Suleiman performed minor miracles with two Primus stoves and an oven which was little more than a tin box perched on top of them. His soufflés were never less than successful. ... For three or four years I lived mainly on rather rough but highly flavoured colourful shining vegetable dishes, lentil or fresh tomato soups, delicious spiced pilaffs, lamb kebabs grilled over charcoal, salads with cool mint-flavoured yoghurt dressings, the Egyptian fellahin dish of black beans with olive oil and lemon and hard-boiled eggs—these things were not only attractive but also cheap.
David won the Glenfiddich Writer of the Year award in 1978 for English Bread and Yeast Cookery. She was also awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Essex and Bristol, and the award of a Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole. In 1976 she was appointed as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and promoted to Commander of the Order (CBE) in 1986. The honour that most pleased her, however, was being made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982 in recognition of her skills as a writer.
In 2012, to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II, David was chosen by BBC Radio 4 as one of the 60 Britons who have been most influential during the 60 years of the Queen's reign. In 2013 her portrait was one of a series of first-class stamps issued to celebrate the centenary of ten "Great Britons". In 2016 an English Heritage blue plaque was erected on her former home at 24 Halsey Street, Chelsea, where she had lived for 45 years: she was the first food writer to receive this form of recognition.
Cooper comments on this period of David's life, "Pictures of her at the time show a quintessential librarian, dressed in a dark cardigan over a white shirt with a prim little collar buttoned up to the neck: but at night, dressed in exotic spangled caftans, she was a different creature: drinking at Hedjaki's bar, eating at the P'tit Coin de France, dancing on the roof of the Continental and then going on to Madame Badia's nightclub or the glamorous Auberge des Pyramides." In her years in Cairo, David had a number of affairs. She enjoyed them for what they were, but only once fell in love. That was with a young officer, Peter Laing, but the relationship came to an end when he was seriously wounded and returned to his native Canada. Several other of her young men fell in love with her; one of them was Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony David (1911–1967). By now aged thirty, she weighed the advantages and disadvantages of remaining unmarried until such time as the ideal husband might appear, and with considerable misgivings she finally accepted Tony David's proposal of marriage.
From Oxford, David moved to the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London, the following year. She rented rooms in a large house near the park, spent a generous 21st birthday present on equipping the kitchen, and learned to cook. A gift from her mother of The Gentle Art of Cookery by Hilda Leyel was her first cookery book. She later wrote, "I wonder if I would have ever learned to cook at all if I had been given a routine Mrs Beeton to learn from, instead of the romantic Mrs Leyel with her rather wild, imagination-catching recipes."
David was born Elizabeth Gwynne, the second of four children, all daughters, of Rupert Sackville Gwynne and his wife, the Hon Stella Gwynne, daughter of the 1st Viscount Ridley. Both parents' families had considerable fortunes, the Gwynnes from engineering and land speculation and the Ridleys from coal mining. Through the two families, David was of English, Scottish and Welsh or Irish descent and, through an ancestor on her father's side, also Dutch and Sumatran. She and her sisters grew up at Wootton Manor in Sussex, a seventeenth-century manor house with extensive, early twentieth-century additions by Detmar Blow. Her Father, despite having a weak heart, insisted on pursuing a demanding political career, becoming Conservative MP for Eastbourne, and a junior minister in Bonar Law's government. Overwork, combined with his vigorous recreational pastimes, chiefly racing, riding, and womanising, brought about his death in 1924, aged 51.
As a teenager David enjoyed painting, and her mother thought her talent worth developing. In 1930 she was sent to Paris, where she studied painting privately and enrolled at the Sorbonne for a course in French civilisation which covered history, literature and architecture. She found her Sorbonne studies arduous and in many ways uninspiring, but they left her with a love of French literature and a fluency in the language that remained with her throughout her life. She lodged with a Parisian family, whose fanatical devotion to the pleasures of the table she portrayed to comic effect in her French Provincial Cooking (1960). Nevertheless, she acknowledged in retrospect that the experience had been the most valuable part of her time in Paris: "I realized in what way the family had fulfilled their task of instilling French culture into at least one of their British charges. Forgotten were the Sorbonne professors. ... What had stuck was the taste for a kind of food quite ideally unlike anything I had known before." Stella Gwynne was not eager for her daughter's early return to England after qualifying for her Sorbonne diploma, and sent her from Paris to Munich in 1931 to study German.
