Beer in the Elizabeth David Oeuvre

English beer and travel author Adrian Tierney-Jones, see his website here, shares my high regard for the English food writer Elizabeth David. We were discussing on Twitter whether she supported the cause of good beer. I pointed out she made a few approving references to beer, for example in connection with picnics, and never disparaged beer or brewing in her writing. Adrian agreed but pointed out she was not an advocate of beer.

That’s true as far as it goes. Yet she was capable of appreciating elements of the beer culture. For example, she wrote a multi-page essay, collected in an Omelette and a Glass of Wine, on the use of hops in cooking. She was especially interested in the shoots of the wild hop, used in parts of Italy for soup. The term lupari is given this vegetable in the local vernacular. Beer students will see the etymological relation to lupulin, the resinous and aromatic quality of the hop which gives zest and aroma to beer. David also talks about wild hops in Italian cooking in her Italian Food.

She supported beer as an alternative to wine in cooking (and whisky to replace brandy). In Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, she gives a recipe for Sussex Stewed Steak. It’s a braise of beef which includes port and stout to form the sauce, with mushroom ketchup. In the “Omelette” book she devotes a few pages to the fondue group of dishes and approves using Guinness to make an “Anglo-French” version. She makes the telling observation here that Welsh Rabbit, originally a primitive dish of melted cheese and beer, has evolved into a quasi-fondue dish.

This is a reasonable acknowledgement of the place of beer in English foodways given that place was never very large to begin with, a topic I’ve addressed before.

She took a strictly gastronomic, non-judgmental approach here, which in the 1900s was innovative given England’s complicated culinary and sociological landscape. By this I mean English society was characterized by regional, social and class differences, and its food and drink reflected that.

David was product of an upper-middle-class family in Sussex, surnamed Gwynne. Her father was a Member of Parliament. She came to maturity before World War II and prior to writing on food had a shelter-skelter career in London, including as an actor and model, until ending in Cairo during the war with the British government. A person of that background and a woman to boot was not likely to take an interest in beer.

Beer at the time too was a male preserve. For a woman to walk into a pub alone in mid-century was often a perilous venture. David was a singleton most of her life.

But again: beer was associated with a different socio-economic level than she grew up with.

In the classic The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook (1982) the statement is made that the male Sloane will drink “any kind of beer”. That was a compliment to beer, but kind of left-handed. In contrast, wine has always had a revered status among the elite. This fostered wine appreciation, the institution and high status of the wine merchant, and wine writing. Wine writer Henry Jeffreys, who is fully capable of appreciating good beer by the way, gives a masterclass on the importance of wine in the English social matrix in his current Empire of Booze.

Today, English society including its culinary facets are more democratic, a pattern seen in all countries. Old shibboleths are rightly abandoned, at least that is the tendency even if not fully achieved.*

The task for the gastronomic adventurer, including the quester of drink, is to approach these topics as far as possible without prejudice or preconception. Elizabeth Davis did this for food in general and approached drink – never her specialty area – pretty much the same way, or as much as was reasonably possible for her gender and era of influence (1950s-1970s). She did explore the history and palate range of mead quite extensively, but mostly as a historical exercise. And she does mention cider occasionally, both to cook with and drink. On a hiking tour of the Wye Valley, she sampled local cider and found much of it “rough” or “very rough”. But she did try it…

Perhaps had she lived in our era she would have approached beer gastronomically in all its dimensions, that is with the seriousness and intrepid spirit it deserves.

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*One of the ironies of the present discussion is that the leading edge of the culinary scene, excepting of course the gastro-pub, seems largely to ignore the merits of craft beer and eschews its culture and passions. This is a complex topic to which I’ll return.