Published in The London Magazine April/May 2010
The landscape of British cuisine would be unrecognisable without the influence of Elizabeth David, whose French Provincial Cookery has been fifty years in print. Not least, the sophistication of her prose – up to this point no British writer had brought a literary sensibility to bear on food writing – created a climate where discussion of gastronomy, which Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin defined as ‘the reasoned comprehension of everything connected with the nourishment of man’, became acceptable and, at times, even de rigueur in polite society.
In Spicing Up Britain – The Multicultural History of British Food, Panikos Panayi’s analysis of the evolution of British food culture, he likens her role in this culinary enlightenment to a Rousseau or Voltaire because of the number of writers who appeared in her wake.
David Kynaston in Austerity Britain 1945-51 is rather more circumspect. He asserts: ‘it is arguable that her influence has been exaggerated. Not only was she far from the most widely read cookery writer – significantly, she seems to have had little or nothing to do with the mass-market women’s magazines.’ He does, though, acknowledge that ‘among those at the very vanguard of the culinary broadening out, David was the totemic figure.’
Thus, while she is not a household name her influence in turning food into a topic for intellectual discourse, and, especially, in generating an awareness and appreciation of other European cuisines among legions of chefs, professional and otherwise, cannot be discounted. Perhaps the River Café, whose alumni (Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall et al) read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of English gastronomy, best embodies her vision of Mediterranean cooking with the finest ingredients.
By the time David came around to writing her books, it is fair to say that British cuisine had reached a nadir. In the 1930s George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier argued that the ‘English palate, especially the working class palate, now rejects good food almost automatically.’ Talk of food was regarded as crass, and shamefully Francophile, even for the upper-middle class as Harold Macmillan recalled of the circles he grew up in before World War I. An interesting echo of a Tory distaste for gastronomic musings can be discerned in views expressed by Boris Johnson in the Observer in 2008: ‘I think all food is delicious. I just can’t understand why people go on and on about it, especially restaurant critics. I mean, food is good, isn’t it?’
Moreover, according to Stephen Mennell’s in All Manners of Food: ‘The really striking, virtually central concern running through the British [cookery] trade press for the best part of a century is with economy.’ The spirit of ‘waste-not-want-not’ fostered an industrial food culture that saw eating in empirical, calorific terms, rather than as an expression of individuality or an evocation of place.
The privations of World War II hardly helped matters by creating an atmosphere, as David Kynaston has observed, where ‘no unbearable lightness of being’ prevailed. ‘Make do and mend’ was the zeitgeist. The continuation of rationing was causing not just hardship but also a stasis or even deterioration in culinary skills.
It was into this setting that the bohemian Elizabeth David strode. She had been travelling around Europe, mainly France, since the age of sixteen, between half-hearted attempts to make a career as an actress on the London stage, and before spending what might be described as a ‘good war’ in Alexandria after being rescued from a rather idyllic sojourn on a Greek island. While in war-time Egypt she moved in the same circles as literary types such as Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor, and entered into an unsuccessful marriage.
On repatriation to England at the end of the war, David, a tempestuous personality at the best of times, did not take kindly to the bland fare which she was forced to endure. She was particularly outraged by dining experiences when marooned in a hotel in Ross-on-Wye. She later recalled: ‘there was no excuse, none, for such unspeakably unpleasant meals as in that dining room were put in front of me. To my agonized homesickness for the sun and southern food was added an embattled rage that we should be asked – and should accept – the endurance of such cooking.’
Neither was she best pleased by the conservative cooking habits of some her friends. Helping one companion to prepare the family’s evening meal, she injected a bit of life into a gravy by substituting red wine for the cabbage water that was normally used. The children lapped up the new version but her hostess was concerned lest the wine would intoxicate her offspring. David’s claim that the alcohol had been boiled off fell on deaf ears so, ‘[b]ack we had to go to the barbarous gravy routine.’
Her sense of outrage seems to have impelled her to forge a new awareness of the art of cookery through the publication of a series of recipe books that began with Mediterranean Cooking (1950), culminating in her last non-posthumous work An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (1984). Her style of writing was sparse but clear and featured often extensive quotations from her favourite authors. She could deploy a caustic wit to devastating effect when roused. This quality can be seen in an article for The Spectator entitled ‘Lucky Dip’ (29 June 1962) where she mentioned that she had given the filling for a commercial veal and ham pie to her cat, who had turned it down.