After returning to England in 1932 David unenthusiastically went through the social rituals for upper-class young women of presentation at court as a débutante and the associated balls. The respectable young Englishmen she met at the latter did not appeal to her. David's biographer Lisa Chaney comments that with her "delicately smouldering looks and her shyness shielded by a steely coolness and barbed tongue" she would have been a daunting prospect for the young upper-class men she encountered. David decided that she was not good enough as a Painter and, to her mother's displeasure, chose instead to become an Actress. She joined J. B. Fagan's company at the Oxford Playhouse in 1933. Her fellow performers included Joan Hickson, who decades later recalled having to show her new colleague how to make a cup of tea, so unaware of the kitchen was David in those days.
At Regent's Park David made little professional progress. The company was distinguished, headed by Nigel Playfair and Jack Hawkins, and, in the leading female roles, Anna Neagle and Margaretta Scott. David was restricted to bit parts. Among her colleagues in the company was an actor nine years her senior, Charles Gibson Cowan. His disregard for social conventions appealed strongly to her, and she also found him sexually irresistible. His being married did not daunt either of them, and they began an affair that outlasted her stage career. Chaney comments, "Cowan was the ultimate outsider. He was working class, left wing, Jewish, an actor, a pickpocket, a vagabond, who lived in caves in Hastings for a time. Her mother called him a 'pacifist worm'. He was a sexual presence, and slept with anything that moved." David's mother strongly disapproved, and tried to put a stop to the affair. She arranged for her daughter to spend several weeks holidaying with family and friends in Malta in the first half of 1936 and in Egypt later in the same year, but in her 1999 biography Artemis Cooper comments that David's lengthy absence failed to detach her from her involvement with Cowan. During her stay in Malta, David was able to spend time learning from her hostess's cook, Angela, who was happy to pass on her expertise. Although she could produce elaborate grand dinners when required, the most important lesson she taught David was to work day in, day out, with all available ingredients, showing her how to make an old bird or a stringy piece of meat into a good dish.
After her return to London in early 1937, David recognised that she was not going to be a success on the stage, and abandoned thoughts of a theatrical career. Later in the year she took a post as a junior assistant at the fashion house of Worth, where elegant young women from upper-class backgrounds were sought after as recruits. She found the subservience of Retail work irksome, and resigned in early 1938. Over the next few months she spent time holidaying in the south of France and on Corsica, where she was greatly taken with the outgoing nature of the people she stayed with and the simple excellence of their food. After returning to London, and disenchanted with life there, she joined Cowan in buying a small boat—a yawl with an engine—with the intention of sailing it to Greece. They crossed the Channel in July 1939 and navigated the boat through the canal system of France to the Mediterranean coast.
The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 halted their progress. After stopping briefly at Marseille they sailed on to Antibes, where they remained for more than six months, unable to gain permission to leave. There David met and became greatly influenced by the ageing Writer Norman Douglas, about whom she later wrote extensively. He inspired her love of the Mediterranean, encouraged her interest in good food, and taught her to "search out the best, insist on it, and reject all that was bogus and second-rate." Cooper describes him as David's most important mentor.
David and Cowan finally left Antibes in May 1940, sailing to Corsica and then towards Sicily. They had reached the Strait of Messina when Italy entered the war on 10 June. They were suspected of spying and were interned. After 19 days in custody in various parts of Italy, they were allowed to cross the border into Yugoslavia, which at that point remained neutral and non-combatant. They had lost almost everything they owned—the boat, money, manuscripts, notebooks, and David's cherished collection of recipes. With the help of the British Consul in Zagreb, they crossed into Greece, and arrived in Athens in July 1940. By this time, David was no longer in love with her partner but remained with him from necessity. Cowan found a job teaching English on the island of Syros, where David learnt to cook with the fresh ingredients available locally. When the Germans invaded Greece in April 1941, the couple managed to leave on a civilian convoy to Egypt.
