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A summer afternoon with Elizabeth David

"After all, it is summer. You are on holiday. You are in company of your own choosing. The air is clean. You can smell wild fennel and thyme, dry resinous pine needles, the sea. For my part, I ask no greater luxury. Indeed I can think of none." Elizabeth David/Summer Cooking

It is indeed summer and although the things of which Elizabeth David speaks in those wonderful words at the end of her introduction to Summer Cooking, are not relevant in their detail they are none the less relevant in spirit. My life as a retired old, nay elderly person is a constant holiday. I am indeed in company of my own choosing - mostly my husband but occasionally family and friends. I am not hampered by difficult work colleagues - not that I ever was in fact. The air is indeed clean out here in Melbourne's peripheral suburbs. The smells are different, although there is thyme and fennel in my garden, but no resinous pine - exhilerating eucalyptus instead, and no smell of the sea either, although the river rushing over the rapids at the back of our garden is an appropriate substitute. And let's not forget the song of the magpie - one was carolling his or her heart out this morning, and the gentle swish of the garden hose. For it is indeed summer and there is no greater luxury than a day like today in Melbourne.

Well there is one dampener. I have somehow strained my back and cannot stand or sit for too long at a time. It's not serious and will pass, but as a result, and for reasons which I shall come to, I have spent the most part of this afternoon and some of the morning, reacquainting myself with Elizabeth David's Summer Cooking - a process which has brought to mind all manner of different memories and possibly a few decisions too - small and large. Decisions need to be acted upon though before they can be counted as significant.

The reason I chose this particular book to read, rather than my current fiction reading, was because this is my first week in which I am going to cook something from one of my long ago gurus. The cooks who taught me to cook - Robert Carrier, Elizabeth David, Julia Child and co. and Jane Grigson. Well no, it wasn't just them of course. I had previous mentors - my mother, my French hostesses and cooks, and various magazine writers. But these three were the first whose books I collected in an attempt to reproduce the wonderful food I had eaten in France and just generally to improve my cooking. To try something new.

So I thought I would start with Elizabeth David as she was indeed the one who taught me how to make all those wonderful French things. Summer Cooking was not the first book of hers that I bought, but it's a slim book and so could probably be read - or at least skimmed in one session. Besides, it is indeed summer.

The main purpose of reading the book was to pick something to make later on in the week. Now that I have finished my skimming I have compiled a short list, but as I read I was struck by a few other things, and then when I started to write this post I was struck by a few more - which I shall begin with I think.

The first thing is to note that how few of Elizabeth David's recipes are available online. As far as I can tell nobody is doing a Julie and Julia, or Neil Cooks Grigson on her. Yes here and there you will find 'best of' lists put out by publications such as The Guardian, and the occasional blogger tackles something, but honestly there are not very many. And I have to say that even Jill Norman's 'best of' compilation At Elizabeth David's Table does not include any from my long list. Not one. Have I picked the wrong ones?

So when it came to my short list I found only one recipe that was available online: Lamb cutlets with mint butter. Here it is as made by The Daily Mail although they have added potatoes, peas and carrots. Elizabeth David suggests the tomatoes only. It's such a minimal recipe - marinate the lamb chops in some mint butter - butter mixed with mint, salt and pepper and lemon juice - grill, basting as you go and pour some of the butter over the grilled tomatoes too. I mean it's barely a recipe at all really which is typical Elizabeth David. I'm tempted to try it because of its simplicity. Can something that simple be that good?

I looked to see if anyone had enhanced it somehow and found somebody ( who basically reproduced her recipe with the only difference being that they used a blender to make the butter. Others have added garlic and other herbs, and the Middle-Easterners have variations with spices, but fundamentally this is a dish so simple and so everyday that nobody has thought it worth mentioning. Which sort of makes me want to try it to see if it is indeed so simple that it's not worth bothering. But I do know of a couple of very simple dishes that I make from time to time which are indeed worth bothering with. So maybe this is another one.

Back to those other thoughts I had. When I could not find some of those original Elizabeth David recipes I decided to just drop Elizabeth David from my search to see if I could find other people's versions of what seemed to be regional dishes that she had found here and there. But here's the thing - some of them don't seem to exist. For example - Sole au vert (green sole) which is another amazingly simple dish explained in just a few lines:

"Fillets of sole, sorrel, tarragon, chives, parsley, flour, butter, salt and pepper" - nothing as clear as quantities here . Then you get the instructions: "Salt and pepper the fillets, dust them with flour, cook in best butter. When both sides are lightly browned, throw over them a handful of chopped herbs, in which sorrel should dominate. Add a little mint butter and simmer 3 or 4 minutes."

