She wanted to be an actress. She was an attractive woman who had many lovers and she led an adventurous life. She was known to be ‘difficult’ and drank too much. She was also the pre-eminent food writer of her time and she changed the way Great Britain thought about food. She was Elizabeth David.
At a time when you could only find olive oil from the local chemist, she introduced her English readers to French and Italian cooking. She turned food into something sensual.
And yet she always kept it simple, preferring the food of the countryside to the haute cuisine dishes served in the posh restaurants of Paris.
Born in 1913, and having died in 1992, she was awarded the CBE in her lifetime. She received many accolades and awards but the prize that most pleased her was becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982.
That she became a fellow does not surprise me in the least, as her writing is as unadorned as good food should be. Her prose is lucid and, blessed with an eye for beauty, she was able to observe the world around her and vividly convey what she saw to the reader in a way that captivated them. No wonder then that Evelyn Waugh wrote that her Italian Food was one of the two books that gave him the most pleasure that year when it was published.
Her recipe for bouillabaisse is as memorable as her accompanying tale of how the old sea wolf Bauzan gathered the slippery eels, the little tiny crabs, and of course the red and grey mullet and other rock-fish. On the shore, with the Mistral blowing, Madame Bauzan had already prepared a wood fire upon which was placed a huge cauldron, and to which had been added a litre of olive oil.
David’s description of the market near the Rialto in Venice at early dawn is simply breathtaking.
In 2006, the BBC screened a film based on her life: Elizabeth David: A Life In Recipes.
Coq Au Vin: (Adapted from French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David)
You will need: 1 chicken, 3/5 bottle of red wine, ¼ lb of salt pork or unsmoked bacon, 6 to 8 oz of button mushrooms, 12 to 16 very small pickling onions; a small glass of brandy a carrot, an onion, herbs, garlic, seasonings, butter and olive oil, fried bread, a dessert spoon of flour.
Make a little stock from the giblets, with am onion, carrot, bouquet of herbs and very little salt. (Or just use a quality stock cube.)
Add the wine to a large wide pan with a couple of bay leaves, a sprig of thyme and a crushed clove of garlic. Add ¼ pint of the chicken stock. Simmer steadily for about 20 minutes until reduced by half. During the last 5 minutes, add the mushrooms. Strain the wine, discard herbs and garlic and keep the mushrooms aside.
Put the pork or bacon in little pieces into the pan with a lump of butter and some oil. Add the little onions. After they colour, add the chicken pieces skin downwards and well seasoned with salt and pepper. When golden, turn the pieces over and cook another minute. Turn them over again. Heat the brandy in a little saucepan or soup ladle. Set alight and pour it flaming over the chicken. Shake the pan until the flames die down. Add wine. Put a fresh bouquet of herbs and garlic in the centre. Cover the pain. Simmer gently for 40 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook 5 more minutes.
Transfer chicken, mushrooms, onions and pork or bacon cubs to a hot dish and keep warm in the oven.
Fry several triangles of bread in butter and oil and keep these also warm in the oven.
Work a tablespoon of butter into a level dessert spoon of flour and divide into small pieces. Add to the sauce in the pan. Stir over a gentle flame until the flour and butter have melted and the sauces has thickened. Just let it come the boil. Pour over the chicken, and serve with the fried bread.