One cold, overcast mid-February day nine years ago, this writer stepped through the doors of the Phillips auction house in central London. There was a reverential silence as visitors shuffled by, staring at the lots soon to come under the hammer: dented moulds, chipped ramekins, slightly rusted whisks, wooden spoons still bearing traces of past meals. There were also pots and pans, storage jars, glassware, much-thumbed books and a long pine table. Had their owner been just anyone, these battered, homely kitchen goods would never have made it into Phillips. But a few days later, on 22 February 1994, the saleroom was already packed some 400 strong at 09.30 for a midday auction, with others crowding the corridor outside. Proceeds that day came to 49,000, three times what Phillips had anticipated. People had come to scoop up whatever they could from a person who had had such an effect on their lives. They wanted, in a sense, to keep a little piece of her. They had all come for Elizabeth David, one of Englands foremost cookery and food history writers, who had died two years earlier. A person who had been so pivotal in bringing Mediterranean warmth to their drab postwar doors.
David was no softie. By all accounts, she was a perfectionist who could be demanding, distant, dogmatic, daunting. Yet she wrote like a dream and had that magical knack of capturing ambience and mood in the pages of her books, seamlessly blending in descriptions, reminiscence and lore with her recipes.
Some dip their toes cautiously, testingly, into new waters. David chose in 1939 the baptism-by-fire route of discovering the Mediterranean by helping to navigate a two-masted yawl through the canals of France down to the Riviera, and from there towards the Straits of Messina. All this on the eve of world war two. The odyssey (punctuated by seizure of the boat and her belongings en route, plus an intermission in jail) eventually took her and her companion on to Greece and later to Cairo. It was an eye-opener that would serve her well professionally in coming years, and at Antibes she met author Norman Douglas, who helped mediterraneanise his new protge, sharing thoughts on food, history and the way life ought to be lived. He was 72, she 26.
In the local French markets and later in those of Greece and Egypt, David was stunned by the colours, smells and shapes of the lovingly-arranged produce she saw. Some stark differences between here and her homeland were beginning to sink in and she would note acidly that we [English] have become too accustomed to accepting third-rate travesties of good food. A slab of patently tough meat is still too often shoved into the oven with a shrug and a prayer. The vegetable course is still quite ignored. By now, she had begun carefully watching cooks at work, squirrelling away recipes.
By 1946 her wanderings were over and David was back in London facing harsh new realities. Many foodstuffs, of course, were severely rationed; others were simply unavailable. And as for her Mediterranean memories of things like zucchini and eggplants There was also an insular hostility towards what the English wrote off as those queer messes which foreigners called food. David railed right back at them: Conditions were awful, shortages did make catering a nightmare. And still there was no excuse, none, for such unspeakably dismal meals. [Writing out] words like apricot, olives and butter, rice and lemons, oil and almonds, produced assuagement. Later I came to realise that in the England of 1947, those were dirty words that I was putting down.
But she did continue writing things down and in March 1949 her very first magazine article, for Harpers Bazaar, came out. It was about rice. More pieces followed, and with the notes and recipes that had been building for about a decade she soon felt ready for a book. A Book of Mediterranean Food came out in 1950 when David was 36 years old. Given the era, it must have been quite breathtaking for her to call blithely for an abandoned use of cream, butter and eggs. And then there was that Turkish recipe for stuffing a sheep. A whole sheep in 1950, when England still had another four years to go before the end of meat rationing. Nonetheless, the book was warmly reviewed by all except the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; she treated crustaceans cruelly, it said, in her recipe for roast lobster. Magazine commissions came rolling in and within 12 months David had produced a second book, French Country Cooking. Her reputation consolidated, she could indulge in more travel back in France, and could visit her adored mentor, Douglas, who had moved to Capri.
Now, though, thoughts about a third book were bubbling on the back burner. This time she would take on Italian cooking, undeterred by English friends who exclaimed to her: All that pasta! Weve got enough stodge here already, you wont find much else in Italy. Youll have to invent. Unphased, she nevertheless approached her new subject more gingerly. If French cooking was second nature to her, Italy was still an unknown quantity. However, with undiminished zeal she marched on in her mission, ever ready with a barb: Nobody has ever been able to find out why the English regard a glass of wine added to a soup or stew as a reckless foreign extravagance and at the same time spend pounds on bottled sauces, gravy powders, soup cubes artificial flavourings.
In March 1952 she set off by train from London for Italy. For about a year she would be in the hands of the Italian state tourist board, which gave her a crucially supportive hand during her wanderings up and down the country. Her dear friend Douglas had died one month before her arrival. Davids base during those months was a two-room attic flat in Palazzo Doria in central Rome and out she forayed, to learn all about panforte, risotto, raw artichoke salads, mostarda di Cremona, moscardini, pesto and finocchiona. And although she happily plunged into all these discoveries, it didnt take long for her to realise that she was up against a number of hurdles: the project was far larger than she had reckoned and she needed to extend her deadline. The Italians had a far greater instinctive feel for cooking than their English counterparts when it came to measurements or quantities: David had to get them to translate una manciata (a handful), for example, into a more precise concept for her readers back home. She worried a bit, too, about how the English were going to find the required ingredients, outside Londons Soho district. Certainly she earned no sympathy from postwar England when she wrote home to her publisher about how all her food samplings had started to show on her svelte waistline. Her publisher wrote back: I have been weeping at the thought of your liver, as I crumble up a little slice of cold luncheon meat. By early 1953, research completed, she returned home from her Italian base. Recipes had to be tested and fine-tuned, the book committed to paper. She had even triumphed in coaxing illustrations out of Renato Guttuso during a chance meeting in Venice in mid-1952 pictures that were perhaps the most famous to accompany any of her books.
Italian Food came out in November 1954 and was reviewed glowingly by a galaxy of illustrious fellow-writers: Freya Stark, Evelyn Waugh and Olivia Manning. David would go on to write six more books about food, but Italian Food, in her own estimation, was her very best.
When she was later awarded an OBE, one fan would complain: Her OBE is a rather mangy honour for someone who has made a social and cultural revolution. Who else in recent times can be said to have changed the habits of so large a section of the population of an entire country? Surely she should be Damed as soon as possible. Her nine works sold over 1.2 million copies in paperback editions alone and were translated into many foreign languages. Through her writing she emancipated the British palate and changed English cooking forever. And who knows how many people today, as they push their trolleys through the aisles of their local supermarkets, past bunches of rosemary and piles of eggplants, beyond strings of garlic, mounds of peppers, boxes of wild mushrooms and sprigs of fresh basil, stop to pay silent homage to the lady who inspired it all, Elizabeth David.