Despite engaging with specifically British recipes and themes in some works, her culinary imagination was invariably stirred by memories of the sun-baked surroundings of her dilettante youth. Thus she writes: ‘Here in London it is an effort of will to believe in the existence of such a place [Provence] at all’. Indeed, it could be argued that she developed a Manichean view of a division between the diabolic depths of British food, and the celestial heights of continental gastronomy.
Referring to the routine evening set meals in ‘more modest hotels and restaurants’ in France, she say that the ‘cooking of these dishes would possibly make them into notable meals here in England, but in France one’s expectations are higher, and one’s disappointment at a dull meal consequently greater.’ Not only were English restaurants subjected to criticism but also, seemingly, the very produce of the land. She quotes Ford Maddox Ford to the effect that ‘There [in Provence] there is no more any evil, for there the apple will not flourish and brussels sprout will not grow at all.’ She seems to have had an abhorrence for all things brassicaceae: ‘the drabness and dreariness and stuffy smells evoked by … [the Brussels sprout’s] very name, has nothing at all to do with southern cooking.’
Arabella Boxer in Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food argues that by introducing cheerless post-war England to the delights of olive oil, parmesan and garlic, David diverted attention from the ‘brief flowering’ of English food that took place between the wars, a cuisine that ‘had absorbed a lot of French and American ideas; but it was still based on traditional, home-produced ingredients’ such as simple grills and roasts, fruit fools, summer puddings and Bakewell tarts and cold meats and salads ‘which became more interesting’. David, however, can hardly be held responsible for the failure of British culture to produce adequate writers on that subject. She cannot be faulted for her own inspirations; what she did, above all, was popularise the concept of gastronomic writing as a genre beyond simply recipe books. By establishing this precedent she popularised the discussion of food, and provided ample scope for her heirs, such as Boxer, to reclaim any perceived lost traditions.
Nonetheless, while Dorothy Hartley is correct when she says: ‘We do enjoy foreign dishes and admire continental cooks but when we cook the foreign dishes the dishes, like the foreigners become “naturalised English”’, a fissure does seem to develop between a people and their terroir when the provenance of so much food, like olive oil for instance, is foreign. David was unapologetic: ‘all of us nowadays, except perhaps some curiously bigoted members of the catering profession, have travelled a little, and on visits abroad have acquired tastes which, so far from disagreeing with us, have become a part of our daily lives.’
The kind of domestication of foreign cuisine that David encouraged can be seen as a positive development in that it connotes an avoidance of xenophobia and the smooth operation of multiculturalism – by comparison the French tend to turn their noses up at the very notion of non-French food while simultaneously displaying greater levels of xenophobia if their political preferences are taken as a measure.
Nonetheless, though her official biographer, Artemis Cooper, argues that David always informed people what locally grown food was in season, the ample produce of English agriculture, creams and butters and handmade cheeses, a practice of grass-feeding sheep and cattle, wild fish, abundant game, all tended to pale for her in comparison to foreign alternatives.
The imported foodstuffs that she advocated are not cheap either monetarily or in environmental terms. Arguably, then, she has contributed to a division in British cuisine between a high church of ‘posh’ – generally foreign food – and the traditional and affordable, low-church fare of fish fingers and spaghetti hoops, exemplifying and even amplifying Mennell’s maxim that: ‘Higher social circles have repeatedly used food as one of many means of distinguishing themselves from lower rising classes.’
One area of British food, impacting on all classes, where David attempted to prevent the encroachment of industrialization was bread-making. In article and in her book English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), she decried the advent of the Chorleywood process which uses lower grades of wheat and comes at the nutritional cost of increased salt and yeast and decreased protein value. Alas, today eighty per cent of British bread is made using that process.
Elizabeth David is now regarded as the doyenne of British cookery and French Provincial Cooking is regarded by many as her finest work. She made the foreign accessible and almost single-handedly forged a British gastronomic tradition. Perhaps her most enduring legacy is that today Britain probably boasts some of the most adventurous and exciting food in the world, but in its lack of esteem for native produce, also some of the most bland and insipid.