On second hand bookshop finds and Elizabeth David

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.

breadAt 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.’

Her influence

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?  


Pane di Altamura

Pane di Altamura is my February bread challenge. Pane di Altamura is a regional Italian bread made out of durum wheat (semolina).

This is what Italian magazine Essen has to say about Pane di Altamura,

In Puglia on a tract of land in the mountains in Murgia, among a landscape of volcanic rocks, the passage from barbarism to civility was made beautifully possible with the Pane d’Altamura. Linked twice over with peasant culture since the end of medieval times, the “u skuanete,” or kneaded bread, is the principal good produced by the inhabitants of Alta Murgia and the centre of pugliese society. It is the best bread in the world – or, so said the Latin poet Horace – and the clever adventurer always took a loaf away with him. Made from durum wheat semolina, derived from the grains of the varieties “appulo,” “archangelo” “duilio” and “simeto,” water, natural yeast and salt. It is a process carried out in five phases: making of the dough, formation, proofing (the rising of the dough), shaping, and finally baking in a wood oven. These phases give the Pane d’Altamura an exceptional longevity. One loaf can be enjoyed even a few weeks after its baking, with tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil maintaining unaltered the flavour and nutritive properties.

The process

This bread was quite a challenge. For starters, it was not an easy bread to find out how to make.

I couldn’t find an ‘official’ recipe anywhere. I went to the library to see if I could find some Italian bread making recipie books, but none of them had this specific one. Searching on the internet was also a bit difficult – there didn’t seem to be an authentic Italian recipe. At one point I decided use Google Translate and search for recipes in Italian which is how I found the recipe that I’m using today.

My main point of confusion was what type of yeast I needed to use. Some recipes said that the usual yeast packet would do, while others were adamant that natural yeast was the correct way. Natural yeast is made by creating a ‘starter’ which uses the natural yeast spores in the air.

Luckily, Joe had been gifted ‘Herman the German’ (a chain letter starter which requires you to feed Herman until he has multiplied and then divide him up and give to five new friends) so I was able to use 40 grams of Herman for my bread. What really confused me was whether or not the bread required a starter made out of durum wheat or whether a plain flour starter would suffice.

In the end, I couldn’t find a straight answer on the Internet and as I was running out if time I opted to use Herman.

The other hard part was the kneading time – 30 minutes! It might not have been a problem if I hadn’t stretched my muscle in my hand from play cricket on Friday night.

Working with durum wheat (semolina) was fun. It’s a different kneading experience to using standard flour. Durum flour is much more course than standard flour and less fine. It’s grittier which is a weird feeling to begin with, but as you start kneading the dough, the coarseness disappears and you get nice silky, smooth dough. 


Despite leaving the dough in a warm place for three hours it refused to rise much. Clearly Herman was a bit impotent and was unable to make the dough rise successfully. Such a shame! Perhaps he should have been fed more.

Because the bread failed to rise properly, the marks that I cut in the dough did not open up as they are supposed to. Another consequence of the dough not rising well was the bread itself being quite dense, lacking the small air pockets that you would expect to be there.

In hindsight, I should have also shortened the time that the bread was in the oven. The crust was very thick and impenetrable due to the fact that the bread didn’t rise.

So this is a rather sad ending to this bread challenge. The next day, the bread became so hard that I couldn’t even cut it. We ended up having to through it in the bin.

The recipe for this bread can be found here.  Just remember to use good quality natural yeast!