In 1951 Elizabeth David wrote, “Good food is always a trouble and its preparation should be regarded as a labour of love.” I read this in the introduction to David’s book, French Country Cooking, before turning further pages in search of her famously flourless Chocolate and Almond Cake, a moist, elegant and subtly simple creation.
My beautiful old book is bespattered with the evidence of over 70 years’ of cooking. It bears the dark splodges of drips from careless spoons (lots on the poultry and game pages), big splashes of spirits bookmark the Cherries in Brandy page, and busy dashes in pencil note one owner’s favourite dishes. It has been, and still is, a much-loved book.
My hunt for the Chocolate Cake recipe in this and two other old, and equally food-flecked books allows me a delicious half-hour to read and devour David’s fare, although no flourless cake is to be found. I remember an online version of the recipe that I’ve used before, so I retrace my Google steps.
Emiko Davies’ recipe gives a good potted history, and seems to be faithful to David’s original (contained in French Provincial Cooking (1960), a book I do not possess). You can see Emiko’s version here. I follow it, but increase the quantities to suit the size of my cake tin, being especially generous with the dark chocolate (like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall)…
I decorate with raspberries and a dusting of icing sugar to present the cake to good friends – adornments that Elizabeth David and many of her devotees would consider unthinkable and unnecessary. However, I love the tartness that raspberries bring to chocolate.
The cake’s beautiful simplicity is further swamped by my husband’s simultaneous offering of Eton Mess – a creamy, fluffily light, meringue-strewn delight – coloured with perfect strawberries and the green of fresh mint.
I have no idea whether either taste as good as the labours of our love promise – we are happily beyond caring by 11pm. In any case, as Aristotle once wrote (in Politics), “The guest will judge better of a feast than a cook.” Our guests request the customary “bit of both, please,“and then ask for seconds (possibly a good sign).
Before that – Garlic
Thank goodness Elizabeth David persuaded post-war Brits, still gripped by grey and tough times, to bring the colour of herbs, spices and sharp, pungent, garlicky goodness into their lives. I read these words written by French restaurateur and writer Marcel Boulestin (quoted by David in A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950)): “…peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking..” Scarce seconds later I am plucking off the last of my Spanish bulbs from their plait, and readying them for roasting.
My wandering mind settles on creating Italian crostini to serve as a base for a spread of this mellow sweetness:
Then to Finca las Cañadas, Extremadura and Gwen’s carefully and lovingly produced sun-dried tomatoes. Taking note of Luci’s Morsels enticing blog, I prepare a plateful of small bites, finished off with a sprinkle of seasoning and fresh basil:
This time spent – roasting, stirring and spreading – feeds the soul in more ways than one. Bright dashes of red pimentón, together with slow drops of olive oil, are dotted liberally onto my Elizabeth David books. Focusing on her beautiful prose, and the flavours of the faraway lands that she celebrated, my travel taste buds are having a treat. And all the while I’m cooking up plans for my next adventures…..
Further Food for Thought
Articles abound on the internet for those who’d like to read more about Elizabeth David and her enduring influence (as well as the apparently less savoury aspects of her character). Here is a piece in which food writers and chefs detail their favourite David dishes: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/dec/08/classic-elizabeth-david-recipes
And of course Wikipedia is always useful.
Best of all, though, is to read, use, splatter and stain her beautiful books yourself.
If you’re seeking some Spanish sun (and some of those sun-kissed tomatoes), take note that Finca las Cañadas currently has a super promotional offer of 395 euros for one week mid-May to mid-July.
A Fishy Postscript
A friend queried whether or not a main course was also enjoyed by our guests. I took the hint and realised that perhaps something appeared to be missing from this post. Because I did not have to think, plan, or make the main dish, I was not transported in its creation to any distant lands – or seas (for it was Fish Pie). However, I can tell you that it was delicious. One guest termed it “Posh Fish Pie” (quite a tongue twister – try it) – probably due to the absence of the traditional mashed potato topping. The recipe can be found on page 377 in Sarah Raven’s excellent recipe book that celebrates friends, family and the seasons. Here it is: