Each Friday one of the students at Tante Marie’s gives a little 5 minute talk on a food person – a chef, restauranteur or food writer. This week it’s my turn to give a report on Elizabeth David, so I thought I would give you a little summary of it here.
Elizabeth David was probably the most influential english food writer of the 20th century. She was born in 1914, educated privately in England and then sent to study at the Sorbonne in Paris at 17. There she lived with a French family who gave her her introduction to French cuisine. When she returned to London, she pursued an acting career for a while, then in 1938 she left for Crete via Antibes. She spent the whole war abroad, first in Greece, and later in Egypt where she worked for the British civil service.
She returned to England in 1946, to a country just out of war and still in the depths of rationing. Faced with the shortage of meat and fresh food, and the array of substitutes that had been concocted to deal with rationing, she attempted to recreate her experiences abroad by writing down the food she remembered and could not recreate through lack of ingredients. This frustration with post-war English food and suppliers was to drive and inform much of her writing. Her writings at this time formed the basis of her first book, Medittaranean Food in 1950.
From 1950 to 1965, Elizabeth David published a further 4 books on French and Italian food, and countless magazine articles for the Sunday Times, the Spectator, Vogue, Food and Wine and Gourmet magazines, amongst many others.
She continued to write and travel throughout the sixties, as well as opening her own kitchen shop in London and in the seventies published two books on English food – English Bread and Yeast Cookery and Spices and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. Her trilogy on English Food was completed with The Harvest of the Cold Months, published after her death.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Elizabeth David’s writing. She brought the fresh flavours and simple preparation of Mediterranean cuisine to an England which had been making wartime dishes for 5 years and where olive oil was only available from the chemist. She was instrumental in persuading shops to stock such oddities as pasta, aubergines (eggplant) and courgettes (zucchini). As restaurant cooking made a resurgence in the sixties and seventies, she was often critical (to the point of cruelty) of the fashion for elaborate garnishes of lettuce leaves, curly parsley and carved vegetables.
She influenced virtually all British chefs who came after her and cooked Mediterranean-inspired food. Alice Waters (owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley) began cooking in California from French Country Cooking. The Acme Bread company (also in Berkeley) was founded on English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Jane Grigson called her “the greatest food writer of her time”.
And her favourite place to eat lunch in San Francisco was an Italian place called Vivande porta via, run by one Carlo Middione, who has been teaching us Italian cooking at Tante Marie’s in the past few weeks.