A favourite thing to do when on holiday in smallish towns (and cities) is to visit the local second hand book shop. During the summer break in Whangarei I popped into one of its second hand book stores, The Piggery. The cooking sections in these bookstores can be quite hit and miss. Like with fashion, cooking and culinary books cycle through trends and fads.
Photography style changes, the types of recipes (jelly moulds!?) as well as the category of recipes (microwave cookery anyone?). If you’re lucky you can pick up some rather vintage cookbooks (I picked up a war time rations cookbook in Hastings once) and some rather odd books (Be Bold with Bananas). And there is a lot of junk such as recipe books for specific branded appliances.
At The Piggery, I managed to pick up a copy of Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery. David is one of Britain’s best food writers and her books are classics among food writers and chefs. Her influence also reached other countries as well. Many of my Australian and New Zealand cookbooks references her recipes and writing.
I started reading the book last night and got curious about who she was as a person and did a quick google search. What an interesting woman of her time and a fascinating life she led!
Her early life
Starting as an art student in Paris, she then turned to acting and when this did not work out, she then ran off with a married man and ended up in Italy. The couple then narrowly escaped getting trapped by the German invasion of Greece during WWII. They split in Egypt. Before marrying her husband Tony David, she had a number of lovers in Cairo, Egypt. According to her biographer Artemis Cooper, ‘she enjoyed them for what they were…with one exception she did not fall in love.’
When she arrived back in England after her travels overseas to post war Britain, it was as if she had returned to a different country.
Returning to England after her travels overseas was like returning to a different country. Her long-time editor described her as being “upset: shocked, even.” David described food in Britain as “produced with a kind of bleak triumph which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity and humanity’s needs”. It was a jarring contrast to the fresh and seasonal food she had enjoyed overseas.
She began writing about her memories from her time overseas. Her first book in 1950 A Book of Mediterranean Food contained recipes that called for Mediterranean ingredients such as basil, figs and olive oil. This first book was essentially a piece of ‘imaginative fiction’ as readers were unable to access the ingredients due to war rationing. She followed this with books on Italian and French cuisine.
Her writing style
Her writing style was opinionated, to the point.
For instance, she despised the word ‘crispy’ because she couldn’t understand what it conveyed that ‘crisp’ did not.
It is also wonderfully eloquent and expressive
Her thoughts on cooking in summer:
Summer cooking implies a sense of immediacy, a capacity to capture the essence of the fleeting moment
Or her thoughts on why the kitchen was a place to invest time and money:
Some sensible person once remarked that you spend the whole of your life either in your bed or in your shoes. Having done the best you can by shoes and bed, devote all the time and resources at your disposal to the building up of a fine kitchen. It will be, as it should be, the most comforting and comfortable room in the house.
On the pleasures of the Mediterranean:
To eat figs off the tree in the very early morning, when they have been barely touched by the sun, is one of the exquisite pleasures of the Mediterranean.
And returning to the book that prompted this blog post, her thoughts on toast:
It isn’t only fictional heroes to whom toast means home and comfort. It is related of the Duke of Wellington – I believe by Lord Ellesmere – that when he landed at Dover in 1814, after six years’ absence from England, the first order he gave at the Ship Inn was for an unlimited supply of buttered toast.
What do you think about Elizabeth David? Have you read any of her books?