So I think she just made this one up, or maybe she saw a French housewife throw it together some time. And it's very laissez-faire. Next one - Daube à la Corsoise, which sounds rather more like a 'real' dish that you might see on a restaurant menu some time, 'Corsoise' means it comes from Corsica but it certainly doesn't exist on the internet either by Elizabeth or anyone else. Not even in French. Fundamentally it's a joint of beef cooked slowly with olive oil, garlic, thyme, black olives, chopped tomatoes and a good dose of flamed brandy. Near the end you add some potatoes and mushrooms that have been cooked in butter. Sounds great but honestly, I think she might have made it up. She's not particularly modest though so why didn't she claim credit?

And the last in this particular category Gnocchi alla Genovese - in which she combines the Roman kind of gnocchi which are made with semolina and the Genoese pesto. Of course you will find heaps of recipes for Genoese gnocchi but they will just be ordinary gnocchi doused in pesto as here. I don't think anyone has done the same thing with the Roman kind of gnocchi which are really quite different.

Many years ago I did make her Gnocchi all Romana which was an interesting process because it's quite different to the normal one, so maybe I'll give her variation a go. I made some pesto yesterday because I had a bunch of basil that had to be used, so it would kill a few birds with one stone.

Anyway it's a mildly Ottolenghi like touch from Elizabeth David. A bit tantalising therefore.

Before I get to my long list - well all of the above were on it - just a few quotes which are so very Elizabeth David.

"It is useless to be timid when buying meat; the butcher gives the best service and the best meat to the people who insist on getting exactly what they have asked for,"

When I was young I was much braver - spurred on by the West Indian ladies in the butcher's I patronised near the school in which I taught in London's Hackney. They insisted on picking out a particular piece of meat and would not accept what the butcher was going for. So I followed suit. Not that I shop at an actual butcher at the moment - not until I get back to the Queen Vic. But even there I was not that fussy. Curiously I'm braver with fish.

"Fortunately mutton, the least attractive of meats to eat cold, also responds better to re-cooking than any other meat."

How times have changed. You can no longer get mutton, or boiling fowl which she also refers to frequently. You can't even get what Australians called 'two tooth" these days. Good that mutton has gone in lots of ways I suppose but also a loss perhaps. And we mostly cook with chicken pieces these days rather than cutting up a whole one. Although, because the skin on, bone in pieces are disappearing we might have to go back to cutting up a whole chicken. The pendulum swings.

"The possibilities of chicken salads are endless." Indeed.

At the end of a recipe for Baked cheese sandwiches she has these words:

"A highly useful dish for children, for people who live alone, for those cooking under difficult conditions -and for anybody who knows nothing at all about cookig but would like a change from food out of tins and packets."

It's just a toasted cheese sandwich really but she throws in a little bit of cheffy stuff:

"Arrange the sandwiches in a baking dish. Sprinkle each with a few drops of vinegar (this is important) press the bread well down ..."

But she doesn't explain why it's important to sprinkle with vinegar! So maddening.

So here is my short/long list.

Cold baked salt silverside of beef - now I only really considered this because silverside was on a special in the supermarket and I haven't had any for a while. I was also attracted by the notion of baking it rather than boiling it - the flavouring is is very similar to the usual boiled beef and carrots, but there is less liquid, it's slow oven cooked and it's served cold. Tempting - this is the nearest I could find to her serving suggestion of tomato and cucumber salads and a mild fruit chutney. Nobody seemed to have thought of that. They all seem to prefer mustard. So you'd have to say she's an original there. I think I prefer the hot version though with dumplings.

Poulet à l'estragon - I've just bought some tarragon you see and I do love tarragon with chicken. This is a classic of course and she actually has two versions. The picture is from At Elizabeth David's Table and the recipe is the other version which you can find online at a website called The Spice Garden. The cooking is the same - it's the finishing that's different. In this version here she flames it with brandy and then you can enrich the sauce with cream. However, I think I prefer the version in Summer Cooking:

"When it is tender remove to a serving dish and stir into the juices in the pan a walnut of butter worked with a teaspoon of flour. When this has amalgamated, add 1/4 pint of cream and 2 tablespoons of chopped tarragon. Bring to the boil and when it has thickened pour it over the chicken."

Pretty classic and you can never have enough tarragon with chicken. Well you probably can. Anyway this is rising to the top of my list.

Grilled chicken - again no recipe online - this is the nearest I could find. I sort of loved this recipe, not just for its simplicity but also for the way it was written:

"A grilled chicken is perhaps one of the nicest foods at any time; everybody likes it, it needs very little preparation, is quickly cooked , and although expensive, there is nothing to be spent on extras, so it could be much less rare than it is. It is true that the grill on many household cookers is large enough for only one chicken cut in half, but even this inadequate arrangement produces a very delicious meal for two people.

