ready, the splendid Mr Grossman sat me on a colourful sofa and began to speak in my direction.

Alas, by a curious oversight on the part of the production 'team', no one had informed me beforehand that poor Mr Grossman can speak not a word of English, communicating only by means of his nordic tongue and the plucky use of semaphore and sign language. Ever the gentleman, I smiled my way encouragingly through his first few comments before realising that he had ended with a question.

How was I to reply to a question I could not comprehend? At first, I estimated that the word 'smorgasbord' had cropped up somewhere in one of his sentences, but I soon realised that everything the poor fellow says seems to contain the word 'smorgasbord'. I grinned a little and twiddled my thumbs. But I realised that, under the watchful eye of Camera 1, such a response could not go on forever. So I did what I always do when stuck for words: I invoked the redoubtable ghost of Elizabeth David.

'Well, Loyd,' I said, taking care to enunciate only the one 'L' in Loyd, 'Elizabeth David awakened an entire generation to the glories of Mediterranean cuisine. Not for her the horrendous prospect of the frozen fish-finger or the fearful - and disastrously modern] - convenience of the pre-packaged chop suey. She held out against the forward march of the ubiquitous chip and the ominous glug-glug of the oncoming ketchup, not to mention the . . .'

'Smorgasbord,' Mr Grossman interrupted, 'smorgasbord, smorgasbord.' And for the rest of the show I found myself shunted to one side while the 'ordinary members of the public' hogged the limelight. Food programmes, I'm afraid, are not what they were.