MY TOP SHELF

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

8

A BOOK OF MEDITERRANEAN FOOD

Elizabeth David (2005)

Folio Society; green cloth with gilt lettering in green slipcase; decorations by John Minton; watercolours by Sophie MacCarthy; preface by Julian Barnes

For some reason, we do not often use that good and complimentary word ‘urbane’ to describe a woman.  Well, Elizabeth David was nothing if not urbane.  She came from a very wealthy and elevated family, and it showed in manner that could be woundingly waspish.  She had a flaky way about her that showed in failed romances and difficult business arrangements.  She could just be difficult.  But she changed the way that the English and others thought about food cooking and wine.  The liberation was felt as far away as Australia.

Elizabeth David lived with a French family while studying French history and literature at the Sorbonne.  Having seen out World War II in comfort and style in Egypt, she was appalled at the hardship and dourness that she found on her return to England.  She set out to master the fundamentals of cooking and to study it on site in France, Italy, and Greece, and around the Mediterranean.  She published many books and was a journalist writing on food for the best journals in England.  This book contains one of the cooking books and some extracts from her journalism published under the title An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. 

Auberon Waugh said of her ‘if I had to choose one woman this century who had brought about the greatest improvement in English life, my vote would go to Elizabeth David’.  She may or may not have been a natural cook, but she was certainly a natural writer.  Vogue, to which she contributed, said: ‘Her pieces are so entertaining, so original, often witty, critical yet lavish with their praise, that they succeed in enthusing even the most jaded palette.’  She did, in fine, make a real contribution to our civilisation.

Here she is on an Edwardian gourmet, Colonel Newnham-Davis, at the time that gave rise to great hotels – the Savoy, the Ritz, the Carlton, and Claridges.  (Do you recall the supper scene in Chariots of Fire?)

Mrs Tota and her husband George were friends from the Colonel’s Indian Army days.  George, it has to be faced, was a bore; he grunted and grumbled and refused to take his wife out to dinner on the grounds that the night air would bring on his fever.  So the Colonel gallantly invited Mrs Tota, a maddeningly vivacious young woman, to a select little dinner for two.  She was homesick for the gaieties of Simla, the dainty dinners and masked balls of that remarkable hill station.  ‘We’ll have a regular Simla evening’, declared the colonel, and for this nostalgic excursion, he chose to dine in a private room in Kettner’s, which still exists today [1952], in Romilly Street, Soho; after dinner they were to proceed to a box at the Palace Theatre, return to Kettner’s, where they arranged to leave their dominoes, and thence to a masked ball at Covent Garden.  The meal, for a change, began with caviare, continued with consommé, fillets de sole a la Joinville, langue de boeuf aux champignons with spinach and pommes Anna (how agreeable it would be to find these delicious potatoes on an English restaurant menu to-day) followed by chicken and salad, asparagus with sauce mousseline, and the inevitable ice.  They drank a bottle of champagne (15 s. seems to have been the standard charge at that period, 1 s. for liqueurs).  Mrs Tota was duly coy about the private room decorated with a gold brown and green paper, oil paintings of Italian scenery, and gilt candelabra (‘very snug’, pronounced the colonel); she enjoyed her dinner, chatted nineteen to the dozen, and decided that Room A at Kettner’s was almost as glamorous as the dear old Chalet at Simla.

Well, those times have all gone, and they will not come back.

Here is a vignette from The Spectator in 1961.

A military gentleman I know who used to run a club once told me that one of his clients was asking for the kind of dishes ‘which are practically burnt, you know.’  After some investigation, I tumbled to what was wanted and it seemed it wasn’t so much a question of the breakfast toast as of that method of cooking which is so typically French, the method whereby gelatinous food such as pigs’ trotters and breast of lamb is coated with breadcrumbs and grilled to a delicious, sizzling, crackling crispness, deep golden brown and here and there slightly blackened and scorched.  At the same time the meat itself, usually pre-cooked, remains moist and tender…..To achieve the characteristic stage of doneness in this kind of dish needs a bit of practice and a certain amount of dash.

The words ‘doneness’ and ‘dash’ are very much Elizabeth David.

