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The Art of Cuisine: Mediterranean

A review of A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David

New York Review Books Classics, 203 pp., $14.95

In 1939 Elizabeth David, a lord’s granddaughter and a countess’s niece, borrowed against her small inheritance in order to buy a two-masted yacht on which to set sail with her paramour, the already married actor and playwright Charles Gibson-Cowan. Together they headed for the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean, leaving behind her family’s shabby-genteel Sussex manor. From Antibes and Corsica to Italy’s west coast David and her companion literally devoured everything Europe’s lower latitudes had to offer, enjoying, as she would later write in the introduction to her 1950 cookbook A Book of Mediterranean Food, “bright vegetables,” “white ewe’s milk cheese,” hearty dishes of “rice with lamb and currants and pine nuts” and “rose petal jam,” “evening ices eaten on an Athenian cafe terrace in sight of the Parthenon,” and “unlikely fish stews concocted by a sponge diver from the Dodecanese island of Symi.”

Eight years later David pointed her yacht toward the shores of her native Great Britain, the delights she had experienced in the southern reaches lingering on her palate and in her reminiscences. She reached port laden with a trunk full of recipes for meals she had sampled, only to discover that Britain, then under the full force of postwar rationing, could but poorly provision her.

Austerity Britain’s dearth forced her to pursue the airier pleasures of food writing, to which she applied herself with as much gusto as she did to any wedge of white ewe’s milk or evening ice.”I see that it was … largely in a spirit of defiance that I wrote down those Mediterranean recipes,” she recalls. “I had collected them in Provence, in Corsica, Malta, Athens and the island of Syria in the Cyclades where I had lived for seven months before the Germans overran Greece.” But the fixings for such dishes were almost impossible to find in Blitz-scarred London. “Avocado pears and southern vegetables weren’t yet available in England,” David laments, “Aubergines, peppers, courgettes and fennel had hardly been heard of. Even garlic was hard to come by. If you’d mentioned basil or tarragon you’d have been asked who they were.”

The privations of an economically prostrate Albion didn’t faze David, however. She looked upon her slim book of ration coupons as a memento mori spurring her to chronicle her sunnier, more savory times as she endured the long winter of her discontent. “It was during those icy, hungry weeks that I took refuge from reality in writing down memories of the food I had cooked and eaten during my Mediterranean years,” she confesses.

These memories would out, it seems. A Book of Mediterranean Food strikes one as having sprung from David’s head like some gastronomic Minerva. The first edition glimmered brightly in shop windows across the country. It was said that passers-by could see the book’s jacket from down the street, so powerfully did its illustration — which featured a blue Italian bay, a white-clothed table festooned with bright fruit, and a postbox red lobster — cut the vernal gloom. David’s publisher, John Lehmann, worried that David’s book would impress others as an extravagance, or worse, an affront to those whose fates were not as sun-drenched or carefree as hers. Yet despite its steep price of ten shillings and six pence David’s literary labor of love proved a smashing success. Critics were particularly taken with her refusal “to make any ignoble compromises with expediency” and her refreshing lack of deference–indeed, even of any reference–to that arch-gourmand of yore, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.

A Book of Mediterranean Food does verge on being delightfully impractical. David’s crisp, un-self-conscious prose marries storytelling with recipe sharing, and the result, if sometimes seemingly impossible to reproduce, always enchants with the possibility of the attempt. In a chapter on sweets, David catalogues “succulent dried figs and raisins of Smyrna” and elaborate ice creams before imparting a bracingly imprecise recipe for “a dish of pomegranates.” “Take all the inside from 6 pomegranates and mash them into a silver bowl,” she writes. “Sprinkle with rose-water, lemon juice, and sugar and serve iced.” How much rose water?, one wonders. Why a silver bowl? For recipes that are a sweet amalgam of memory and dream, such details, while engaging, pass as mere trifles.

In a recipe entitled simply “black olives,” David quotes Lawrence Durrell’s record of his own Mediterranean sojourn, Prospero’s Cell:

The whole Mediterranean, the sculpture, the palms, the gold beads, the bearded heroes, the wine, the ideas, the ships, the moonlight, the winged gorgons, the bronze men, the philosophers — all of it seems to rise in the sour, pungent taste of these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water.

Like Durrell’s black olives, A Book of Mediterranean Food conjures dreams of not simply wine-dark seas and sunshine but also a golden age of license and ease. Beautiful, bold heiresses run off with rogues, lovely lazy days nourished on annuities–such were the rosy visions two world wars bled white.

This golden age had tarnished for David, as well. Her family fortune had declined, an event which made her book’s continued success something more than a matter of personal satisfaction. In 1954 or 1955 (David cannot remember) Penguin offered to reissue A Book of Mediterranean Food in paperback, thus placing it within reach of housewives and shopgirls. David jumped at the chance, realizing “it would mean a vastly increased readership, and in all probability a younger one which would include students, young married couples and many professional women sharing flats or living on their own but still needing to cook for themselves and to give the occasional dinner party.” The world had changed; rationing ended in 1954, and a new generation wanted access to foreign ingredients. David’s was the perfect guidebook for the bluff spirit that seized Britain and the United States during the late fifties. Good taste and the means of pursuing it were becoming democratized, and if that meant the charming but exclusive world that gave rise to David’s idyll and the book that stands as her monument to it must perish, then so be it.

It would be remiss to review A Book of Mediterranean Food without including one of its many recipes. The recipe for gazpacho contains some of the most engaging prose in the collection. The well-read authoress introduces the recipe with an anecdote about Théophile Gautier’s first encounter with what he describes as a “hell-broth” that “even the prettiest [Andalusian] women do not shrink from swallowing.” David’s version is a decidedly milder, more refreshing version of this popular summer soup.

Gaspacho–Chop a pound of raw peeled tomatoes until they are almost in a puree. Stir in a few dice of cucumbers, 2 chopped cloves of garlic, a finely sliced spring onion, a dozen stoned black olives, a few strips of green pepper, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper, a little chopped fresh marjoram, mint, or parsley. Keep very cold until it is time to serve the soup, then thin with 1/2 pint of iced water, add a few cubes of coarse brown bread, and serve with broken-up ice floating in the bowl. A couple of hard-boiled eggs, coarsely chopped, make a good addition. Sometimes these, plus a selection of the vegetables–the cucumber, olives, peppers, onions–and the bread, are finely chopped and handed round separately in small dishes instead of being incorporated in the basic soup.

Sometimes gaspacho is presented in large deep cups, sometimes in shallow soup plates.

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The Austerity Kitchen, like Walter Benjamin’s chronicler, hews to the principle that she ‘who recounts events without distinguishing between the great and small, thereby accounts for the truth, that nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history.’ The Austerity Kitchen applies this principle to matters culinary and gustatory in the interest of bringing to life the context, aesthetics, and practices of our cultural heritage past and present.

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