Able to speak excellent French and good German, David secured a job in the naval cipher office in Alexandria. She was quickly rescued from temporary refugee accommodation, having met an old English friend who had an "absurdly grandiose" flat in the city and invited her to keep house for him. She and Cowan amicably went their separate ways, and she moved into the grand flat. She engaged a cook, Kyriacou, a Greek refugee, whose eccentricities (sketched in a chapter of Is There a Nutmeg in the House?) did not prevent him from producing magnificent food: "The flavour of that octopus stew, the rich wine dark sauce and the aroma of mountain herbs was something not easily forgotten." In 1942 she caught an infection that affected her feet. She spent some weeks in hospital and felt obliged to give up her job in the cipher office. She then moved to Cairo, where she was asked to set up and run a reference library for the British Ministry of Information. The library was open to everyone and was much in demand by journalists and other Writers. Her circle of friends in this period included Alan Moorehead, Freya Stark, Bernard Spencer, Patrick Kinross, Olivia Manning and Lawrence Durrell. At her tiny flat in the city, she employed Suleiman, a Sudanese suffragi (a cook-housekeeper). She recalled:
The couple were married in Cairo on 30 August 1944. Within a year, Tony David was posted to India. His wife followed him there in January 1946, but she found life as the wife of an officer of the British Raj tedious, the social life dull, and the food generally "frustrating". Later in life she came to appreciate the cuisine more, and wrote about a few Indian dishes and recipes in her articles and books. In June 1946, she suffered severe sinusitis and was told by her doctors that the condition would persist if she remained in the summer heat of Delhi. Instead, she was advised to go back to England. She did so; Cooper observes, "She had been away from England for six years, and in that time she, and England, had changed beyond recognition."
Returning after her years of Mediterranean warmth and access to a profusion of fresh ingredients, David found her native country in the post-war period grey and daunting, with food rationing still in force. She encountered terrible food: "There was flour and water soup seasoned solely with pepper; bread and gristle rissoles; dehydrated onions and carrots; corned beef toad in the hole. I need not go on." In London, she met George Lassalle, a former lover of hers from Cairo days, and their affair was rekindled. The couple went to Ross-on-Wye in November 1946 for a week's break, but were stranded in the town by the season's inclement weather. Frustrated by the poor food provided by the hotel, she was encouraged by Lassalle to put her thoughts on paper.
When her husband returned from India in 1947, David immediately separated from Lassalle and resumed the role of wife. With the aid of Stella Gwynne, David and her husband bought a house in Chelsea, which remained her home for the rest of her life. Tony David proved ineffectual in civilian life, unable to find a suitable job; he ran up debts, partly from a failed Business venture. What remained of the spark in the relationship soon died, and they were living separately by 1948.
Veronica Nicholson, a friend with connections in the publishing trade, persuaded David to continue writing, with the aim that she write a book. She showed some of David's work to Anne Scott-James, the Editor of the British edition of Harper's Bazaar, who thought the writing showed a widely travelled person with an independent mind. She offered David a contract, and David's work began appearing in the publication from March 1949.
David wrote eight booklets on individual topics. The first two, The Use of Wine in Fine Cooking (1950) and The Use of Wine in Italian Cooking (1952), were commissioned and published by the wine merchants Saccone and Speed. David reused the first as a chapter in French Country Cooking.
