Remembering Elizabeth David celebrates the centenary of one of Britain’s most influential cookery-writers, which is also marked by the publication by Quadrille of a new collection of her writings On Vegetables.
Jill Norman and Franco and Ann Taruschio discuss her life and legacy with Tim Hayward, while Franco demonstrates Elizabeth David’s celebrated Piedmontese Peppers – a dish that went on The Walnut Tree Inn menu the day it opened in 1963, and Simon Hopkinson further popularised in his book Roast Chicken and Other Stories.
Beginning her career in the dreary years of post-war Britain – years of rationing, shortages and ersatz food products like powdered egg – Elizabeth David’s writings on Mediterranean food not only introduced us to a different kind of food culture but brought a literary awareness to her subject that lifted it out of the narrow constraints of domestic science and laid the platform for the explosion of interest in food and cooking that we see today.
As Jane Grigson recalled:
“Basil was no more than the name of bachelor uncles, courgette was printed in italics as an alien word, and few of us knew how to eat spaghetti or pick a globe artichoke to pieces. … Then came Elizabeth David like sunshine, writing with brief elegance about good food, that is, about food well contrived, well cooked. She made us understand that we could do better with what we had.”
Born in 1913 into an upper-class family David rejected the world of debutantes and society balls in favour of a bohemian lifestyle that saw her setting off from England in July 1939 in a small boat with her actor-lover, a married man, and with the intention of sailing to Greece. Constantly running ahead of the German advance she stopped for periods in Marseille, Sicily and the Greek island of Skyros before finally reaching the comparative safety of Egypt in 1941.
Returning to England in 1945, these experiences informed her classic works. Mediterranean Food, published in 1949, became an instant bestseller. Followed through the 50s by French Country Cooking, Italian Food, Summer Cooking, and French Provincial Cooking, published in 1960, these books captured the zeitgeist for an increasingly affluent British middle-class beginning to rediscover the joys of European travel.
At the height of her career in 1963 she suffered a brain haemorrhage which affected her ability to taste and though she continued to write and travel her position as the figure head of British cookery writing began to be eclipsed by a new generation of writers. Her later books focussed more on English cookery – the spices, seasonings and breads. She was badly injured in a car crash in 1977 and it was in hospital that she completed her last unaided book English Bread and Yeast Cookery. She died in 1992.
Today Elizabeth David is close to canonisation. She has taken her place among Radio 4s choice of 60 great Britons to mark the Diamond Jubilee and this year her face appears on a Royal Mail postage stamp marking the centenary of her birth. The writer Auberon Waugh nominated her as the woman who had brought about the greatest improvement in English life in the 20th century.
But the image of Elizabeth David as a kind of benign patron saint of the Beaujolais- drinking classes has been somewhat modified in the light of recent biographies by Lisa Chaney  and Artemis Cooper  and the 2006 BBC2 film Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes. These reveal a rebellious nature, tempestuous love-affairs and epic bouts of drinking, and a disdain for the conventional which suggest a woman who might have taken her friend Norman Douglas’ maxim to heart. “Do as you please, and send everybody to Hell, and take the consequences. Damn good Rule of Life.”
Jill Norman was David’s long-time editor and is the Literary Trustee of the David Estate. She created the Penguin Cookery Library in the 1960s and 1970s, and since Elizabeth David’s death she has produced several new collections of her writings.
Franco and Ann Taruschio founded the Walnut Tree restaurant outside Abergavenny in 1963. It was Elizabeth David’s favourite restaurant and the admiration was mutual. Elizabeth David would often work on recipes with Franco and together they reworked Lady Lanover’s Salt Duck recipe, which was to become one of Franco’s signature dishes.
Tim Hayward is a presenter on BBC Radio 4 The Food Programme and writes for The Financial Times and as editor and publisher of the quarterly magazine Fire and Knives, he has helped to launch a new wave of food-writers. He has been known to take an iconoclastic view of Elizabeth David’s contribution:
“She famously moved food writing out of the dark didactic corners of domestic science and began to write beautifully and poetically about food as a sensual experience, but she also in her early career wrote unashamedly for the posh and focused attention away from British cuisine and on to Mediterranean food. I find it hard to read her work without enjoyment but it also defines a kind of “holidays-in-Provence” middle-class elitism.
Remembering Elizabeth David – with Jill Norman, Franco & Ann Taruschio and Tim Hayward takes place on Saturday 21 September 12.30-1.30pm in the Borough Theatre. Tickets: £6.00. Buy online now
Elizabeth David On Vegetables published by Quadrille will be available to purchase at the Festival. Copies of the book will be signed by Jill Norman. View book-signing schedule here