The cook’s cook Jeremy Lee on Elizabeth David
The most incredibly sophisticated compendium of all that is good in British cooking is Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, Volume One, by Elizabeth David. What we would give for volumes two and three!
I inherited my copy from my mum, who got it when it came out in 1970. I would have been six or seven. It was always there, one of a great many books in a pile on the kitchen table. It’s a first-edition paperback and a testament to Mum that it’s in beautiful condition.
I grew up on the east coast of Scotland, in a village outside Dundee. What Elizabeth David did for me was bolster a young lad – and a family living in a very remote part of the world. The only good food was what Mum cooked and we lucked out – she was really adept at it. Later in life, I met folk whose stories were not dissimilar. Whether they were brought up in Wales or the north of England, books like this were important to keeping a household in a faraway place.
ED had a kitchen shop in London, and one of the things that came out of it were lovely little booklets, about syllabubs and fruit fools; dried herbs, aromatics and condiments; and the baking of an English loaf, to name a few. This book is the distillation of all that. ED is known for her writing on the Med, and I think this book has been overlooked – it’s not a big glamorous job like French Provincial Cooking. I flick between this and Summer Cooking constantly.
The whole of the Lee family Christmas is in this book, from my earliest memories right through to the last Christmas I ate with Mum before she died. There’s a lemon breadcrumb stuffing that you can pop into a chicken any time of the year (taken from Mrs Beeton, and stolen in turn from Eliza Acton). The Cumberland sauce is an extravagant brew of redcurrant sauce, port and orange rind; it’s wonderful with cold meats. And there is a lovely paragraph on bloaters that best illustrates how these books inspire. Bloater is a herring, smoked whole – a prize of the east-coast fisheries. It is interesting, too, that ED mentions the rarity of bloaters even then in the late 60s. I love them, and it is a sad truth that the bloaters we get now are more often than not French. My dad was mad for them and would sit for an extraordinary length of time meticulously picking over every last particle of herring to be eaten with brown bread and butter.
It was never just one recipe that made a dish for me. It was the melding of lore, the telling of tales, humour, style and, above all, taste and simplicity. What you get from ED is inspiration. Her writing is incomparable: it’s elegant, sparse and one always has the certain assurance that the detail and research in every word is immaculate.
I cooked for ED when I was working at Bibendum restaurant. She would come up in the goods lift (in the latter part of her life she needed assistance). I was terribly young and gauche. Once, when her wheelchair trundled past the pastry section, I was putting away a lemon tart, and she said: “Oh, save a slice for me.” Simon Hopkinson, who was chef-patron and her friend, came in afterwards and said that she liked it very much. That’s the nearest
I got, but then, I sometimes think you shouldn’t meet your heroes. I’ll always have this idea of what she was and know her through her writing.
Elizabeth David in her kitchen in Chelsea, in the 1950s. ‘Books like this were important to keeping a household in a faraway place.’