In her book "An Omelette and a Glass of Wine", Elizabeth David writes, "...la soupe au fromage instantanée. ( Ingredients: dehydrated Gruyère cheese, potato-starch, spices,salt.) Which would seem to reduce the whole matter of authenticity to the level of farce...which has made us such easy victims of the purveyors of the farmyard-fresh Surrey chicken from the battery house, the mountain-brook trout from the breeding tank, via the deep-freeze, the hedgerow-ripened blackberry pie-filling out of the cardboard box."
Last evening on telly I saw again the film Elizabeth David: a Life in Recipes. I love the film. It brought back memories and a reminder that her name should be shouted from the kitchens. At one point in the film she says to a friend that people wrote to her to ask 'how much is a pinch?' I don't now remember if they asked the size of an egg, but I have heard similar and it occurred to me that far too many cookery books, or rather books that have a few recipes listed, go into minute detail which if one really likes to create in a kitchen is just not necessary.
I was born in austere Britain less than seven years after the end of the 2nd World War. I have vague memories of being taken, along with my parents, my cousin and my Aunt, by my Uncle in his old Rolls Royce with running boards to the seaside on the south coast of England. I don't actually know if the Rolls was his, or not, but I have nurtured memories of a dashing former Hurricane fighter pilot so just assumed since then that it was. But no matter. The point is that along the way we stopped at a butcher's shop and I remember the butcher taking a shine to us, our young mums perhaps and giving us extra rations.
At about this time Mrs Elizabeth David was encouraging people to cook meals with ingredients from foreign lands that my dad and my uncle had until a few short years before been fighting in and over. I imagine they were not too enthusiastic to take up her suggestion to do so. I understand that.
That austerity took a long time to pass. At least the habits that accrued during those times did. I can remember my grannie, turning the remains of a pack of Anchor butter into the butter dish and scraping the last bits as if her life depended on it. That would have been as late as the 1970s and maybe into the 1980's until she grew too frail to even scrape the butter wrapper.
But by then I was living in Wiltshire, not very well off and with a wife and two kids to support. Instead of going out to eat we would stay at home and cook something different, something special. Eventually as we became friends with people in our village with similarly aged kids we would have, loosely termed, dinner parties. Someone would host and cook the main course at their home. Someone else would bring a first course; someone else the cheese and Sally always did the puddings. I loved her puddings and would often tell her so to her mocked surprise. We took turns doing these foodie evenings; it was great fun, we learned about food, were introduced to different ideas but however much people said they liked what I cooked I always felt I was just a follower of recipes.
It started with Madhur Jaffrey. I always liked Indian food and this was years before it became the national dish of Britain. Watching her first television series and then receiving at Christmas the book that accompanied the series and trying one or two recipes I soon realised I was cooking food that was better than I could eat in the local curry house. My wife turned her hand to cooking from Chinese recipes and the same thoughts returned.
Freshness of ingredients especially spices was the trick.
Antonio Carluccio followed, and again recipes were followed. A measure of this, a measure of that. Saturday issues of The Times, Daily Telegraph or Guardian started to put their cookery writers in front of me. Thane Prince was one cookery writer I often looked forward to reading and copying. I still have photocopied pages from those papers of her recipes ; and then someone lent me a copy of a brown paged well thumbed edition by Elizabeth David. Was it French Country Cooking or Mediterranean? I don't recall.
But Elizabeth David taught me to cook. She wrote about experiences, thoughts and said what went into a certain dish, she just didn't seem to bother with measures too much.
I love Cassoulet. But what is Cassoulet exactly? Well for a start it isn't anything exactly. Mrs David wrote in one of her books about an elderly French woman renowned for her Cassoulet which she had kept upon the fire for 20-odd years, adding stock, beans, meat as she thought was needed.
When I moved to France I found a booked on Tians, and the recipes, such as they are, are just a smattering of ideas with the odd ingredient mentioned; some onion, a spoonful of flour. But is that a whole onion? Or a half? How big and should it be chopped up or sliced? And how big is a spoon?
As these have been tried and tried again, and refined a little here and there I am aware that Elizabeth David was ahead of her time. But at the same time she was of course of her time.
I wish some of the modern TV cooks of today; the celebrity chefs and their trendy studio kitchens and twee bits abounding could take a leaf out of her book.
Elizabeth David was a much better cook and writer than I can ever hope to be. But for anyone who might stumble across this log-blog... please seek out her books, buy them and read them.
I bet you won't be disappointed. There was quite a lot to Elizabeth David.
* photo of a dish of Pot au Feu taken at " Au Pied du Cochon" at Vongy in France.