Two of David's best-known books focus on the cuisine of France: French Country Cooking (1951) and French Provincial Cooking (1960); France features prominently, though not exclusively, in another two: A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) and Summer Cooking (1955). She set the pattern for her books by grouping recipes by category, with sections linked by her chosen passages from literature. In her first book, Mediterranean Food, David presented chapters on soups; eggs and luncheon dishes; fish; meat; substantial dishes; poultry and game; vegetables; cold food and salads; sweets; jams, chutneys and preserves; and sauces. She broadly followed this pattern in her next four books. David's view on the place of French cooking in the hierarchy of world cuisine is set out in her introduction to French Country Cooking: "French regional and peasant cookery ... at its best, is the most delicious in the world; cookery which uses raw materials to the greatest advantage without going to the absurd lengths of the complicated and so-called Haute Cuisine." She was a firm believer in the traditional French approach to buying and preparing food:
Arriving back in London in October 1952, David began a relationship with an old flame from India, Peter Higgins, a divorced stockbroker; it was the beginning of the happiest period of her life. She spent the following months writing the book, recreating the recipes to work out the correct measurements. She felt less emotionally connected to Italy than with Greece and southern France and found the writing "uncommonly troublesome", although "as recipe after recipe came out ... I realized how much I was learning, and how enormously these dishes were enlarging my own scope and enjoyment". Italian Food was published in November 1954. At the time, many of the ingredients used in the recipes were still difficult to obtain in Britain. Looking back in 1963, David wrote:
French Provincial Cooking was dedicated to Peter Higgins, still her lover. David's estranged husband had lived in Spain since 1953 and, to his wife's embarrassment, he was named in a divorce case which was reported in the gossip column of The Daily Express. In an interview published in the newspaper, Tony had referred to David as "my ex-wife"; she filed for divorce, and the process was finalised in 1960.
Unlike its two predecessors, Mediterranean Food and French Country Cooking, David's Italian Food (1954) drew little from anything she had already written. She spent many months in Italy researching it before starting work on the manuscript. With two successful books already published, David felt less in need of extracts from earlier Writers to bolster her prose, and interspersed the recipes with her own essays and introductions to the various sections. The book begins with a chapter on "The Italian store cupboard", giving British cooks, who at that time were generally unacquainted with most of Italy's cuisine and methods, an insight into Italian herbs, spices, tinned, bottled or dried staples including anchovies, tuna, funghi, prosciutto, and chickpeas, and Italian essentials such as garlic and olive oil, both seldom seen in Britain in the early 1950s. The rest of the book follows the basic pattern of the earlier works, with chapters on soups, fish, meat, vegetables and sweets, with the addition of extra subjects relevant to Italian food, pasta asciuta, ravioli and gnocchi, rice, and Italian wine.
In 1960 David stopped writing for The Sunday Times, as she was unhappy about editorial interference with her copy; soon afterwards she also left Vogue as the change in direction of the magazine did not suit the style of her column. She joined the weekly publications The Spectator, Sunday Dispatch and The Sunday Telegraph. Her books were now reaching a wide public, having been reprinted in paperback by the mass-market publisher Penguin Books, where they sold more than a million copies between 1955 and 1985. Her work also had an impact on British food culture: the Historian Peter Clarke considers that "The seminal influence of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking (1960), with its enormous sales as a Penguin paperback, deserves historical recognition." Cooper considers that David's "professional career was at its height. She was hailed not only as Britain's foremost Writer on food and cookery, but as the woman who had transformed the eating habits of middle-class England."
David's private life was less felicitous. In April 1963 her affair with Higgins came to an end when he remarried. For a period she drank too much Brandy and resorted too often to sleeping pills. Probably as a result of these factors and overwork, in 1963, when she was 49, David suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. She kept the news of the event within her close circle of friends—none of the editors of the publications she worked for were aware of the collapse—as she did not want her reputation as a hard worker to be damaged. She recovered, but her confidence was badly shaken and her sense of taste was temporarily affected; for a period she could not taste salt, or the effect salt had on what she was cooking, but her sense of the smell of frying onions was so enhanced as to be unpleasant for her.
In November 1965, together with four Business partners, David opened Elizabeth David Ltd, a shop selling kitchen equipment, at 46 Bourne Street, Pimlico. The partners were spurred on by the closure of a professional kitchenware shop in Soho on the retirement of its owner, and the recent success of Terence Conran's Habitat shops, which sold among much else imported kitchen equipment for which there was evidently a market. Among her customers were Albert and Michel Roux, who shopped there for equipment that they would otherwise have had to buy in France.