Many of her recipes assume that the recipient is at home in the kitchen.  They are not for beginners, or boys.  Beginners of either sex require much more detailed and structured tuition – of the kind that Jamie Oliver gives.  If you go to some of the classics in French Provincial Cooking, the book that made Elizabeth David’s name in 1960, you will find a lot that gives you so many options to get it wrong.  If you go to her recipes for the famous cassoulet, you will find a very detailed version from the French and another shorter version, neither of which would be good for amateurs.  Neither uses duck, but the French one gives a useful tip for the water used to cook the beans the purpose of which cooking ‘is to make them more digestible and less flatulent’:

Throw away the water out of doors, not down the sink; its smell infects the kitchen for twenty-four hours.  In the Languedoc the housewives keep this liquid in well-corked bottles and use it for removing obstinate stains on white and coloured linen.

Again, those days are gone.  Here is a Swiss recipe for Tranches au fromage by Docteur Edouard de Pomiane which David says ‘is the best kind of cookery writing.’

Black bread – a huge slice weighing 5 to 7 ounces, French mustard, 8 oz. gruyere.  The slice of bread should be as big as a dessert plate and nearly I inch thick.  Spread it with a layer of French mustard and cover the whole surface of the bread with strips of cheese about ½ an inch thick.  Put the slice of bread on a fireproof dish and under the grill.  Just before it begins to run, remove the dish and carry it to the table.  Sprinkle it with salt and pepper.  Cut the slice in four and put it on to four hot plates.  Pour out the white wine and taste your cheese slice.  In the mountains this would seem delicious.  Here it is all wrong.  But you can put it right.  Over each slice, pour some melted butter.  A mountaineer from the Valais would be shocked, but my friends are enthusiastic, and that is good enough for me.

As David remarked, ‘enthusiastic beginners’ might add olives, parsley or red peppers, and the ‘school-trained professional might be tempted to super-impose cream, wine, mushrooms upon this rough and rustic dish.  That is not de Pomiane’s way.  His way is the way of the artist; of the man who could add one sure touch, one only, and thereby create an effect of the pre-ordained, the inevitable, the entirely right and proper.’  It is in truth the case of a professional having the nerve to back his own judgment – and forget about white wine in the Alps, the dish looks just right to me to have with red wine in front of a fire and the rugby on a Friday or Sunday night.

A restaurant on Mont-St- Michel was famous through all France for its single menu – an omelette, ham, fried sole, lamb cutlets, roast chicken and salad, and dessert.  The omelettes were the talk of all France.  What was the secret of the cook’s magic?  She revealed it in 1932 in a letter to La Table:

Monsieur Viel,

Here is the recipe for the omelette; I break some good eggs in a bowl, I beat them well, I put a good piece of butter in the pan, I throw the eggs into it, and I shake it constantly.  I am happy, monsieur, if this recipe pleases you.

Annette Poulard

Let’s face it – the French have style.  But David lamented the decline in French provincial cooking in her time.  She looked back on a lunch at a pension de famille run by three ladies in the Vosges in 1968, two thin and spinsterish, the third a young and graceful niece.  First came a quiche Lorraine (which had no cheese in the filling and was baked in a tart tin).  It was served with a salad of crisp green leaves.  Then came coarse country sausage poached with vegetables.  One of the thin ladies apologised that they did not have the trout that day – so they went straight to the roast – braised pigeons with whole apples cooked in their skins which by some trick were still rosy red.  Then came the local cheese with caraway seeds.  Then came another cartwheel of pastry.

It was the normal meal expected by the factory owners when they invited guests to eat with them.  The food was good honest food, honestly cooked.  There was no pretension and not the least ostentation about it.  All the same what a misguided meal.  The quiche and the salad, both of them delicious and combining perfectly, would alone have been enough.

You can understand why some people keep this as bedside reading.  It conduces to peace and well-being.  But as someone remarked in The Guardian on the centenary of her birth:

But someone once told me Jamie Oliver had sold more copies of just one of his books than have been sold of Elizabeth’s entire oeuvre, and what can you say about that? 

Good luck to Mr Oliver – but what about civilisation as we know it?

This Folio edition does not have enough from An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.  It does however display the style of the author across the Med, and it deals with meals we take for granted like souvlaki or kebabs.  Julian Barnes gives a good example of how a short and apparently simple recipe left him bamboozled.  He was better off than the guy who responded to an instruction ‘Separate the eggs’ by moving them further apart on the bench!  Barnes also tells us that when E D collected her OBE, the Queen asked her what she did.  ‘Write cookery books, Ma’am.’  The Queen replied: ‘How useful.’

Elizabeth David left her own testament to grace, style, and food.  If I were to ask God whether, say, Kant or El Greco have had more influence on me than Elizabeth David, the result might be a close run thing.  But while I do not have to do logic or like art, I do have to eat.

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