Has Elizabeth David’s seminal cookery book stood the test of time? Leah Hyslop and her fellow Cookbook Club members don their aprons to investigate
Outside was chilly and grey, but inside Borough Market’s cosy Cookhouse, it could have been a sultry evening in the Mediterranean.
On Tuesday night, a group of keen home cooks gathered for the second Borough Market Cookbook Club. Our book for this session was Summer Cooking by Elizabeth David, published in 1955, from which each of us had cooked a dish. The table was heaped with a tantalising array of fresh, light dishes, from spiced rice salad, sprinkled with apricots and pine nuts, to Provence-style aubergines and trout baked with cream and herbs.
Elizabeth David is often described as the most important British cook of the 20th century—the woman who introduced our dreary post-war nation to the delights of sunshine-drenched Mediterranean ingredients such as olive oil, tomatoes, figs, olives and almonds. But many of those gathered for Cookbook Club admitted they had never heard of her, let alone cooked one of her recipes.
One by one, we each introduced our dish and shared how we had found the experience of cooking it, before letting our companions grab a fork and dig in. The simplicity of the recipes, which often contained no more than four or five ingredients, was widely praised. But many attendees said they’d struggled with the vagueness of David’s recipes—so different from the precise instructions found in cookbooks today.
Justine, who made the crab and rice salad, was confused that David didn’t specify how much garlic to use, while Annalena, a keen baker who opted to make sandcake, was baffled by the instruction to bake the cake in a “moderate oven”. Sadia summed up David’s style perfectly, saying: “She writes a bit like your mum or a friend telling you a recipe over the phone—no specifics!”
Many of us admitted we had tweaked the recipes, feeling that the small quantity of ginger or chilli simply wasn’t punchy enough. As our knowledgeable host Angela Clutton pointed out, our modern palates are used to bold flavours; David’s audience, by contrast, were only just biting into this exotic new world.
Rather retro names
But overall, did we feel David’s recipes have stood the test of time? After a few hours of happy munching, accompanied by some delicious bottles from Borough Wines, we agreed they have. Despite their rather retro names, the whole group loved the chicken célestine (chicken cooked with ham, white wine and tomatoes) and the aubergines à la Turque (gooey slices of aubergine crowned with piles of sweet caramelised onions).
The raspberry shortbread, served with cream cheese thinned with white wine, was a brilliant summer twist on a crumble. Even my decidedly old-fashioned crab mousse was devoured with gusto—though faces were pulled when I mentioned that David recommended using homemade aspic, made from boiling pigs’ feet down to a jelly, to set it. Thankfully, gelatine worked just as well...
I went home with a box full of leftovers, and a renewed awareness that alongside all the beautiful new cookbooks available, there are classics that deserve to be revisited. Though I’m not convinced I’ll ever want to make my own aspic.
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Words: Leah Hyslop