The 100 best nonfiction books / No 30 / A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David (1950)

The 100 best nonfiction books / No 30 / A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David (1950)

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 30 – A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David (1950)

This landmark recipe book, a horrified reaction to postwar rationing, introduced cooks to the food of southern Europe and readers to the art of food writing

Robert McCrum
Monday 22 August 2016

Elizabeth David: ‘She challenged her readers to break out of the Home Front straitjacket and sally forth into Soho.’ Photograph: PA/Empics

A Book of Mediterranean Food, written and published in an age of postwar rationing, when food coupons were still in force and the national diet was dominated by bread and gristle rissoles, dehydrated onions and carrots, and toad in the hole made with corned beef, was a cri de coeur by a sensual British woman on behalf of those places where wild garlic is intrinsic to every recipe and where, in the words of Marcel Boulestin, “peace and happiness reign”.

Mediterranean Food is one woman’s response to the new challenges of peacetime, a macedoine of elegy, joie de vivre, requiem and manifesto. Elizabeth David, returning to Britain after the war, became a food writer on Harper’s Bazaar initially to make money, to remind herself of the sunnier world she had left behind – she had spent much of the war in the Mediterranean – and finally to mount a one-woman challenge to the bleakness of austerity Britain.From the first pages of Mediterranean Food, however, it was not merely the exotic cuisine of those alluring southern climes that Elizabeth David was celebrating, but the English language itself. Mrs David (as she was known) never over-egged her prose, but her recipes were rich with loving evocations of rare and spicy ingredients. “There are,” she writes, “endless varieties of currants and raisins, figs from Smyrna on long strings, dates, almonds, pistachios and pine kernel nuts, dried melon seeds and sheets of apricot paste which is dissolved in water to make a cooling drink.”
Mediterranean Food, which was swiftly followed, in the same style, by French Country Cooking (1951), Italian Food (1954) and Summer Cooking(1955), was a surreptitiously literary experience, replete with anecdotes about Gertrude Stein’s cook, and long quotations from the likes of Osbert Sitwell, DH Lawrence, Henry James, and her friends Norman Douglas and Lawrence Durrell. As well as indulging the reader in some discrete treasures of English prose, David wanted her readers to escape from “the frustration of buying the weekly rations” and “to read about real food cooked with wine and oil, eggs and butter and cream, and dishes richly flavoured with onions, garlic, herbs and brightly coloured southern vegetables”. This, she conceded, might be “over-picturesque for every day; but then who wants to eat the same food every day?”
In 1950, this was a call to arms, fuelled by her indignation at the horrors of the national diet. With mouthwatering recipes for moules marinières and kokkoretsibocconcini, bouillabaisse and bourridelièvre à la royale, paella Valenciana and boeuf en daube, she challenged her readers to break out of the Home Front straitjacket and sally forth into Soho. In words that seem as quaint as Beatrix Potter’s, she wrote, “Those who make an occasional marketing expedition to the region of Tottenham Court Road can buy Greek cheese and Calamata olives, Tahina paste from the Middle East, little birds preserved in oil from Cyprus, stuffed vine leaves from Turkey, Spanish sausages, Egyptian brown beans, even occasionally Neapolitan Mozzarella cheese, and honey from Mount Hymettus.”
Britain had just won the war, and was entering the twilight of Empire. In all her books, starting with Mediterranean Food, Elizabeth David would invite her readers to suck the marrow of British rule before it was too late, to explore the world through their stoves and pantries, and turn their backs on kitchen insularity.
Mrs David was never an ordinary cookery writer. Overnight, it seems, she became a household name, a liberator, a kitchen goddess, and a provocation. “I remember when A Book of Mediterranean Food came out,” writes Jane Grigson, another fine cookery writer, looking back. “Basil then was no more than the name of bachelor uncles, courgette was printed in italics as an alien word, and few of us knew how to eat spaghetti or pick a globe artichoke to pieces.” In a world where tiny bottles of olive oil could only be bought in Boots the chemist (for aural hygiene), where BBC television could famously conduct an April Fool’s day report on the “spaghetti harvest”, and where food meant “marge, evaporated milk and Woolton Pie”, Mrs David burst in “like sunshine”.

From the outset, the quality of David’s writing, and the radicalism of her attitude, attracted good reviews. The TLS wrote, of Mediterranean Food: “More than a collection of recipes, this book is in effect a readable and discerning dissertation on Italian food and regional dishes, and their preparation in the English kitchen.” The Observer, rhapsodising, declared that “Mrs David… may be counted among the benefactors of humanity.” Her fans included John Arlott and Evelyn Waugh.
Elizabeth David’s later work, once published in paperback, became an essential feature in millions of British kitchens. French Provincial Cooking(1960), her most enduringly popular title, was eventually joined by a collection of her journalism, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (1984), which became a bestseller.
Mediterranean Food earns its place on this list for three reasons. First, it has profoundly influenced generations of food writers, from Julia Child to Nigella Lawson. Second, it inspired a revolution whose happy aftermath can be seen in the food aisles of Waitrose, Sainsbury and Tesco, and perhaps even in the popularity of MasterChefand The Great British Bake Off. Finally, all her work expresses a credo about cooking that, with equal justice, might apply to English prose at its finest and most natural: “Good cooking is honest, sincere and simple, and by this I do not mean to imply that you will find in this, or indeed in any other book, the secret of turning out first-class food in a few minutes with no trouble. Good food is always a trouble and its preparation should be regarded as a labour of love, and this book is intended for those who actually and positively enjoy the labour involved in entertaining their friends.”

A signature sentence

“The ever-recurring elements in the food throughout these countries are the oil, the saffron, the garlic, the pungent local wines; the aromatic perfume of rosemary, wild marjoram and basil drying in the kitchens; the brilliance of the market stalls piled high with pimentos, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, melons, figs and limes; the great heaps of shiny fish, silver, vermilion or tiger-striped, and those long needle fish whose bones so mysteriously turn out to be green.”

Three to compare

Elizabeth David: French Country Cooking (1951)
Julia Child: Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961)
Nigella Lawson: How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking (2000)
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