Saturday, April 18, 2015

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David [book review]

Elizabeth David was an English food writer after the Second World War who revolutionized food writing in the UK. She was highly opinionated and very judgemental of the British food of her time. She spent a lot of time in Europe and praised the ingredients and preparation of regular restaurants there as being far superior to that of the UK. She lauded the "peasant" food of the Mediterranean, and paid vast sums to have fresh produce imported from Europe; this wasn't a luxury available to ordinary British families. David was not interested in reaching ordinary families, though; she was focused on middle-class and upper middle-class audiences and was content being considered a snob.

For the Kitchen Reader book club in March, we were tasked with reading any work by or about Elizabeth David and I chose a collection of her published essays called An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. I was prepared to be entertained and to learn a lot about good, fresh food.

In one essay published in 1960, David described the food she ate while abroad and how it affected her upon return to the UK. She was in Egypt with the British Civil Service and lived simply but flavourfully. Her food "had always had some sort of life, colour, guts, stimulus; there had always been bite, flavour and inviting smells. Those elements were totally absent from English meals."

So David stocked her UK pantry with some "elementary things" for making good meals: "eggs, onions, parsley, lemons, oranges and bread and tomatoes--and I keep tinned tomatoes too". These things were not all available for purchase in England, but David acquired (or wanted to acquire) them. She described the meals she could quickly improvise: "a salad of anchovy filets and black olives, hard-boiled eggs and olive oil, with bread and a bottle of wine." Not very typical for her time. Fortunately, European (and global) foodstuffs are now ubiquitous in England and around the world, and these are indeed the kind of reserves, and meals, one can have on hand.

David also lambasted restauranteurs in England for overfussing and ruining simple ingredients. She first described a meal she ate a village inn near Aix-en-Provence in France: "The meal was faultless of its kind, a roughish country inn kind... and the bill was very modest." The meal started with a tomato salad with chopped onion, black olives, and homemade pate, then included a gratin of courgettes and rice and a daube of beef. It finished with a pot of jam, some coffee, and was accompanied throughout by a coarse red wine.

She then went on to imagine what the same meal would look like if served in a London restaurant. She said it was not technically too difficult for any moderately skilful cook, but the English cook would so ruin it be adding garnishes, thick, lumpy sauces, and low quality tinned and canned additions. They would add more meat or fish to the courgette dish, add a great heap of cheese to any fragile flavours, make the dessert infinitely more complicated, and charge three times the price. "It does seem to me that with so much talk about art versus fine ingredients somebody might mention that there is also the art, or the discipline, of leaving well alone. This is a prerequisite for any first class meal... on any level whatsoever."

For David, European cuisine was far superior to that of her home country. Since then, British cooking has evolved into a much more fresh, simple, "elemental" style. Home cooks are able to regularly use the ingredients David praised. For my part, I can see why she was happy to stop at a local inn for an omelette and a glass of wine when travelling in France. And now we are able to have our omelette and glass of wine at home as well.

In April, the Kitchen Reader members are reading Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. You are welcome to join us.

Has travel affected your culinary tastes?

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