When pondering what to serve dinner guests this coming Saturday I reached for my disintegrating copy of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. Not because I expected to copy a user-friendly recipe but because it is chock-full of ideas. First published in 1960, this kitchen classic has run to countless editions and is still going strong.
Elizabeth David started writing about food in the 1950s, when Britain was emerging from rationing and the tedious – if comparatively healthy – wartime diet. Olive oil was something you bought at the chemist’s for medicinal purposes, e.g. treating earache. Nobody considered using it for cooking. Aubergines and zucchini were considered exotic vegetables and sundried tomatoes were not even a gleam in someone’s eye. I had to smile when David tells readers brightly that chorizo sausage “can be bought in Soho shops and quite a few delicatessens.” The problem today, of course, is that many ingredients are universally available but often of sub-standard quality.
Package holidays and mass-market overseas travel were still in the future. So David’s evocative descriptions of tempting meals she had enjoyed in France were a revelation to cuisine-starved Brits. And she is pretty scathing about the type of food served in English restaurants at the time. But David acknowledges that you can eat badly in France, too, and gives some toe-curling examples. Alas, this is increasingly common today.
Her book is more than a cookbook. Granted, it contains recipes, quite a lot of them, but I have rarely followed one. She is on occasion superbly vague about quantities, oven temperatures and cooking techniques. But the book is also an erudite exposition of how cuisine developed in the different regions of France, liberally sprinkled with literary quotations, historical references and anecdotal titbits. The bibliography runs to 16 pages. In fact, I recommend anyone to read the first 65 pages or so of introduction. It includes David’s discovery of French food when lodging as a student with a family in Paris.
I was lambasted a while ago by a French reader when I said that the French talk about food at dinner parties. Of course, they talk about other things, too. But in my experience they give the attention to food that British people do to house prices at such social occasions. This is neither a criticism nor a suggestion that theirs is superficial chitchat. Food is part of the fabric of French society, as David recognised. And our French friends’ descriptions of the part it played in their grandparents’ lives is a riveting lesson in social history.
David is not without her detractors. An article by A. A. Gill in The Sunday Times more than 10 years ago criticised her for introducing inappropriate cuisine into a country that had been brought up on steak and kidney pudding and jam roly-poly. He has a point – to a certain extent. Eating aïoli under Mediterranean skies probably loses a bit in the translation to leaden skies in Goole, for example (if you live in Goole, please don’t write in).
Equally, David was only in the vanguard of a movement that would gather pace as people started to travel more outside Britain. Why shouldn’t they want to eat at home the food they had enjoyed on holiday? And, as David herself observes:
If a dish does not turn out to be quite as it was at the remembered auberge in Normandy, or at the restaurant on the banks of the Loire, is this a matter for despair? Because it is different, as by force of circumstance it must be, it is not necessarily worse.
David never takes prisoners. If she doesn’t like something, you certainly know about it. I saw her give poor Jancis Robinson a hard time as an unresponsive interviewee many years ago on TV. And I suspect she was a snob. However, her writing is readable, vivid and never dull. So I sometimes pick up French Provincial Cooking just for a good read, not necessarily to find a recipe.
Saturday’s menu? Pork with prunes, I think. A good, classic French dish from the Loire. Okay, we are in the southwest but made with locally-reared pork and pruneaux d’Agen, I don’t think anyone is going to complain too much.
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