Eat their words: in the first of a new series about food writers, Christopher Hirst distills the recipes of the woman who taught the British to eat like the French and the Italians
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013
By some distance the most significant British-born food writer of the 20th century, Elizabeth David (1913-92) taught austerity Britain to cook as if it had moved to the Med. The wild-child daughter of a Tory MP, "torn, most willingly" from Sussex to live in France at the age of 16, she combined in-depth knowledge of continental food, immaculate taste and the ability to write wonderful prose—never mind dinner, her masterpieces "Italian Food" (1954) and "French Provincial Cooking"(1960) are two of the very few cookbooks you can read as narratives. Her preference was for linear dishes that allow natural flavours to emerge; she quotes, approvingly, the dictum of the great Escoffier to "faites simples…the avoidance of all unnecessary complication and elaboration". That absolutist "all"is typical.
Wise instruction, lucid prose, an inability to suffer fools gladly, and steely precision tempered by occasional vagueness about the order of play. She admits the importance of idiosyncracy, but it would be a brave man or woman who argued with her. The explanation proffered by a maitre d’ for the hardness of his restaurant’s oeufs en cocotte—"You can order them soft, but properly they are hard"—provoked this volcanic response: "By such fake expertise are we poor English bedevilled into believing reams of rubbish."
Escoffier; though David also quotes Sybille Bedford: "Faites simples doesn’t mean faites slapdash." But her greatest teachers were the domestic cooks of southern Europe and the patronnes of excellent bistros.
Truffles aside, she avoids the exotic, but insists on the best, such as the finest oil and Jersey cream. Sound advice includes using tomatoes with discretion, and sweet apples rather than the sour cooking variety. Happily, the "rare" basil she mentions in "Italian Food" is a thing of the past, though northern Europe has been slower catching up with finocchiona (salami with fennel seeds) and dried porcini mushrooms.
Her recipe for chicken with fresh tarragon. We’re told expansively and descriptively about the bird ("a plump roasting chicken weighing about 2lbs") and what goes inside it—chopped tarragon and garlic plus seasoning kneaded into butter—but with instructions that allow the cook some initiative: "Roast…in a pretty hot oven." Typically, she supplies provenance for the recipe, in this case "la Mère Michel’s Paris restaurant". Equally typically, she picks a fight with the proprietor, noting that the original was marred by the addition of Madeira to the sauce. In short, the reader is treated as an adult.
The simple things. Some of her best recipes are little more than tips, such as simmering carrots in the sweet stickiness of Marsala. In just ten minutes, her eggs poached in mussel stock, then served on croutons with cream and melted Gruyère, make a perfect layer-cake of rural French flavours. Her indexes are thorough, her glossaries an education in themselves; what British domestic cook of the 1950s knew dépouiller meant to skim a sauce—but also to skin a rabbit?
Her directions can be haphazard to the point of hair-tearing. The recipe for tarte à l’oignon includes protracted instructions for egg pastry that end "I find myself that the easiest tart pastry is…the one in the next recipe."
COOK HER BECAUSE
She taught the British, vividly, transportingly and lastingly, why the French and Italians ate so much better than they did.
Christopher Hirst is a food writer. He was The Weasel for The Independent and is the author of "Love Bites".
Elizabeth David’s Christmas is reprinted in a new, illustrated edition by the Folio Society, £29.95