Fellow cooks and chefs have acknowledged David's influence on their own and their colleagues' works; her contemporary Jane Grigson wrote in 1967 "Nobody can produce a cookery book these days without a deep appreciation of Elizabeth David's work." Grigson later wrote:
Some Writers have believed David neglected the cooking of her own country in favour of Mediterranean cuisine. In the humorous magazine Punch, Humphrey Lyttelton held that she preferred "inaccessible and often indigestible saucissons" to "the splendid Cumberland sausage". More recently a British Journalist, Tim Hayward, accused her of "wide-eyed romantic twaddle", excessively focused on France and the Mediterranean. Chaney comments that when Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen was published in 1970, some of David's most ardent admirers were taken aback to find her extolling the British culinary tradition, "at its best ... as rich and rewarding as that of the Mediterranean". Cooper writes that although the change of focus from French and Mediterranean food to English surprised the public, David had been moving towards it for some time.
In 1977 David was badly injured in a car accident—sustaining a fractured left elbow and right wrist, a damaged knee cap and a broken jaw—from which she took a long time to recover. While she was in hospital, English Bread and Yeast Cookery was published. Its scholarship won high praise, and Jane Grigson, writing in The Times Literary Supplement, suggested that a copy of the book should be given to every marrying couple, while Hilary Spurling, reviewing for The Observer, thought that not only was it "a scathing indictment of the British bread industry", but one done with "orderliness, authority, phenomenal scope and fastidious attention to detail".
David won the Glenfiddich Writer of the Year award in 1978 for English Bread and Yeast Cookery. She was also awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Essex and Bristol, and the award of a Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole. In 1976 she was appointed as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and promoted to Commander of the Order (CBE) in 1986. The honour that most pleased her, however, was being made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982 in recognition of her skills as a Writer.
Although David had drawn on her many magazine articles for material in her earlier books, An Omelette and Glass of Wine (1984) was the first straightforward anthology of her work. Compiled with the assistance of Jill Norman, it consists of David's selections from her essays and articles published since 1949.
By the time she completed Italian Food, Lehmann's publishing firm had been closed down by its parent company, and David found herself under contract to Macdonald, another imprint within the same group. She intensely disliked the company and wrote a most unflattering portrait of it in a 1985 article. Disapproving of the approach to her books that the company took, her agent, Paul Scott, persuaded Macdonald to relinquish their option on the next book. David signed instead with the publisher Museum Press for her next book, Summer Cooking, which was published in 1955.
The death in 1986 of her younger sister Felicité, who had lived in the top floor of her house for thirty years, was a severe blow to David. She began to suffer from depression and went to the Doctor after suffering chest pains; he diagnosed tuberculosis and she was hospitalised. After an uncomfortable time over a three-month stay in hospital, where the drugs she was prescribed had side-effects that affected her clarity of thinking, her friend, the wine importer and Writer Gerald Asher, arranged for her to stay with him in California to recuperate.
David's last booklet was Cooking with Le Creuset (1989) written for the French manufacturers of Le Creuset cooking ware.
David's influence travelled further afield than Britain, and Marian Burros, in The New York Times wrote in 1992 that "Dozens of the young chefs who have brought glory to American cooking over the last two decades are indebted to Mrs David." The same year, the Journalist Susan Parsons wrote in The Canberra Times that "Every leading Australian chef over the age of 40 pays tribute to Elizabeth David as a major influence on their approach to food". More modern Australian cooks, such as Kylie Kwong, have also cited David as a continuing influence on their work.
Harvest of the Cold Months (1994) is subtitled "A social history of ice and ices". David had been working on it intermittently for several years before her last illnesses. The book traces the history of ice in the cuisines of Europe from mediaeval times, when it had to be brought from the mountains and kept in ice houses. The Independent's reviewer described it as "not a cookery book but an awe-inspiring feat of detective scholarship ... sumptuous and stately." Reviewing the book in The Times, Nigella Lawson wrote that although it deserved a place on the shelves of anyone who cared about food, it revealed a waning of the author's energies, and "lacks her customary, high-spirited, if fierce, readability".
