The cook’s cook Jeremy Lee on El­iz­a­beth David

The Guardian - Feast - - News -

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.’

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