To mark the unveiling of a blue plaque honouring Elizabeth David, Sam Bilton, food historian and blogger, explores the impact she had on British cooking.
Auberon Waugh once said that food writer Elizabeth David would get his vote as the single person most responsible for most improving British life in the twentieth century.
Almost 25 years after her death her name still divides opinion. For some she was the saviour of British cooking. For others she was a bourgeois snob who told us what to cook. Whatever your feelings are towards Elizabeth nobody can deny that she had an impact on the food scene in this country.
Fuelling the fantasy
When Elizabeth’s first publication The Book of Mediterranean Food was released in 1950, Britain was still in the grip of rationing. Most people could barely dream about cornucopia of the ingredients she describes on the opening page:
‘…the oil, the saffron, the garlic, the pungent local wines; the aromatic perfume of rosemary, wild marjoram and basil drying in the kitchens; the brilliance of the market stalls piled high with pimentos, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, melons, figs and limes; the heaps of shiny fish, silver, vermillion or tiger striped, and those long needle fish whose bones mysteriously turn green when they are cooked.’
Her first book was a fairly niche publication but it piqued the imagination of the middle class cook. The recipes themselves are quite concise and are almost ancillary to the romantic descriptions of the food and ingredients. It’s no wonder that this and her other early works, French Country Cooking (1953) and Italian Food (1954) can be viewed as travelogues as well as cookery books. Even if the poor availability of ingredients meant that her books were difficult to cook from, they inspired people to travel to these places to explore the food for themselves.
Taking the chore out of dinner
By the mid-1960s it was possible to get the exotic ingredients Elizabeth described (albeit in specialist shops).
‘Cooking the Elizabeth David way became a leisure activity, a relaxing, absorbing occupation for the weekend,’ explains Nicola Humble in Culinary Pleasures.
Elizabeth never saw cooking as a chore, unlike many of her contemporaries. Her editor Jill Norman recalls that Elizabeth believed ‘there is a great satisfaction to be had from cooking and eating well, and this was just part of civilised behaviour and civilised life.’
She also influenced chefs like George Perry Smith of the Hole-in-the-Wall in Bath and Judy Rogers of the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco whose menus were largely inspired by Elizabeth’s work.
Her later works, like French Provincial Cooking (1960), became more scholarly. Elizabeth’s research into the history of bread and ices demonstrated that food was a subject to take seriously. Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen also showed that she was just as interested in food at home as she was abroad.
The original domestic goddess?
Although her prose is eloquent, Elizabeth’s writing can be acerbic and haughty which some readers find discomfiting. She gave Paul Levy and Ann Barr a royal dressing down for their Official Foodie Handbook which she describes as a ‘facetious guide to food snobbery’ (ironically something she herself has been accused of).
On her death in May, 1992 Elizabeth was lauded in the national press as a “household goddess”, “the doyenne of cookery writers” and “the grande dame of the kitchen”. Although she demanded respect for her work she did not see herself as a goddess. Elizabeth was an erudite woman who loved to cook and made no apology for it. Her legacy can be summed up in her own words:
‘The ideal cookery writer is one who makes his readers want to cook as well as telling them how it is done; he should leave something, not too much perhaps, but a little, unsaid: people must make their own discoveries, use their own intelligence, otherwise they will be deprived of part of the fun.”
Popular Elizabeth David recipes
I asked some members of the Guild of Food Writers for their favourite Elizabeth David recipes:
- Oxtail Stewed with White Grapes, French Provincial Cooking (Jill Norman, Food and Wine Writer)
- Suliman’s Pilaff, A Book of Mediterranean Food (Jojo Tulloh, Food Writer – “I fell in love at first bite. This dish was the perfect introduction to ED’s work simple, delicious, frugal and yet conjuring distant lands.”)
- Poulet à l’Estragon, French Provincial Cooking (Caroline Conran, Food Writer – “It is inspired and I still make it very often…. It offers that wonderful combination of simplicity and sophistication.”)
- Gooseberry Fool, Summer Cooking (Angela Clutton, Food Writer and Food Historian – “She reinvented the classic fool for post-war generation”)
- Lobster Courchamps, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (Simon Hopkinson, Chef & Broadcaster – or, as ED referred to it in her book, ‘A sauce for boiled lobster’.
- Potted Spiced Beef, Spices, Salt & Aromatics in the English Kitchen (Anne Dolamore, Publisher at Grub Street who print many of Elizabeth’s titles)
This year is the 150th anniversary of the English Heritage London Blue Plaques scheme, which honour the notable people who lived or worked in London. Find out more about the scheme, find a plaque near you or propose a new plaque on our blue plaques hub.