Grey Matters

Elizabeth David: the cook, the runaway, the shopkeeper and rebel

I think we all know she was a cook – or it’s very easy to find this out.  I would like to remember some other things about my aunt.

She could not bear being told what to do.  I’m not sure what led to this, but while still in her teens she ran away from home.  She was fed up with family life, such as it was at Wootton Manor in Sussex, and she had plans to become an actress.  The Oxford Playhouse proved a temporary stop, as she and one of its company, Charles Gibson Gowen, escaped to sea in a barge.  They kept one step ahead of the Germans as war broke out until arrested in Venice and subsequently freed by the American ambassador.  She embraced the chaos of the war, working for much of it at the British Army intelligence library in Cairo.  Afterwards, she wrote cookery books, apparently to prove her worth to another (married) lover.

I first knew my aunt properly when she was recovering from a stroke and had lost her sense of taste. What to do?  My father was her doctor and he suggested, along with others, that she open a shop.  She liked this challenge.  It turned out she had been collecting addresses of potteries, cast-iron foundries, chinaware companies, artisan knife makers and tin ware manufacturers during her repeated trips to France. Her favourite shops were ironmongers, ideally French, where the British bought their cookery ware as no cookshops existed then.  From one trip she bought back a collection of cast brass cup hooks and asked me if I could get them made here as there was no English equivalent.  That was my job, fixing things.  As her nephew my duties included changing light bulbs, building bookshelves and sink cabinets and gassing cupboards for woodworm in her Chelsea terrace.

A bus journey to 44 Bourne St Pimlico found me facing an industrial sized plate glass window in an ugly, modern, narrow shop front. A table placed across the entire width to display basic French tin ware, piled high, looked like nothing I had seen before.  Inside were pots set on garage shelves with straw strewn about and bread crocks on the floor and a staircase leading to a concrete basement.  Visiting the shop was my top priority when escaping boarding school for the holidays.  Liza (as we called her) most often hid in the stockroom (people constantly wanted her advice and she found it exhausting) on a bar stool, knees to one side at an old pine dresser.  This doubled up as desk, samples spot, notice board and waiting-to-be-filed zone.  She dressed in black and white, with black, thick-rimmed glasses. I was always welcome and was offered Nescafe in small white porcelain coffee cups.  The place smelled of disque bleu cigarettes, fresh ones and stale.

Customers and friends from all over the world brought trade samples and seasonal food.  I remember figs, persimmons, walnuts and cheeses.  In the basement the objects took on glamour.  She styled things in her shop in a casual but eye-catching and unusual way, the lighting borrowed from a photographer’s studio.  Stock moved so fast when it first opened that everything was sold within a month. Other retailers quickly caught on, even Terence Conran admitted her influence on Habitat in later years. Independent cookshops sprung up in high streets in USA, Australia and here.

Her own kitchen was full of exotic clutter, freestanding furniture, piles of books and strange cooking equipment.  No units and long countertops for her - just a decent table, a stove and some good few dressers and a capacious old cupboard.  I loved visiting just to hang about in that kitchen.

My aunt’s spirit is captured in Artemis Coopers’ excellent biography, Writing at the Kitchen Table.  She excelled in writing, conversation and enjoyment of being in a kitchen.  One last rebellion – her mother had banned Elizabeth and her sisters from ever going into her kitchen at Wootton to prevent them getting in the cook’s way, but she ended up by practically living in one: I installed a stylish cane day bed in her final ‘winter kitchen’.

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