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Elizabeth David goes academic - a first recipe

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"if bread is to be a life companion, then we had best be choosey about it ... that is the essential concern of the book I have written." Elizabeth David

A quickie on an uninspired day.

I bought this book because it was by Elizabeth David. I think it may be her penultimate book. The previous one was Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, and that was fairly academic - unlike her earlier books which were recipe centric with personal comments and asides. I learnt to cook with Elizabeth David. I am a fan.

However, Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen was something different - a learned historical survey, but it was fairly slim and still had lots of recipes. This one though defeated me. It is almost 600 pages long and you have to get to page 255 until you get to the first recipe - for 'A Basic Loaf' - and that is ten pages long! With no personal comments.

No glossy pictures to carry you along either. There are the occasional line drawings, mostly to illustrate a technique or a piece of equipment, although there are a few black and white photographs in the centre - mostly of archaeological and historical stuff.

So not the Elizabeth David one had come to know and love. Well she is still lurking there in the commentary with occasional caustic comments such as this about the sorry state of the nation's bread of the time:

"What is utterly dismaying is the mess our milling and baking concerns succeed in making with the dearly bought grain that goes into their grist. Quite simply it is wasted on a nation that cares so little about the quality of its bread that it has allowed itself to be mesmerized into buying the equivalent of eight and a quarter million large white factory-made loaves every day of the year."

It is tempting to say that she was responsible for the vast improvement in commercial bread over the following decades. Yes you can still get the sliced white - and why not? It has it's place and some of it at least has rather more nutritious additives these days. You would hope that she would be encouraged by the variety of bread that you can now find in your local supermarket, not to mention the vast number of specialist bakers with their spelt, ancient grains and sourdough breads.

And interestingly, she notes, almost in passing at the end of her introduction:

"We know now of course that bread made from any flour containing gluten does disagree with the minority, and that coeliacs in particular must adhere to a gluten-free diet."

So I wonder what she would have thought of the gluten-free industry - one can only call it that - that now exists.

Since I began writing this blog I have had cause to refer to the book a few times, because if there is anything at all that you want to know about any English yeast based bread-like things then you would find everything that possibly exists on the subject therein. In fact her own recipes are just scattered here and there between historical documents on traditions, techniques, etc., as well as recipes from here, there and everywhere - from Medieval books to women's magazines. It took her five years to write - with the enthusiastic assistance of Jill Norman, her editor, to whom the book is dedicated, and a handful of other friends who assisted in the research.

And it's not just recipes she has researched. The first half called simply History and Background, covers just about everything even remotely related to bread - grains, mills, pots and pans, ovens, traditions, water, archaeology - and on and on it goes. I doubt there is a more thoroughly researched book. Which is why, of course, it got rave reviews, and is considered an absolute classic.

And it is. But not for your everyday, ordinary cook I think. It is also less personal than her earlier books. Her Introduction, for example is mostly a rave review, if you like, of a book by an Elizabethan author - one Thomas Muffett, the structure of whose book she lays out in detail, stating that she cannot much improve upon it. The book is a learned bit of academe and as such I refer to it every now and then, but have never read right through. I should throw it out really, but I won't. It's Elizabeth David.

This is the last of my original Elizabeth David collection. Her essays and the two modern 'best of' books that I have are stored elsewhere.

She was a genius.

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