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Elizabeth David and French Provincial Cooking

"Faites simple" Escoffier

This is a first recipe post. But since the book, the next on my bookshelves, is the first in my Elizabeth David collection, I think that this, particular first recipe will stretch over at least two posts. This is the first - about the book and the lady herself - well a bit about the lady. I have 'done' her before in an early A word from post and in passing many times since.

The quote that opens this post might be from Escoffier but it is a quote chosen by Elizabeth David to illustrate her idea that the best food, and by best, in this context, she means French, need not be complicated food, although it should of course be prepared with care and respect.

"The feeling of our time is for simpler food, simply presented; not that this is necessarily easier to achieve than haute cuisine; it demands less time and expense, but if anything a more genuine feeling for cookery and a truer taste."

Which in its way is a rather daunting statement. Well it's Elizabeth David. Queen of the put down.

As you can see from above, I have two copies of French Provincial Cooking. The one on the left is literally falling apart. The one on the right is a gift from my daughter-in-law, who scoured the second-hand sites to buy me a better preserved copy. That was a few years ago, and although it is not falling apart, it has to be said that it is fragile. I think a few years ago new versions were not really available here. But at last in 2007 it was reissued in a hardback version, so perhaps I should seek that out. Still no illustrations though, other than the rather lovely line drawings at the beginning of each section. My first copy, a reprint of the first Penguin paperback edition is dated 1964 when I would have still been a student at university and the other is the second revised edition and is published - well reprinted ten years later in 1974. Maybe I bought my original copy after my three months as an au pair in Grenoble and the Jura, and was perhaps inspired by wanting to reproduce the magnificent food prepared by the family cook. I would still have been living at home with my family, so maybe my mother enjoyed using it too.

Although it is not Elizabeth David's first book, it is the first one that I acquired and one that I used extensively in my first years of marriage. Indeed I think my then future husband must have borrowed it once when as part of the wooing process he once cooked me Veal Marengo from its pages.

So I thought I would open my original copy to see at which page it would fall open - and it was soup - specifically Potage Crécy - which is carrot soup. Or it may have been the Potage Bonne Femme on the opposite page. Which made me remember that one of these was also possibly the very first thing I made from the book, because what I remembered and retained most clearly from my years of enjoying French food, were the evening soups. It is also the dish on the cover of my original book. Well the green salad is important too, but my hosts had shown me how to make vinaigrette.

The key things I learnt from the carrot soup recipe was to grate the carrots, to add a tiny bit of sugar and to cook these very slowly with the lid on until they produce juice, before adding the stock - and as the very last touch put a knob of butter into the soup before eating. But I knew that, because that's what my host families did. I have made this recipe many, many times over the years, mostly without reference to the original recipe, because I think I know what I'm doing. But on occasion I have actually worked from the recipe - and you know what? - it's better when I do that.

She herself though is a fan of not using recipes consistently which perhaps may explain the vagueness of some of them.

"Try simplifying a recipe which calls for rather a lot of ingredients down to the bare essentials. You may well find that the dish is more pleasing in its primitive form, and then you will know that your recipe was too fanciful. If, on the other hand, the dish seems to lack savour, to be a little bleak or insipid, start building it up again. By the end of this process, you will have discovered what is essential to that dish, what are the extras which enhance it, and at what point it is spoilt by over-elaboration. This system is also useful in teaching one how to judge a recipe for oneself, instead of following it blindly from a cookery book."

Which is sort of reassuring, but then she will say something daunting and reeking of food snobbery, such as the following:

"Recipes alone are not enough. A flourishing tradition of local cookery implies also genuine local products; the cooks and the housewives must be backed up by the dairy farmers, the pig breeders and pork butchers, the market gardeners and the fruit growers, otherwise regional cookery simply retreats into the realms of folk-lore."

Which when one thinks about it is so very today - provenance being a key word in the gourmet scene.


"A country's national food appears completely authentic only in that country. It is a curious fact that Fench dishes cooked by a Pole or a Chinaman in France are liable to seem more genuinely French than the same dishes cooked by a French cook in England, Germany, Italy, Poland or New York."

So despair rears its head yet again. I don't have the right ingredients - they are not actually French and so I shall never succeed in replicating that beef, carrots and olives dish that Madame Perruque used to make. But no she (Elizabeth David) either has realised that she may have put you off, and is trying make amends, or perhaps it's all of a piece anyway:

"If a dish does not turn out to be quite as it was at the remembered auberge in Normandy, or at the restaurant on the banks of the Loire, is this a matter for despair? Because it is different as by force of circumstance it must be, it is not necessarily worse. It is for us to exercise our common sense in selecting what is within our powers, in taking what suits from the immense variety of dishes which France has to offer, and to learn how to make them our own."

So I soldiered on and learnt a huge amount about how to cook like the French. Because, yes, most of those dishes that I had experienced in France, when cooked using an Elizabeth David recipe more or less tasted as I remembered. Of course Robert Carrier did the same, and to a lesser extent Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but that was a much more daunting experience because of the detail that went into every recipe in those two tomes. Elizabeth David and Robert Carrier were easier to approach and perhaps Robert Carrier won my over my heart because he was so much friendlier, and a bit more precise, than the beautiful, elegant and somewhat forbidding Elizabeth David.

I wrote a little more about Elizabeth David herself very early on in my blogging days in one of my A word from ... posts, so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice to say that she was a revolutionary who wielded enormous influence over the cooks of Britain who were still recovering from post-war austerity. Beautiful, in her youth - an adventurous and cosmopolitan youth at that - she matured into 'the' authority on Mediterranean food and later on English food too. She wrote lyrically about the countries she visited and their food and is much quoted on topics as various as Provence - which she loved most of all - shopping in Soho and table manners. She has often been criticised for the vagueness of her recipes but they aren't really when you look at them. As one writer said of her there is:

"less detail but also more personality."

French Provincial Cooking is the most wonderful introduction to French food and how to cook it. Every cook should have a copy on his or her bookshelf. No pictures but you get used to that, and if you really want pictures then you can buy At Elizabeth David's Table which is a Best of collection of her recipes brought together by her long-time editor Jill Norman and presented in a hardback - with pictures.

There is perhaps a bias in French Provincial Cooking (like Robert Carrier) towards Provence which she fully admits to:

"If I seem to be biased in favour of the food of the South, it is perhaps because the country itself has for me such a very powerful appeal."

The section on Provence in this book has become a much referenced passage in all manner of places. I will reproduce it here because the other thing that she did was to launch the whole genre of, food plus travel. books.

"Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on to a train. Here in London it is an effort of will to believe in the existence of such a place at all. But now and again the vision of golden tiles on a round southern roof, or of some warm, stony, herb-scented hillside will rise out of my kitchen pots with the smell of a piece of orange peel scenting a beef stew. The picture flickers into focus again."

So apt for the times in which we live. So go scour your cookbooks for one on the food of the place you most miss and dare to dream as you produce something from your kitchen that will remind you of times past and hopefully yet to come.

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