Eating with Elizabeth David
My aunt was British cookery writer Elizabeth David, who was known to the family as ‘Liza’. Between the ages of 15 and 30, I often dined with her, perhaps every eight weeks. We met up mostly for lunch. It was a lengthy affair, lasting up to five hours – there was no rush because she began her writing at 5 am and had finished by 10 am (few writers it seems can do more than this). The time with her was pleasurable, daunting and always full of surprises.
I always looked forward to the conversation and mood of these lunchtime excursions into the world of eating. When you arrived, she had usually prepared one course, which was already in the oven. Over the next hour or so you would be invited to participate in preparing second courses, salads, hors d’oeuvres or desserts, all the while sitting at her rudimentary pine table. There was no work surface.
If you were lucky, she was in the middle of one of her research programmes, although ‘research’ might convey the wrong impression. She nurtured ‘enthusiasms’ that became scholarly and gustatory quests. I once ate lunch with her when she was writing her English Spices and Aromatic Herbs book. We ate spiced beef terrine. On another occasion, whilst she was working on English Bread and Yeast Cookery, we dined on delicious Ligurian pizzas & Selkirk Bannocks.
But it was her ice cream experiments for her Ice Book, posthumously published, that gave our long meals perfect ending. Sweet, scented, aromatic, rich or delicate and scooped from the ice cream maker whilst still soft and non-crystalline – I can almost feel it in my mouth now.
Occasionally things went wrong – or at least not right – for her. She would always be the first to say so. She never boasted about her cooking, always analysing it thoughtfully, eating small quantities and encouraging me or other guests (I rarely remember more than one other – she liked intimate conversation) to eat as much as possible.
Generosity – making guests feel the food was there to be eaten to the point of satisfaction – was important. There was always a glass of carefully selected but not expensive wine at hand and one of my jobs was to use the corkscrew. She used to buy half bottles so that we could switch wines when appropriate. She never expected you to finish the glass once the courses had moved on.
There was one major drawback to eating with her. As she lived on her own and lived in relatively modest circumstances, she had no one to do the washing up. The guest (at least me) was expected to do the bulk of it. Fairly early on, when I was 17, what one could describe as a sink cabinet finally fell apart. When leaks began appearing in the drainers, and the cupboard doors started falling off, she suggested that I should build her a new sink cabinet, this time at the right height and properly constructed. I duly obliged, constructing it in the street to the bemusement of local Chelsea residents. I was paid in meals – mostly lunches and £300 to embark on student travel. Looking back, it was no accident that I became a kitchen designer.
See ‘You can smell the sea or touch the olive branch…’, a 2006 article by Tom Norrington-Davies , in the Telegraph.