Elizabeth David is considered to be one of the most influential food writers of the 20th century and her writing revolutionised British cooking.
Born into the wealthy Gwynne family in 1913, Elizabeth spent her childhood with her three sisters at Wootton Manor in Sussex. The food for the nursery was often bland and unappetising, however ‘Nannie’ hosted secret cooking sessions and treated them to snacks of creamed field mushrooms, berries secreted from the garden and sticky fudge. It wasn’t until the girls were older and were allowed to eat with the main household that Elizabeth started to enjoy the meals at Wootton.
Elizabeth’s father who had been the Conservative MP for Eastbourne since 1910, died when she was nearly 11 years old. This was a devastating blow for the girls as the lack of affection from their mother had made them much closer to their father whom they idolised. The girls were split up and sent to various boarding schools and holidays were spent with relatives as their mother frequently travelled abroad.
At 16, Elizabeth decided she wanted to be a painter so her mother sent her to study in Paris. During this time she stayed with a French family where she was first introduced to delicious French family cooking. After three years of travelling and excessive spending, Elizabeth returned to England where she had a change of heart and wanted to become an actress instead, so she joined a theatre company in London. She rented rooms with a friend and lived on food from Selfridges until the mounting monthly food bills forced her to rethink her culinary arrangements and she began to cook for herself.
Whilst she was living in London Elizabeth began an affair with the actor, Charles Gibson Cowan and in 1939 they set off together on a sailing trip to Greece. During this trip she met the 72 year old Norman Douglas whose guidance and inspiration left her with an unwavering belief about the importance of good food.
War broke out and Elizabeth and Charles were stuck in Greece. They eventually settled in a small seaside village where Elizabeth’s cooking skills helped them to integrate well into the village community. Their peaceful existence was shattered as the Germans bombed the village and they were forced to flee. They ended up in Egypt where their journey together ended as Charles decided it was time he joined the war effort. Elizabeth had some friends in Cairo so she stayed and her love of Mediterranean food deepened as she learnt to cook regional dishes under the guidance of her suffragi (servant), Suleiman.
In 1944 she met her future husband, Anthony David, an Indian Army officer. Although, she wasn’t actually in love with Tony she agreed to marry him in a secret civil ceremony. After the war Tony was posted back to India where Elizabeth joined him several months later. She was not enamoured by the food in India, nor was she able to tolerate the intense summer heat which left her hospitalised and she was advised to go back to England to recover. So, Elizabeth returned, alone, to a very different England to the one that she had left six years previously.
Whilst abroad, Elizabeth had become used to a very different way of eating and she found the food in post war England bland and uninspiring. She desperately missed the colours, flavours and textures of Mediterranean foods.
When Tony returned to England he accrued large debts setting up a club. To rescue them from financial ruin, Elizabeth started writing cookery articles and became a regular contributor to Harpers’ Bazaar. She had also, over the years, compiled a collection of her Mediterranean recipes which a friend persuaded her to turn into a book and A Book of Mediterranean Cooking was published in 1950. Although many of the ingredients were considered exotic and unattainable Elizabeth’s portrayal of the food that she loved, captured the imaginations of those who read it. For the next ten years Elizabeth devoted her time to food. She regularly travelled abroad to absorb herself in the culinary culture of the area she was researching and her days were spent cooking, writing and entertaining. She had an unrelenting drive for work, which in part contributed to the end of her marriage to Tony, and by the early 1960s after completing three more books and countless articles, the long hours had taken their toll and she was exhausted.
This was the beginning of some of the darkest times in Elizabeth’s life. Angry and frustrated with Penguin for losing the illustrations for Italian Food, Elizabeth was already in a fragile emotional state when she received some devastating news from a close friend. Her long term lover, Peter Higgins, was in love with another woman. Elizabeth was furious and grief stricken. Several days later she collapsed with a cerebral haemorrhage which temporarily impaired her speech and left her sense of taste permanently damaged. Elizabeth ignored medical advice for complete rest and stated working again before even leaving hospital. She barely gave herself time to recover properly, continued to drink heavily and hid the extent of her illness and her heartache from those outside her immediate circle.
The next few years were filled with a completely new venture as Elizabeth opened a cookware shop in London. Writing took a back seat as she immersed herself in the running of the shop, revelling in the public attention, but after seven rather turbulent years the other partners instigated Elizabeth’s resignation. Once again Elizabeth turned to writing, throwing herself into endless hours of research for her next book, English Bread and Yeast Cookery. This was followed by An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, a collection of her best articles and finally a book on ices which was completed by her publicist and published posthumously.
Elizabeth suffered from a stroke in May 1992 and died several days later, dining on caviar and Chablis only hours before her death. The contents of her two kitchens were auctioned in 1994 with sales totalling almost £50,000 and Prue Leith became the proud new owner of Elizabeth’s kitchen table. Her vast collection of heavily annotated books was left to the London Guildhall Library where librarians have since spent years recording Elizabeth’s insightful, witty and frequently scathing scribbled notes.