We were taking a wander through Montpellier when we stumbled on a book market. A single stall sold English titles, and poking out of a box was a well thumbed 1986 edition of An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David the queen of French cooking. At five euros, it was a steal.
I have a copy of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, and I have attempted a couple of recipes, but the real joy has been her writing.
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine is a compilation of Elizabeth David’s writing spanning her thirty years and more career during which she wrote for titles such as Vogue, the Spectator, the London Evening Standard, Harpers Bazaar and the Sunday Times.
It is said that her time at the Sorbonne – Paris, where she studied, ‘altered her destiny‘. She also lived with a well fed Norman family; in ‘A La Marinere’ for House and Garden, January 1960, she describes tasting mussels for the first time.
In ‘Dishes for Collectors’ she tells of travelling two hundred miles across France in search of a particular dish, cooked in a particular restaurant – porc aux pruneaux at Rotisserie Tourangelle, only to find it was closed for a fortnight. This featured in Vogue, November 1958.
Elizabeth David started writing at a time when French and mediterranean cooking was considered exotic, when Britain was coming out of rationing, and when many ingredients would have been a struggle to find. Hard to imagine today when everything is a tap away and gets delivered to your door at a time of your choosing.
Even then times were chasing. In ‘Pleasing Cheeses’, Nova October 1965 she rues the lost art of home-made cheese. There are instructions for Osborne cream cheese, fresh milk cheese and cream cheese croutons. I won’t be making these.
Flicking through An Omelette and a Glass of Wine it shows how much attitudes have changed towards French and Mediterranean food. In ‘Waiting for Lunch’, Elizabeth David describes the morning meal of Catalan peasants, fresh bread rubbed with garlic and moistened with fruity olive oil which appeared in French Country Cooking, 1951. Shortly after publication a reviewer remarked she hoped the British would not be breakfasting of such a primitive dish. Hmm, bread and olive oil, now where have I had that?
Reading her books are a great antidote to the rage of clean living. I’m going to leave that to the millennials. I have yet to be converted to smashed avocado smeared on toast (which is not cooking) and the rise of new wave health gurus such as Deliciously Ella, who mix, shred, and spiralize but don’t really cook: temper, stew, fry, roast, boil or braise.
I admit I have attempted to spriralize a courgette, have made sweet potato brownies, which turned out more like a sorry, brown sludge. I far prefer the real thing with flour, sugar, real chocolate and nuts. And I have tried to quit sugar (really not worth doing in France).
I like to cook with butter, everything just tastes so much better with a blob of butter. I eat baguettes, freshly baked from my local boulangerie. I stand, drooling outside the window of my local patisserie, I live minutes away from master macron maker Pierre Herme.
Elizabeth David’s books are of a different age, part social history, part literature, though her recipes may appear imprecise, the ones I have tried have worked beautifully.
Poulet roti au beurre is a simple roast chicken with garlic, slathered with butter, utterly delicious. It is now a regular feature for our weekend lunches (you can find this recipe in French Provincial Cooking).
In Elizabeth David’s books (last least the ones I have) there are no gorgeous, glamorous stylised ‘food porn’ pictures, you have to sit and read the anecdotes and savour the recipes but I guarantee you will be ravenous.
Me? I am itching to make to make Giovanna’s recipe for chicken livers, spaghetti and lemon. Ok it’s not a French recipe, ‘Giovanna was a young Tuscan girl who cooked in a country restaurant’.
If you want some great culinary reading you can do no better than to get yourself a copy of An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, best enjoyed with a glass of wine, French of course.
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