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I once met Elizabeth David - Ann Morrow

Blog | By Ann Morrow | Feb 28, 2024

Ann Morrow remembers an charming lunch with influential cook Elizabeth David – despite the ugly pudding

Elizabeth David died 30 years ago, on 22nd May 1992, aged 78. An exceptionally private person, she became famous in 1960 with the publication of French Provincial Cooking, when she introduced whiffs of the Mediterranean to postwar British palates.

I remember well her message in delicate handwriting, agreeing to lunch but at a place of her choosing. The 1976 lunch was at Tante Claire, while aperitifs were at her house in Chelsea. My first sight of her was of a small figure in a white blouse and woolly hat, in her kitchen. She was hunched over an ancient cookery book, with an open bottle of white wine. Her face lit up when she spotted a receipt for pumpkin.

She had a reputation for being acerbic but was a delight. After a glass or two of wine, she mournfully recalled, in Mitfordian tones, the ‘dustbin cookery’ of 1950s Britain. ‘You cannot imagine how difficult it was to even find a clove of garlic. And if you were lucky, you might get a tiny bottle of olive oil from the chemist’s.’ Pet hates included ‘smoked salmon rolled round potted shrimps … repulsive’. And she was appalled by ‘the dreadful things done to avocados; like filling them with prawn cocktail or crab – horrible’.

As for stock cubes, words failed her.

Quiches had been ‘ill treated’ in Britain and were often ‘unspeakable’, bearing little resemblance ‘to the wonderful tarts of Alsace and Lorraine’. ‘Fresh tomatoes cut into flower shapes’ were ‘an abomination’, and as for using ‘tinned tomatoes’, this prompted a rolling of pretty brown eyes at such idleness.

At the restaurant, the maître d’ recited the menu. Silence. My guest said all she wanted was ‘a glass of water’ but proved not averse to sharing a bottle of Gewürztraminer.

When crescents of bread were brought to the table, she picked one up and studied it. ‘These are awfully good,’ she told the waiter. ‘Did you make them yourselves?’

Almost affronted, he bowed, saying, ‘Of course.’

Her cinnamon-coloured fish soup was served with aioli and croutons. After a sniff and a taste, it had, she said, a ‘regrettable hint of bitterness because the fish stock has been simmered for too long – so it hits the back of your teeth’.

Growing up with ‘no idea about cooking, as the servants did it all’, she was sent to France as a teenager – luckily to Provence. It was in the Var that she first tasted ‘a delicious daube, beautifully scented with bay leaf’ and jam as a pudding made with green melon and lemon.

She rarely went to restaurants. At home, she tended to cook vegetarian dishes and chicken only occasionally as it was almost impossible ‘to get hold of old scratchers’. Poussins were dismissed as ‘rather dreary, poor immature little things’.

Her verdict on lunch was ‘The scallops were a triumph, quite simply one of the most delicious things I have eaten for a long time.’ Not so her pudding: ‘Jesus Christ, what is that? It really is awfully ugly,’ she said, when presented with an ice cream and raspberry coulis.

Elizabeth David was unaware of how many lives she had touched. ‘If I have reached a few people,’ she said gently, ‘that would be lovely.’

It was. Thank you, Elizabeth David CBE.