I have recently acquired a 1964 edition of Elizabeth David’s “French Provincial Cooking”. It welcomingly smells of an old library and has a charming inscription which reads, “To Marion, Not so much a cookery book, more a tradition in eating, un manuel de bons plats de ma chere France. Bien amicalement, Rolande, 1964.” This translated is “A Handbook of Good Food of my Dear France”. And this is exactly what I found while leafing through the pages.
Elizabeth David is a heroine of mine as, in my mind, she began the adoration of mediterranean ingredients in England. I am doubltful that she single handedly achieved this, however publishing her book ‘A Book Of Meditarranean Food’ in 1950, just as rationing was finally coming to a close, successfully filled food enthusiasts with great delight. Butter, cheese, margarine, cooking fats and meat did not come off the ration until 1954 and so recipes with ingredients from abroad were exciting and full of hope for the future at this time. Post WWII everyone was craving something a little more exotic. At last, food enthusiasts could experiment with flavours and recipes after suffering on beige diets of bread, lard and potatoes.
From reading obituaries and articles about Elizabeth David’s life, she sounds like she enjoyed a few bottles of Chablis regularly and got what she wanted. She spent the war on a sailing boat with a lover ending up in Egypt before eventually marrying Anthony David, a relationship which was apparently ‘doomed from the start’.
The contrast of her dining experiences in Egypt, compared to when she returned to England to live with her sister Diana, really explains why David took it upon herself to bring foreign flavours to England. A story that really explains the lack of ingredients that were available in the 1940s and 50s is when David had returned to her sisters house from shopping. She says “one day, I took back to her, among the broken biscuits and the tins of snoek … one pound of fresh tomatoes. As I took them out of my basket to show her, I saw that tears were tumbling down my sister’s beautiful and normally serene face.” Elizabeth asked Diana what on earth was wrong. “Sorry,” came the reply. “It’s just that I’ve been trying to buy fresh tomatoes for five years. And now it’s you who’ve found them first.”
David comforted herself during these times by writing lists of ingredients that she missed. “Apricots, olives, butter, rice, lemons, almonds…. This, then, was how she first began to write. Her notes and recipes were an expression of her yearning, a way of assuaging something that was not homesickness exactly, but which must have felt a lot like it.”
This may explain why she was someone who chose to cook, as being born into a wealthy household she had a full team of staff in the house that would have provided all of the family meals. But, perhaps the British palate now bored her after trying ingredients from overseas. She cooked the food she missed from her times abroad during the war and then started writing fondly and descriptively, educating England on the flavours of the Mediterranean and France.