Elizabeth David’s Romantic Spirit. Part II.

In Part I I discussed how David contrasted Near and Far East cookery* with (aspects of) the “brandest-new” 1970 London supermarket.

I instance below a further example of David’s particular temperament, which blended passion with engaging social and cultural observation. She references a book of cookery by Sir Harry Luke, a British diplomat of the early 20th century.

Luke seems to have been of that numberless group of mid-level Colonial Officers who peppered Empire and environs in that period. He found time to compose books on travel and foreign cultures, with one on cookery as noted, The Tenth Muse (Putnams, 1954).

David was much taken with this production and composed notes on the book published in the Spectator in December 1962. A portion appeared in her 1970 Spices, Sales and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, including these lines:

Sir Harry collected recipes from British Residences and Government Houses, from their chatelaines, their cooks – cooks Maltese and Cypriot, Hindu and Persian and Assyrian, cooks Goanese and Polynesian, cooks naval, military, and consular, cooks in Union Clubs at La Paz and Santiago di Chile, cooks of French pioneers and Brazilian countesses, Turkish Grand Viziers, and Coptic Archimandrites….

Sir Harry must have been an ideal guest. The wife of the British Resident in Brunei prefers to mix her own curry powders, so off Harry goes with her to market, noting that she buys, separately and in varying quantities, black pepper, aniseed, cardamon, chilies, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, mace, nutmeg, poppyseed, saffron, tamarind, turmeric…

David reproduces a number of his recipes in the book including that for Cyprus Sausages. Luke wrote it was a village recipe from Paphos, a mountain district of Cyprus where he was once Commissioner. Chopped young pork is macerated for 48 hours with salt, pepper, coriander, herbs, and red wine.

Cleaned gut soaked in vinegar is filled with the meat, tied at intervals of about three inches, hung to drain a few days, and eaten “after 7-10 days, fried or grilled”. (Greek or Greek-influenced sausage often contains orange rind. One can see coriander fitting within this scheme, or the other way around, I suppose).

It would be a mistake to conclude David knew only rudiments of cookery and ingredients and the books relied for their appeal on her romantic temperament. One needs to read the books and collected essays in toto to understand how well she understood food and cooking, the basics if you will.

She simply approached them in her own way, which gave an extra allure. But when I see on television, say, a Jamie Oliver handle food, with a deftness and savoir faire born of years of experience, I know from reading her work she had no less, as ditto a James Beard, Julia Child, Graham Kerr (yes), Nigella Lawson, Delia Smith, et al.

Where she sets off from these estimable figures is her original way to present the material, or particular tone, which benefitted too from her historical researches, a factor that deepened as the years passed.

Her 1970s English Bread and Yeast Cookery presents all facets of her writing personality to a t: detailed attention to ingredients and technique, the historical depth, and flashes of passion and daring.

It is a cliché to say a writer is one of a kind, but this was very true of Elizabeth David. She was born Elizabeth Gwynne, issue of minor Sussex gentry although she claimed also some Indonesian ancestry.

Before turning to food writing she was a theatre actress, model, traveler (1938-1940 and postwar), and British civil servant (Alexandria during the war). She hobnobbed with writers and Bohemia in earlier years, including in Capri c. 1950.

She had lived in Greece as well earlier, first arriving after the outbreak of WW II when escaping the Axis in course of a Mediterranean trek with a London boyfriend, Charles Gibson Cowan. In 1944 she married Anthony (Tony) David, an Army officer, with whom she lived in India after the war.

She returned to England alone to reside in London. Her husband later joined her, but they divorced in 1948, whence her writing career blossomed, resulting in her first book Mediterranean Food, in 1950.

Her interest in France derived probably from a spell as a schoolgirl with a French family, absorbing fundamentals of housekeeping and bourgeois French cookery. She also spent time in Corsica in the late 1930s.

Every part of her early years contributed to the masterful, highly original writer she became. There can never be another, but she can stand as inspiration to her posterity.

*Specifically, Muslim India and Levant.



3 thoughts on “Elizabeth David’s Romantic Spirit. Part II.”

  1. I believe the text now states accurately, albeit in compressed fashion, details of David’s marriage to Tony David and return to England after WW II. Needless to say there is considerable biographical material available for in-depth information, including two full-length biographies, which I read in earlier years. Note also the lucid entry on David in the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Food (1999). It focuses on the “inspirational” quality of her work particularly in the 1950s, starting with Mediterranean Food (1950). This is another way to get at her highly individual, romantic style I have been highlighting.

  2. It’s always interesting to run across writers who feel so far ahead of their era, although as you point out there were a lot of people in England with extensive time in India, Hong Kong, the Caribbean and Africa who must have picked up tastes completely at odds with Dorset or Birmingham. She couldn’t have been writing in a total vacuum.

    Still we’re fortunate to live in a time when it is so much easier to pick up saffron and tamarind than it must have been when she was writing.

    • Thanks, she does credit forerunners such as Col. Kenney-Herbert aka “Wyvern”. A gastronome in the British India Army, he returned to England upon retirement to write cookery books and found a cookery school in Chelsea.

      Sir Harry Luke too was such a figure and of course there were others, who helped make curry and other Anglo-Indian dishes a stand-by in Britain by Victorian times.

      Her books had the gift though to inspire a postwar generation, the educated middle class, seeking respite from the glooms lingering after 1945, of course rationing and a drabness in general to life. The first book, on Mediterranean cooking, helped open the floodgates.


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