To make a good grilled chicken, you need a really first-rate-quality spring chicken (not a petit poussin; I do not quite understand why these flabby, insipid little birds are considered such a luxury) weighing about 1 1/2 lb. when plucked and cleaned and ready to cook."

And on it goes. But it's so Elizabeth David in its style and also so much of its time. Expensive chicken? Even free-range organic, corn-fed and whatever else, chicken is relatively cheap these days. But yes, I do remember chicken as being a bit of a luxury - in France too - deliciously cooked with lots of butter for Sunday lunch. 'Plucked and cleaned'? I do remember this. You used to see chickens hung up in the butcher's shops completely whole, feathers, head and feet and all. I think they were mostly cleaned though. Small grills not big enough for a whole bird. A thing of the past - not mention massive barbecues. She goes on at length about how to cook it and how to serve it, but in spite of the length it's simple. It's an essay, not a recipe.

Pommes de terre fromagées

Another approximation for the picture because yet again there is no recipe online, but then again it's hardly a recipe.

"Fill a small shallow baking dish with new potatoes, boiled but kept rather undercooked. Pour melted butter over them, then cover them lightly with a mixture of breadcrumbs and grated Gruyère cheese. Cook in a moderate oven, turning the potatoes round from time to time until they are lightly browned."

I think I used to make these from time to time which is why I have included it here. In England I would have made it with 'real' new potatoes too. You just cannot get them here. What they call 'new' potatoes here might be 'new' but they are not Jersey Royals. It reminded me of the early years of my marriage when I raided the pages of my gurus for something new to present to my new husband every day. And later, having by then discovered what worked and what didn't including them in my dinner parties. These were a keeper but I haven't made them for years. Next time I hanker for chips I shall do these.

Braised lettuce with tomato - I have no picture for this one at all. It's on my list for two reasons. The first is because of her opening words - which would have struck a chord a week or so ago and may well do again:

"A useful recipe for people who grow their own lettuce, and have more than they can use for salads."

It's pretty simple again - just braise the lettuce with onion, ham or bacon, tomatoes, nutmeg, sugar and perhaps most surprisingly black olives, which are the second reason for looking at this recipe because of her final words - so very Elizabeth:

"Black olives are an acquired taste. Those who have not acquired it or do not have the opportunity to make the attempt, have only to leave the olives out of this dish. It is not advisable to substitute green olives for black. They do not at all suit the lettuce."

Two of my very favourite desserts - Apricots baked with vanilla sugar and Plum or apricot croûtons. However, I won't be making either of these because both fruits are out of season. Again no pictures and no recipes and yet they are so, so delicious and so, so easy. The pictures below are the closest I could get and they are not that close.

On the left baked apricots - Elizabeth's are not quite as collapsed. What you do is pile your apricots in an oven-proof dish, add a little water - not a lot - and virtually cover with vanilla sugar before baking for an hour or so until they 'look wrinkled and soft, and coated with sugar.' Diana Henry, whose dish is on the left has not crowded them together as closely and has added marsala. Elsewhere Elizabeth does something similar with plums although with them she adds some port with the water.

On the right Plum or apricot croûtons. The nearest picture I could find here was of some french toast with plums and rhubarb. Elizabeth is not as complicated though - and the bread is much crispier:

"Butter some slices of day-old sandwich bread: place them on a buttered baking sheet. On each slice put 3 ripe plum or apricot halves, stones discarded, and the spaces filled with sugar. Press the fruit well down on the bread. Bake near the top of a very moderate oven for about 40 minutes, and serve hot.

A delicious sweet for children, for the bread is crisp, the fruit soft and sticky, the sugar almost caramelised."

Why only children? And what did she know of children? She had none of her own, and somehow I don't imagine that children would have been her thing. I'm guessing the recipe would work with peaches and nectarines too. They didn't have nectarines back then and peaches were a luxury in England.

It was indeed a lovely taste of summer browsing through that book and finding so many things to try again. I'm really not quite sure which one I shall go for - the gnocchi, the daube, the lamb chops, the roast tarragon chicken, the grilled chicken? But it was more than the recipes that gave me enough entertainment to forget my sore back. It was reacquainting myself with the lady herself - her occasional grumpiness and withering contempt, combined with lyrical descriptions and nostalgia. She played such a big part in my cooking education that I can forgive her her scorn and superiority, indeed I am most often amused by it.

Apologies this was a long post - begun yesterday on that summery day, finished today in comparative cool and grey, although the birds have been singing loudly all day, and now the sun reappears. Grilled chicken perhaps. Can anything that simple be that good?

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