Between 1995 and 2011 Penguin Books issued four paperback selections from David's books: I'll be with You in the Squeezing of a Lemon (1995), Peperonata and Other Italian Dishes (1996), Of Pageants and Picnics (2005), and A Taste of the Sun (2011). Two further hardback selections of David's writings were published, with Norman as Editor. At Elizabeth David's Table (2010) was published to mark the 60th anniversary of David's first book. With prefatory contributions from several prominent British chefs including Hopkinson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Rose Gray and Jamie Oliver, it comprises recipes and essays from David's previously published works. There are twelve chapters, covering the various courses of a dinner from soups to desserts, and other topics such as baking, cooking "fast and fresh", and David's descriptions of French and Italian markets. Elizabeth David on Vegetables (2013) was drawn principally from Mediterranean Food, Italian Food, French Provincial Cooking and An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. There are sections on soups; small dishes; salads; pasta; gnocchi and polenta; rice; beans and lentils; main dishes; breads; and desserts.
South Wind Through the Kitchen (1997) was the completion of one of the projects of David's later years on which she worked with Norman: a single-volume collection of the best of her extensive writings. Norman invited chefs, Writers and David's friends to choose their favourite of her articles and recipes. Many of the contributors, such as the chef Simon Hopkinson, contributed an introduction or afterword to the pieces they chose. The extracts and recipes are taken from all David's books published by 1996. There are more than 200 recipes, organised in the customary way with sections on courses and ingredients—eggs and cheese, fish and shellfish, meat, poultry and game, vegetables, pasta, pulses and grains, sauces, sweet dishes and cakes, preserves, and bread—interspersed, as in David's earlier works, with articles and essays. The title of the book comes from an essay published in 1964 and reprinted in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and is a reference to South Wind, the best-known novel by David's mentor Norman Douglas.
David has appeared in fictional form at least twice. In 2000 a novel, Lunch with Elizabeth David by Roger Williams, was published by Carroll & Graf, and in 2006 the BBC broadcast Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes, a film starring Catherine McCormack as David and Greg Wise as Peter Higgins. In 1998 Lisa Chaney published a biography of David; the Journalist Paul Levy found it "hasty, botched", although in The New York Times Laura Shapiro considered it "comprehensive". The following year an authorised biography, Writing at the Kitchen Table, was published by Artemis Cooper. She also wrote the entry for David in the Dictionary of National Biography in 2004 (updated in 2011). David's papers are at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.
The last of the books planned by David was Elizabeth David's Christmas (2003). She and Norman had discussed such a book as early as the 1970s, but work on other projects precluded it. After David's death, Norman found when sorting out the author's papers that David had written and compiled far more material on a Christmas theme than anyone else had realised. The Christmas recipes David had most often been asked for formed the core of the book. Together with some Christmas recipes from Mediterranean Food, French Provincial Cooking, and Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, and revised articles published in previous years in magazines, they were turned into a 214-page work. The chapters dealt with the social and historical side of Christmas, first courses and cold meats, soups, poultry and game, meat, vegetables and salads, sauces, pickles and chutneys, and desserts, cakes and drinks. The book reprints one of David's most quoted sentences, first printed in Vogue in 1959, and included in Is there a Nutmeg in the House in 2000: "If I had my way—and I shan't—my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening."
In 2012, to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II, David was chosen by BBC Radio 4 as one of the 60 Britons who have been most influential during the 60 years of the Queen's reign. In 2013 her portrait was one of a series of first-class stamps issued to celebrate the centenary of ten "Great Britons". In 2016 an English Heritage blue plaque was erected on her former home at 24 Halsey Street, Chelsea, where she had lived for 45 years: she was the first food Writer to receive this form of recognition.
Rick Stein, a more recent chef, says that David was such an influence on his early work that he used one of Minton's illustrations from A Book of Mediterranean Food on his menus when he first opened a restaurant. Others, including Nigel Slater, Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver, Prue Leith and Clarissa Dickson Wright, have been influenced by David; Dickson Wright said that David "taught me that food is more than cooking; it is poetry and passion as well. She also taught me never to settle for culinary second-best". Norman quotes Leith as being quite shocked when she asked students at a catering college how many of them had read David's books, and not a single one raised a hand. "But the books do sell—I see the royalty statements—and you see her influence in the cooking of Jeremy Lee, Shaun Hill and Rowley Leigh".